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Critics say changes to state's public campaign finance law subverts its purpose

new york state capitol at night
Matt Ryan
New York NOW
The New York state Capitol building at night.

Before New York state legislators adjourned their session over the weekend, they approved a measure to alter the state’s fledgling public campaign finance system — a change that critics and some legislators say undermines the program’s original purpose.

When lawmakers approved the public campaign finance system for statewide offices in 2019, they said it would empower small-money donors and weaken the influence of deep-pocket contributors.

The program, which takes effect in the 2024 election cycle, would have provided a 6-to-1 publicly funded matching system for donations of $5 and $250 to statewide candidates between. Donations above that amount would not have been eligible for the matching funds.

For state legislative offices, there’s a tiered system with higher match ratios for contributions up to $250.

But before that election season gets underway, the Senate and Assembly changed the rules. Now, donations of up to $18,000 would be eligible for public matching funds.

The bill next goes to Gov. Kathy Hochul.

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John Kaehny with the government reform group Reinvent Albany said the change subverts the intent of the original program.

“People should be really pissed,” Kaehny said.

Instead of offering an even playing field for small donors, he said it gives a taxpayer-funded windfall to big-money donors. While only the first $250 of the higher amounts can qualify for the match, it still boosts the donation.

“So, I'm a CEO, I write my check to the state senator for $10,000, and then the state taxpayer pays another $2,300 in public matching funds, for a total of $12,300, from that $10,000 contribution,” he said. “That makes no sense.”

Kaehny’s group is not alone in its criticism. Editorial pages from the New York Times to the New York Post castigated the revisions, saying it sabotages the public campaign finance law.

The bill narrowly passed in the state Senate, 32-31.

Sen. George Borrello, a Republican from the Southern Tier, voted no. He said the change will favor incumbents, who are mostly Democrats in New York, at the expense of primary challengers, as well as general election challengers, who are often Republican candidates.

“This has gone from being a grassroots effort to, essentially, an incumbency welfare program,” Borrello said.

Several Democratic senators, some who co-sponsored the original 2019 law, also voted no.

Governor Kathy Hochul answers questions from the media on June 13, 2023
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Gov. Kathy Hochul answers questions from the media on June 13, 2023.

Among them are Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger, and Sen. Rachel May, who won her seat in a 2018 primary where she challenged a longtime incumbent.

“I cannot support this bill, because I believe it betrays the original intent of New York’s path-breaking campaign finance law,” May said.

May said she can no longer tell her lower-income constituents that a public campaign finance system would give them a voice.

Hochul, speaking Tuesday in Albany, said the bill is just one of hundreds that she will examine over the next few months.

“I need to look at each one very carefully, and make sure that there are no unintended consequences to anything we do,” Hochul said. “That’s going to be one of my highest priorities.”

She said she was not part of the decision to change the public campaign finance laws and has not decided whether to sign it.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.