(Bloomberg) -- When New York created a commission last summer with the power to set rules for publicly financed campaigns, Governor Andrew Cuomo said it showed his commitment to reform.
Now as the commission faces a Dec. 1 deadline to issue its rules, good government groups and political outsiders across the ideological spectrum have united to express alarm. They say the panel -- which Cuomo and state legislature leaders appointed -- will ensure insiders retain power.
After seeing more than 20 Democrat and Republican elected state officials convicted since 2003, legislators gave up earlier this year on efforts to draft a statewide public-finance election system. Instead, they included in the budget a nine-member Public Campaign Finance Commission empowered to make state law on its own.
“It’s far from clear they’re building a good plan,” says Lawrence Norden, an elections specialist at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “There are signs it may only help incumbents and that would be bad after it had been sold as promising reforms.”
The commission would discourage newcomers with a ban on public matching funds from out-of-district donors. The prohibition, approved by a 5-to-4 vote, could hurt legislative candidates running in low-income areas, Norden said. Members are also proposing to require that legislative candidates meet higher thresholds of fundraising prowess than required by New York City’s widely praised public-finance program.
Instead of limiting its work to public-financing formulas similar to the 8-to-1 dollar match that New York City has for small donations, the state commission has waded into politically fraught issues that would limit minority parties’ ballot access and clout.
The commission appeared to be veering off course last summer, Norden said, when some members expressed concern about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected 2018 election to the U.S. House of Representatives, after defeating longstanding Democratic incumbent Joseph Crowley in a primary. The commission’s mandate had been to expand ballot access to outsiders, he noted.
“They were clearly very worried about AOC,” Norden said. “They’re worried about challengers, and they haven’t made any bones about that.”
Two such proposals have come from Jay Jacobs, a Cuomo-appointee who’s chairman of the state Democratic Party. He has pushed the commission to ban fusion voting, in which a minority party backs a candidate on its own ballot line. He also wants to raise the minimum statewide vote -- now set at 50,000 -- to be eligible for a ballot line. Fusion voting, which Cuomo opposes, is a time-honored New York practice used by organizations across the political spectrum to gain influence.
“It’s not political leverage, it’s extortion,” Jacobs said. “They gain access to a ballot line and benefit from a ‘billboard effect,’ so that these minor parties monetize their ability to occupy ballot real estate and through deals they sell their endorsements for judgeships, clerkships and other jobs.”
The progressive Working Families Party has used the threat of fusion voting to push Cuomo to support legalized marijuana and tenant-protection bills. In 2018, its endorsements of insurgents in state Senate primary elections helped oust a group of Democrats who aligned themselves with Republicans and blocked such legislation.
“Governor Cuomo has long preferred divided government where he could be the kingmaker in every deal,” said WFP state Executive Director Bill Lipton. “Now, he’s transparently attacking the WFP because we stood up to him.”
The Conservative Party used fusion voting in 1994, when it attracted more than 300,000 votes, providing the margin of victory that elected Republicans George Pataki as governor and Dennis Vacco as attorney general. Conservative Party state Chairman Gerard Kassar said his organization has sued over the issue, asking the state Supreme Court to declare the commission an illegal abdication by the legislature of its own authority.
“Third parties have a right to exist and this commission should not try to force on the public their view as to who should or should not be around,” Kassar said.
In April, when the governor and legislature called for the commission’s creation as part of its budget, Cuomo described “fixing campaign finance” as part of an effort that “head-on addresses the tough issues that have been facing this state for far too long.”
The fact that the commission’s rules carry the force of law unless modified by the legislature and governor within 20 days makes it an undemocratic process, said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.
“We elect lawmakers to legislate and not to assign to anyone else the hard work,” she said. “There should be a well-thought out process leading to a clean public financing bill that’s subjected to research and hearings and review, with decision-makers held accountable to the voters. We don’t have that here.”
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