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Momentum for 'Fair Elections Act' puts pressure on Assembly

November 30,2018 03:16

ALBANY — In January, when the state Senate Democratic conference takes control, all three of Albany's most powerful politicians will have authored some form of the "Fair Elections Act," a dramatic overhaul of New York's campaign finance system.



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ALBANY — In January, when the state Senate Democratic conference takes control, all three of Albany's most powerful politicians will have authored some form of the "Fair Elections Act," a dramatic overhaul of New York's campaign finance system.
The Senate GOP, which had controlled the chamber by a sliver of a majority, historically has blocked campaign finance reforms. These include closure of the LLC loophole, which allows companies to pour virtually unlimited funds into campaign accounts, and publicly financed elections to mitigate the influence of moneyed interests on the electoral system.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers has long been the Senate sponsor of the legislation, and most members of the Democratic conference have signaled their approval of the measure. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has included it in recent executive budget proposals.
While the Assembly has passed the Fair Elections Act in past years, lack of support from the Senate majority precluded serious examination of the proposal. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, who was tapped to lead the conference in 2015, sponsored his version of the bill in 2016, but it did not get beyond the first committee.
Election reform advocates encouraged by the shift given that the two majority conference leaders, who join the Democratic governor in the proverbial "room" during closed-door budget negotiations, are able to leverage their members' votes to push for major policy items.
"With each of the three people in 'the room' sponsoring legislation that creates a public matching system, our expectation is they will pass a public matching program in 2019," said Alex Camarda, senior policy adviser at ReInvent Albany. "There is a huge coalition primarily advocating for a small-donor matching system like the one in New York City and there is going to be an unprecedented push for campaign finance reform."
The opt-in system would be modeled on a similar program available to political candidates in New York City, overseen by the city's Campaign Finance Board (CFB), to stimulate electoral competitiveness in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Assembly Elections Committee Chairman Charles Lavine, who was appointed to the post in 2017, acknowledged that many rank-and-file lawmakers are wary of the onerous fines that have been levied by New York City's enforcement body.
"We all know that the practical problems that candidates who have to deal with the CFB encounter," Lavine said. "We are going to have to rely on the expertise of the most knowledgeable people in the field and try to craft a system that really is manageable and does not put anyone at at a disadvantage."
Closure of the LLC loophole remain uncontroversial for Democrats in the Senate and Assembly,  who historically did not benefit from donations from limited liability companies to the same extent as Senate Republicans. Lavine said he expects that the measure and other electoral reforms like early voting and no-excuse absentee voting will pass easily in 2019.
Democratic Assembly members representing politically divided districts in the suburbs and exurbs of New York City say they are wary of the complexities that a publicly financed electoral system would present.
"There has not been extensive conversation about it like there has been on LLC loophole and early voting and other election reforms," said Assemblyman David Buchwald, a Democrat from White Plains. But because "publicly financed elections legislation have many details to work through, it seems appropriate to begin with proposals have received more attention."
Gary Pretlow, a veteran Democratic assemblyman from Mount Vernon, is in favor of lowering donation limits and closing the LLC loophole. But Pretlow opposes publicly funded elections and has voted against them in the past. He says they waste tens-of-millions of dollars in New York City, and cost three or four times that amount statewide.
Pretlow argued that incumbents in New York City nearly always win-reelection anyway, despite the public financing of elections there, and that it would a "massive undertaking" to set up offices around the state to regulate and enforce the new law. He also noted the burdens imposed on New York City candidates by the lengthy post-election audits of campaign spending by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which can take years.
"Two years after the election, you can be fined $10,000 – but because it's two years after the election, you don't have any money left," Pretlow said.
The Senate Democrats maybe also give new scrutiny to the campaign finance overhaul given their that their districts were redrawn to favor Republican incumbents in 2012, and that the Democratic wave of 2018 may not be permanent. But so far, there appears to be broad support in the conference.
According to Bill Lipton, executive director of the progressive Working Families Party, all 14 new Democratic members of the Senate, and most sitting Democratic senators, responded affirmatively on candidate questionnaires when asked if they would support LLC loophole closure and the Fair Elections Act.
"Every one of them has had the experience of being out-fundraised by Republicans," Lipton said.
What ever happens in the Assembly, Lavine said, "It's going to be fascinating. We have the opportunity to do something really good."

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