Legislature Cedes Authority To Campaign Financing Commission

On November 25, 2019, the Public Campaign Financing Commission voted to implement a new system of taxpayer-funded political campaigns in the State of New York.

The Commission was (ill-advisedly) created by the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo this year. Its mandate was to create rules for a new campaign finance system. According to the Gotham Gazette, the Commission adopted the following new limits on political contributions from each individual donor:

  • An $18,000 limit on donations to a statewide candidate (a decrease from the current $70,000 limit);
  • A $10,000 limit on donations to a State Senate candidate (a decrease from the current $19,300 limit); and
  • A $6,000 limit on donations to a State Assembly candidate (a decrease from the current $9,400 limit).

The Commission did not alter the existing limit of $117,300 for an individual’s donations to a party committee.

The Commission also adopted new rules regarding taxpayer funding of campaigns. Under the new rules, candidates will be free to choose whether or not to opt in to a system of taxpayer funding for campaigns. If a candidate opts in, taxpayer funds will be used to match donations of up to $250 from donors within a candidate’s district. The Gotham Gazette indicates that the first $50 of a qualifying donation will be matched at a ratio of 12 to one, the second $100 will be matched at a ratio of nine to one, and the final $100 will be matched at a ratio of eight to one.

Controversially, the Commission also made new rules regarding the ballot status of political parties. Currently, a political party gains automatic ballot status in New York when its candidate for governor receives 50,000 or more votes. A party that qualifies for automatic ballot status retains it for the next four years until the next gubernatorial election. Any party whose gubernatorial candidate fails to receive 50,000 votes loses automatic ballot status for the following four years, even if that party previously held automatic ballot status. (Currently, political parties with automatic ballot status in New York are: The Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Conservative Party, the Working Families Party, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Independence Party, and the Serve America Movement.) Under the commission’s new rules, a political party will be required to receive 130,000 votes or 2% of the total votes cast in a given presidential or gubernatorial election (whichever number is higher) to attain and keep automatic ballot status. This means that each political party will be required to reach a threshold every two years instead of every four years. If this standard had been applied in the 2018 elections, only three parties—the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and the Conservative Party—would have attained automatic ballot status.

The Commission voted 7-2 to adopt the new rules, with the two Republican appointees dissenting. The rules will automatically go into effect unless the Legislature returns to Albany by the end of the year to reverse them.

There are several major problems with the Public Campaign Financing Commission and its new rules on taxpayer funding of campaigns, ballot status, and contribution limits. First, the Legislature is not permitted to delegate its lawmaking authority to some other entity (especially an unelected one). Second, Conservative Party Chairman Jerry Kassar contends that much of the Commission’s activity has been unlawful because the Commission’s members failed to take the required oath of office in a timely manner. Third, New York’s minor parties are in an uproar over the new ballot status threshold. The threshold jeopardizes their continued viability. In addition, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Jay Jacobs—chair of the New York State Democratic Party—to serve on the Commission, and it is blatantly unfair for a chairman of a political party to be allowed to vote to impose new requirements upon competing political parties. Furthermore, the Working Families Party (WFP) contends—probably correctly—that the new ballot status threshold is nothing more than revenge upon them by the Governor (the WFP has been a thorn in his side for many years). Fourth, the new campaign financing scheme promises to be both expensive and unwieldy. Fifth, the Commission exceed the scope of its mandate by making rules regarding ballot access. Finally (and most importantly), allowing tax dollars to be used for political campaigns is a form of compelled speech. Taxpayers should not be required to fund campaign messaging—especially campaign messaging with which they disagree.