By HARVEY EPSTEIN, RON KIM, YUH-LINE NIOU, GUSTAVO RIVERA, LINDA ROSENTHAL and JULIA SALAZAR
New York had a historic opportunity to break the tight grip of special interests and big money in our elections, take a giant step towards ending the era of dysfunction in Albany and empower everyday New Yorkers by making their voices heard through fundamental changes to our campaign finance policies.
It failed, but it’s not too late to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
For too long, big-money interests have drowned out the voices of everyday New Yorkers. It reached a tipping point when a groundswell of New Yorkers from all walks of life and every corner of the state, tired of the decades of undue influence of big money in Albany, demanded change during our last legislative session.
When the governor and Legislature created the New York State Public Financing Commission, Gov. Cuomo said it would create a “model for the nation” state public campaign financing program, intended to unchain our democracy from an elite donor class and bring real political power to regular people.
We were looking for the commission to truly engage in meaningful dialogue with stakeholders like everyday New Yorkers and experts. Unfortunately, from the very outset the panel was marred by dysfunction, distracted by irrelevant political discussions on minor parties, and seemingly more focused on maintaining the status quo than ushering in a new age in Albany.
What resulted was not a program New Yorkers can be proud of. Instead the commission approved a program that will do far too little to reduce big money’s dominance, will be in the hands of a dysfunctional agency too easily manipulated for partisan advantage and will only be launched years from now. The commission also abused its power by using its process to launch an anti-democratic attack on New York’s minor parties that will make it unreasonably hard for them to remain on the ballot by raising the threshold of votes they must get.
We have always taken seriously our responsibility detailed in the statute that created the commission to “amend or abrogate” the Public Campaign Financing Commission’s recommendations by Dec. 22, if necessary (in fact, most of us wanted to legislate on these issues to begin with). A fix is clearly necessary, as advocates and experts have also stated unequivocally in their urgent request that the Legislature and governor move to amend the commission’s deeply flawed proposal.
We intend to introduce legislation with the following fixes:
- Limit big money by lowering individual contribution limits to $7,500 for statewide races, $5,000 for Senate, and $2,500 for Assembly, less than half of what the Commission proposed, and limiting further contributions to participating candidates. We also must limit contributions from those doing business with the government and, within reason, further restrict the ability of candidates to carry over war chests from previous election cycles.
- Ensure independent enforcement by placing administration and enforcement of this program outside of the Board of Elections. The heads of the agency and its staff should also be held to the highest standards of ethics and nonpartisanship.
- Launch the program in time for the 2022 elections.
- Save New York’s minor parties and reject all changes to party ballot status, ensuring that there is no increase in the threshold or requirements for party qualifications, or increased signature-gathering requirements.
- Add a standard severability clause to ensure that the whole package of reforms is not at risk if courts strike down part of the law, a standard feature of major campaign finance bills that were included in bills introduced by the governor, Speaker Carl Heastie, and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins but was mysteriously absent from the commission’s recommendations. The lack of such a clause could very well torpedo the whole program.
We call for our legislation to be introduced, debated, and voted upon in broad daylight, before the Dec. 22 deadline we gave ourselves in the statute. The commission’s proposal has fallen short, and the Legislature and governor have an obligation to act.
Epstein, Niou and Rosenthal represent parts of Manhattan in the Assembly. Kim represents parts of Queens in the Assembly. Rivera represents parts of the Bronx in the Senate. Salazar represents parts of Brooklyn in the Senate.