Minor parties say budget provision unfairly weakens them

Apr 3, 2020

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers approved the state budget this week, they slipped in a provision to permit public campaign financing for elections in future years.

But critics say the plan was designed to weaken minor political parties, including the progressive Working Families Party, which has a long-running feud with Cuomo.

The public campaign financing measure has a history. Last year, when the governor and Legislature could not agree on the specifics of a program, they appointed a commission to work out the details.

That commission, steered by allies of Cuomo, came up with a public matching fund system in November. That system would begin for legislative candidates in 2024, and for statewide offices, including governor, in 2026. 

But it also made it more difficult for third parties to gain access to the ballot. For decades, any minor party that received 50,000 votes in a statewide election year automatically qualified to be on the ballot for all elections for the next four years. Now, parties would have to requalify every two years, and the requirements would be steeper -- 130,000 votes, or 2%, whichever is higher. 

Two minor parties sued, and in March, a Supreme Court judge agreed that the changes were unconstitutional and threw them out because the Legislature did not act to approve them.

But in the budget, completed in the early morning hours on Friday, lawmakers fixed that by voting to enact all of the commission’s recommendations.

Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican, objected to the provision. He said in the midst of a pandemic and a resulting major budget deficit, it’s not the time to enact a program to use taxpayer money to fund political campaigns.

“People are dying, people are losing their jobs, businesses are folding,” Lanza said during debate on April 1. “That ought not be a reason for politicians to figure out a way to give themselves a little welfare, a little extra money in their campaign coffers, pandemic be damned.”

Many who did vote for the measure did so reluctantly, including Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat, who said she is a supporter of public financing for campaigns.

“I certainly don’t like the idea that we yet again are trying to take away third parties' rights to be able to run people and participate in our democracy,” Krueger said.

The progressive-leaning Working Families Party -- which along with the state’s Conservative Party successfully sued over the issue -- said it’s all about a long-running feud with Cuomo. The party in 2018 initially endorsed actor Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary rival. 

Sochie Nnaemeka, the Working Family Party's executive director, said it’s about Cuomo taking advantage, in a time of public distraction, to settle scores and to “limit and weaken those who he sees as his political opponents.” She said the Legislature had to go along with a governor who is “completely running the show.” 

Nnaemeka said New York is now alone in requiring minor parties to requalify for the ballot every two years, instead of every four, and goes against a nationwide trend toward easing ballot restrictions. She said the party is considering going back to court. 

“The law is on our side,” she said. “We feel strongly that if we pursue legal action, we will win again in court.” 

The Conservative Party also criticized the measure, saying it is a “power grab” by Cuomo that will “eliminate political opposition and dissenting speech.”

Cuomo and his aides have consistently denied that revenge is a motive for the stricter requirements for third parties. 

In a statement, spokesman Rich Azzopardi said, “This was merely codifying the strongest possible public finance system that opened up the democratic process to candidates while ensuring the most prudent use of taxpayer money”. And he said the recommendations were “developed by a panel of experts” on the commission, and said the initial findings were approved last December by representatives from the legislature and the governor.”