Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver today announced passage of the 2013 Fair Elections Act (A.4980-C) to remove the influence of special interest money, give elections back to the people, and restore confidence in our electoral process.
The legislation establishes optional public financing for election campaigns that cover all statewide offices, state legislative offices, and constitutional convention delegates. It would also create the position of an independent enforcement counsel, appointed by a five-member Fair Elections Board, who would be charged with enforcing all campaign finance laws, rules and regulations. It would require expanded disclosure of independent expenditures and electioneering communications.
"I have been calling for the public financing of campaigns since 1986, and the passage of time has only strengthened my resolve to achieve meaningful campaign finance reform this year," said Silver. "It is essential that we increase transparency, strengthen enforcement, impose stronger penalties and ensure independent investigations to safeguard our electoral process. At the same time, we must strive to level the playing field for all who wish to participate in our Democracy by campaigning for public office."
The bill would reform the system by allowing candidates for state office who meet the necessary requirements and reach the eligibility threshold in their fundraising to receive matching contributions of $6 for every $1 they raise on contributions of up to $250. It would require candidates to build a broad coalition of contributors by requiring a certain number of small-dollar donors -- natural persons from a candidate's district -- to ensure that large-dollar donors do not have undue influence. Participating candidates may raise private money subject to a $2,000 per contributor limitation, but only the first $250 will be matched.
Candidates who choose not to participate in the public financing system would be subject to the current contribution and receipt limitations. However, the Act would require the disclosure of bundlers of campaign contributions.
Underscoring the importance of the substance of campaigns and not the money that funds them, candidates receiving public financing would be required to participate in at least one debate before the primary election and one debate before the general election. These debates would be open to all candidates, regardless of funding.
The bill provides mechanisms for funding these changes including an income tax check-off of $5 that would be deposited into the newly created "New York State Campaign Finance Fund" and an additional 10 percent surcharge on recoveries from fraudulent practices relating to stocks, bonds and other securities. If the Campaign Finance Fund lacks sufficient money properly certified claims would be paid from the general fund.
Fair Elections Board
A five-member board would be created and charged with the oversight of the state's public financing procedures. The board would appoint counsel for the purpose of enforcing all campaign finance laws, rules and regulations.
Criminal violations of provisions governing public financing would be prosecuted by the State Attorney General. The failure to make proper campaign finance filings is a misdemeanor and would result in a penalty of up to $10,000 as well as a civil penalty of up to $5,000. The knowing and willful violation of other provisions of the proposed public financing scheme would be a misdemeanor and would result in a fine of up to $10,000 as well as a civil penalty of up to $10,000. False statements or omitted material during the course of an audit by the campaign finance board would be a class E felony. The campaign finance board may impose upon a defendant to repay any public matching funds obtained as the result of criminal conduct.
The 2013 Fair Elections Act would apply to candidates for state comptroller beginning with the 2014 election. State legislative candidates would be eligible to participate in the 2016 election. All other statewide candidates and constitutional delegates would be eligible to participate in 2018.
Increased Disclosure of Independent Expenditures
The Act would also address the increased activity of third-party campaign communications that expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate or ballot measure. Because these communication and advocacy efforts do not explicitly originate from a candidate, campaign or political party, it is often difficult for the average voter to determine the source of the message.
The legislation would ensure that entities engaged in express advocacy of candidates are subject to the same registration and disclosure provisions that are now required of candidates and their campaigns. Under current law, New York requires financial disclosure only for organizations engaging in election-related communications which advocate for or against candidates using specific language.
Many times, independent expenditures will avoid disclosure requirements by using alternate language which has not been specifically detailed under current law. Under this measure, the state would adopt a "functional equivalent" standard, the same as the federal government, for all election-related communication and subjects it to disclosure requirements even if the communication does not use the specific language outlined under current law.
The current structure allows corporations, industry groups, wealthy activists, unions and other special interests to participate directly in campaigns through unlimited independent expenditures so long as they define themselves as issue advocates and do not use certain words. Unlike official campaigns and traditional political action committees, independent expenditure committees can accept unlimited contributions under the current law.
All campaign committees would be required to register with the New York State Board of Elections and file associated financial disclosure reports.
Additionally, the Act defines "electioneering communication" as a communication to the general public which refers to a clearly identified candidate and is broadcast or published within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary election. Under the Act, electioneering communication must be disclosed.
The Assembly has long championed campaign finance reform. In 1986, as chair of the Election Law Committee, Speaker Silver authored a bill in support of public election financing that has repeatedly passed the Assembly.
Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said, "We applaud Speaker Silver and the Assembly for passing a campaign finance reform bill to clean up Albany's 'show me the money' culture of corruption. The bill's small donor matching system will increase the influence of average citizens and counter the power of large donors and special interests. An overwhelming majority of New Yorkers support this reform when paired with strong, independent enforcement and effective disclosure of outside group spending, as it is in this bill. Now the burden is on the Senate to pass its own bill to ensure voters, not dollars, control our government."
Jessica Wisneski, legislative director of Citizen Action of New York, said, "Today, Speaker Silver and Assembly members from across New York showed true leadership in the effort to limit the influence of money in politics. Now it's up to Senator Klein and the coalition leadership to show that they can achieve the progressive reforms they promised. It's clear that New Yorkers are fed up with the status quo."
Michael Mulgrew, president of UFT said, "Speaker Silver's bill would go a long way toward equalizing the playing field for state office candidates, and ensuring that the voices of average voters are not drowned out in elections."
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), said, "Our elected officials should be chosen not on the basis of their access to great wealth or their ability to raise large sums of money. They should be chosen on the basis of what they would do in office as evidenced by their public record -- what they have said and what they have done. Our current system corrupts the process. Presently, the money a candidate possesses or acquires enables them to overwhelm and even distort the dialogue with the public. Speaker Silver is absolutely right in calling for reform. The RWDSU is proud to stand with him in supporting public financing of our elections."
Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, said, "While the Senate Republicans are arguing over whether to pass any meaningful reform at all, Speaker Silver and the Assembly are getting it done, passing a robust public financing of elections bill to limit the influence of big money in politics."
Dave Palmer, executive director for the Center for Working Families, said, "The Assembly is not just talking about fixing our corruption problem; its members have taken concrete action today. We need more of that. Thanks to Speaker Silver, we're one big step closer to real reform. It's now up to the Senate to bring a bill to the floor."
Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, said, "Passage of the Fair Elections Act moves New York closer to the comprehensive reforms most New Yorkers want, towards reducing the power of big money over politics and reviving our democracy. "The Assembly has taken a leadership role in this historic effort to get government back on the side of everyday people, and that will lead to better and fairer policies on jobs, taxes and the economy."
Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign, said, "By passing this bill, Speaker Silver and the Assembly took an important step forward in raising the voices of everyday New Yorkers in our political process. The Senate can either put the issue to a vote or stand with the big money status quo."
Hector J. Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, said, "We fully support Speaker Silver's public financing bill and urge the Assembly to pass it today. It will level the playing field across the state by encouraging candidates to focus on raising small contributions from a broad base of donors, instead of kowtowing to the highest bidder. That will lead to fairer, more honest elections, keep big-money players from exerting undue influence, and allow working families and their communities a real chance at civic participation. It is imperative that the Senate and the Governor quickly follow suit."
Bob Master, legislative and political director of CWA District 1, said, "In the wake of a flurry of corruption scandals in Albany, New Yorkers deserve reform that gets to the root of the problem. Speaker Silver has proven that he isn't afraid to take on the big-money interests in Albany that benefit from the current law. Now it's up to the Senate to do the same. The status quo is not an option."