Although this would be a radical change to our election law, essential details on how the program will work are being left to a commission to determine. That commission will be comprised of 9 people—7 of whom will be appointed by Democrats. Once appointed, the unelected, 9-person commission will be tasked with identifying and determining new election laws that will set forth public campaign finance limits for each state-elected position, the ratio of public matching funds to private contributions, and the rules governing eligible candidates.
The commission will have until Dec. 1, 2019 to come up with a report. Unless a special session of the legislature is called before Dec. 22, 2019 to make changes, the commission’s recommendations will become law.
I have voiced concerns in the past about publicly-funded campaigns. The most obvious is the considerable cost it will create for taxpayers. The New York City system that some have suggested the state use as a model is a matching grant program for candidates. Candidates can receive up to 8 times the amount in public funding that they receive in private dollars. That means that for every $1 raised for a campaign by candidates, taxpayer dollars match that with $8. The New York City Campaign Finance Board in 2018 had a budget of $56.7 million--$40 million earmarked for campaign matching funds and $10.6 million in staffing costs. If adopted at the state level, where there are many more elected offices, one could easily imagine how those costs would get out of control. This year’s budget has authorized $100 million. Future budgets could easily exceed this amount.
Putting aside the potential costs, there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea that our tax dollars could go to candidates that some of us would never support at the polls. To put it plainly, if you are a registered Democrat and typically vote Democratic in election, your taxpayer dollars could be given to candidates who meet certain criteria regardless of their political agenda. That is, a Democrat taxpayer's dollars could go to a Republican candidate and vice versa. I understand that taxpayer money very often goes to programs and projects that any individual citizen may not support. However, electing representatives is at the very heart of our democratic system. It seems to me that an individual should run on his or her merit and we should not use public money in effort to "level" the playing field for other candidates.
Even if one could get past these issues, the question remains whether publicly financed campaigns address the problems that proponents of such a system say they would--namely, low voter participation and the influence of private money in campaigns. We need to look no further than to New York City to realize that this campaign system is far from anything we would want to emulate on the state level. NYC's system of campaign financing has not accomplished any of the goals that supporters of the system said it would.
Since instituting public financing of campaigns in NYC races in 1989, voter turnout in NYC is has dropped. In 1989, voter turnout for the mayoral election was 60%. In 2017, voter turnout was 23.9%. Further, while not entirely fair to attribute corruption to a campaign financing system, it is clear that NYC's system hasn't ended corruption. In the recent past, one New York City candidate accepted over $1 million in taxpayer money and then threw victory dinners costing more than $20,000 each. Another received $2.2 million in tax dollars and used campaign funds to pay over $1,000 in parking tickets as well as travel to Puerto Rico. Finally, it would be hard to argue that the influence of private money has decreased in NYC elections when Mayor de Blasio spent more than $10 million in private donations on his last election.
It is bad enough that an unelected commission has determined that the job of being a state legislator should be held by career politicians. Now my colleagues on the other side of the aisle want government to pay for campaigns. At the very least, this type of policy change should be made by the legislature and not an unelected commission controlled by one political party.
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