“Space”: The bureaucratic frontier threatening the state’s new Public Campaign Finance Board

Albany, we have a problem.

That was the message Kristen Zebrowski Stavisky, the co-executive director of the New York State Board of Elections, conveyed to commissioners last month about what was impeding the progress of the state’s new Public Campaign Finance Board (PCFB).

A top concern, according to Zebrowski Stavisky: the lack of office space.

“Especially for the launch of the Public Campaign Finance Board,” she said. “Space is a big priority.”

This was making it harder to bring in the personnel needed to launch the program — since there is nowhere to put them. On top of that, Zebrowski Stavisky said their plans to build out new offices were snared in months of bureaucratic, inter-agency delays. They were raising the alarm with the Office of General Services (OGS), Division of Budget and even Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office because the issue was critical. Despite the delays, officials insist the program will be up and running later this year.

The “space” issue is emblematic of the challenges facing the start-up PCFB, which was adopted back in 2020. Proponents say it will make the state a leader in campaign finance reform, empowering small dollar donors by matching their contributions with taxpayer money on a sliding scale. While similar to New York City’s three-decade old system, the PCFB will cover double the number of elected offices and run on quicker two-year cycles, as opposed to four, with the first starting November 9th of this year ahead of the 2024 elections .

“When you pass a statute like this with a grand design it all seems too distant, in the future,” said Ekow Yankah, chair of the PCFB and a professor at Cardozo Law School. Noting the obvious disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the board understands the future is now, and they’re trying to convey that sense of urgency to all their partners.

“That means bringing in the best people to build a system that New Yorkers will be proud of, and frankly, that means mundane things like where will these people sit?” he said.

The PCFB is the culmination of years of advocacy from a coalition of labor leaders, good government reformers, racial justice advocates, progressive state lawmakers and even the state comptroller. There was the Blue Ribbon panel whose recommendations encountered an initial judicial roadblock, before it all finally became law in 2020 as part of the budget agreement.

At the time, the new law establishing the PCFB was largely overshadowed by an ongoing battle between then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and third parties, including the Working Families and Conservative parties, over the vote thresholds needed to maintain their ballot lines, which played out in real-time in the 2020 general election. (Those parts survived, but the Green and Independence parts lost their lines.)

The program also has its fair share of critics, who say it doesn’t go far enough to get big money out of state politics. While it was designed to empower small New York State donors giving up to $250, and lowered the amount for individual campaign contributions, there is no cap on the total amount that candidates can raise or spend. Even the lowered contribution limits, detailed below, are still well above the local and federal limits. In a statement, the government reform group Reinvent Albany called the program a “historic missed opportunity.”

Chisun Lee, director of The Brennan Center for Justice’s Government and Elections program, and an outspoken advocate for the new system, said it’s crucial to helping New Yorkers feel a sense of ownership over their democracy. She said the program is, “arguably the most progressive version of a small donor public financing system and certainly the most ambitious response to the problem that the Citizens United Supreme Court case created of unleashing unlimited big spending in politics.”

That 2010 decision by the country’s highest court is what has given meteoric rise to super PACs and dark money from obscured sources. But Lee said the state’s PCFB will provide an alternative path for candidates and voters, one that research conducted by the Brennan Center on the city’s campaign finance matching system has shown increases the diversity of donors and expands participation in the campaign finance side of elections to more than a concentrated number of deep-pocketed donors.

“We’ve seen just in this last cycle in New York City, that candidates opting into small donor match public financing ultimately resulted in a historically diverse City Council being elected,” Lee said, citing the record number of people of color, women and women of color elected to the body. That’s why, she said, “it’s a critically important moment for [the state’s] small donor match program to launch successfully for people to know that it is an option available to really lift up and empower regular New Yorkers.”

There are some promising signs emerging from Albany about the initial investments into the program. Hochul included $10 million in her budget to fund the matching program, and an additional $3.2 million for staff and technology.

But that doesn’t cover the cost of a fully operational matching program — and there’s still that issue of office space.

“This is a project that is being coordinated with multiple agencies due to its scope and complexity. Necessary resources have been identified, and OGS is actively working to coordinate construction and renovation,” said John Brill, a spokesperson for the state’s Office of General Services.

The governor’s office said the agencies are working to execute a plan. A spokesperson for the Division of Budget has not yet responded to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the state Board of Elections said space issues would not delay the launch of the program, but also indicated that the issue had not been entirely resolved.

“As anybody who’s ever renovated a home knows,” said Yankah, the PCFB chair, “there’s nothing to do but take it day by day, and be diligent.”

Here’s a quick primer on PCFB. For more details, here’s a deeper dive from The Brennan Center.

What is the state public financing board?

The Public Campaign Finance Board was included in state election law in 2020. It will be overseen by seven commissioners including the four Board of Elections commissioners and three new commissioners. They include Cardozo Law School professor Ekow Yankah, who serves as chair, appointed by the Democratic legislative leaders; and Brian Kolb, a former Assembly member and the chamber’s Minority Leader, appointed by the Republicans. The governor also makes an appointment, which remains open.

Who can participate in the matching program?

The new program will allow candidates for 217 state offices including all members of the Senate, Assembly, and all four statewide offices to receive taxpayer matching funds based on money raised from supporters in their respective district.

When does it start?

The first day candidates can raise qualifying donations is November 9th, 2022 to be used in the 2024 state elections. The deadline for candidates to opt into the program is four months before the election.

How did the contribution limits change?

Even candidates who do not opt ​​into the state’s public financing program will be bound by lowered individual contribution limits. For statewide races, donors can give a maximum of $18,000 split between the primary and general election. That’s down from nearly $70,000 a cycle.

Donors to state Senate candidates will be capped at $10,000 per cycle, split between the primary and general, compared to nearly $20,000 under current law. For Assembly candidates the cap will be $6,000 per cycle, compared to roughly $10,000 now.

What kind of public matching funds are available?

The program puts a premium on small-dollar donations. Contributions between $5 and $250 exclusively from New York residents are eligible for a match. Similar to New York City’s matching funds program, candidates must meet a dual threshold: there is a minimum amount they must raise and that amount must include a minimum number of matchable contributors.

The thresholds are set based on the office the candidate is seeking. Participating candidates for statewide office can receive a $6-to-$1 match for eligible contributions. That means a $10 contribution will be worth $70 to the candidate — with the $60 in matching funds plus the original donation.

For legislative candidates, there are three matching levels: $12-to-$1 for the first $50; $9-to-$1 for the next $100, and $8-to-$1 for the last $100.

How much does a candidate need to raise first to be eligible for matching funds?

Candidates for governor must raise $500,000 including a minimum of 5,000 matchable contributions. Lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller candidates need to bank $100,000 with at least 1,000 matchable contributions.

Most candidates for state Senate must raise $12,000 with at least 150 qualifying contributions; and Assembly candidates must hit a $6,000 threshold with at least 75 match-eligible contributions. The law also includes a provision to lower the minimum thresholds in districts where the average income is below the state average over three years.

Is there an unlimited amount of matching money?

No. There are caps on public matching funds for each office, with $7 million maximum for the governor, $3.5 million for the other statewide offices; $375,000 for Senate candidates; and $175,000 for Assembly.

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