Last week brought “good news and bad news” on the reform front.
During approval of the state budget in March, Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers agreed to create an option for candidates to obtain public financing for running for state Comptroller. But that agreement was widely – and correctly – seen as inadequate.
The most obvious problem was that the plan relied on the much (and deservedly) maligned state Board of Elections to administer the program. The plan stated that the Board will instantaneously set up a matching fund system and do it in time for the already-started 2014 election cycle!
Reformers wanted an independent "campaign finance board" to oversee the public financing system. And they wanted to give this entity sufficient time to consider and issue regulations and develop the necessary procedures for shepherding and safeguarding the public money under its charge. Yet budget plan relied on the New York State Board of Elections to administer its newly formed matching fund program.
The Board is required to make matching fund payments "as soon as it is practicable," they "shall render advisory opinions," and they are required to issue various regulations necessary to establish the matching funds program.
The Board is ill-suited to take on such tasks, much less set up an entirely new administrative system for an election cycle which has already begun. The preliminary findings of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption illustrated a stunning level of dysfunction at the Board. From a candidate's point of view, placing the Board of Elections in charge of this process, is most likely to result in a sequence of frustrating delays for any candidate who chooses to participate.
As a result, the current Comptroller, Democrat Tom DiNapoli, chose not to participate in the program.
However, his little known and underfunded Republican opponent, Onondaga County Comptroller Robert Antonacci, says he will opt in.
When Mr. Antonacci kicked off his campaign, he said that he would “wholeheartedly and enthusiastically” take part in the voluntary public financing for the Comptroller’s race.
The public financing program –modeled on the one in New York City – authorizes a $6-to-$1 match for the first $175 of an individual contribution. Matching funds are capped at $4 million each for the primary and general election, and campaign contributions are capped at $6,000.
So, the good news is that the promise of public financing has encouraged its first candidate to participate. And it is that promise that is the justification for public financing: The promise that well-entrenched incumbents will face electoral challenges from opponents with the resources to make that challenge serious.
It is good for our democracy to have real electoral challenges.
The bad news is that the State Board of Elections is still in charge and there are no regulations yet in place. It is expected that the Board will issue emergency regulations (since they have had no time to prepare) next month. Whether those regulations are well-crafted will be determined as the campaign plays out.
But it shows that the promise of a public financing system can entice candidates – even those from political parties which have for decades opposed the idea on ideological grounds – to participate. Public financing – if properly run and monitored – can help create a more robust electoral system.
It has been reported that Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers are discussing whether to expand this system for other races. In order to boost competitive elections, it is important that those discussions become electoral reality.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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