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Publicly Funded Campaigns Clash with Independent Expenditures in New York

by Gene Berardelli, published
Talk to anyone following election reform in New York, and they’ll tell you that there’s a storm on the horizon. That storm is the volatile future of campaign finance laws and regulations in the state.

In one corner, there’s the “irresistible force” that is independent expenditures. In NY Progress and Protection PAC (NYPPP) v. Walsh, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals eviscerated NY’s campaign finance spending limits, but only applied said evisceration to the one PAC named in the matter.

“Few contested legal questions are answered so consistently by so many courts and judges,” said the Second Circuit after outlining a litany of cases decided both before and after Citizen United which all stand for the same principle: the government has no interest in maintaining the contribution limit as applied to independent expenditure groups.

Even with these seemingly-unconstitutional statutes limiting IEs, the NYC Campaign Finance Board reports that PACs spent over $15 million on municipal races in New York City this past year, including PACS, unions, and other political organizations dedicated to either candidates or issues. With statutory limits heading toward extinction, the floodgates are preparing to open.

For those who see “big money” running politics, a future with unlimited IEs does not look so bright.

In the other corner, we have the “immovable object” that is the movement for public campaign finance. Capably outlined by fellow IVN contributor Brandon Fallon (go read it), Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Moreland Commission investigating public corruption intend to push public campaign financing as part of its reform package. Modeled after New York City’s Campaign Finance Board, participants would agree to a multiplier of matching funds in exchange for capping their total campaign finance expenditures to a certain level.

Or is it as “immovable” as we were originally led to believe? Just this week, indications from Cuomo and the Moreland Commission are that they may be willing to

shelve public campaign financing as a compromise to state senate leadership.

However, there is the administration of such a statewide program to consider. New York City’s OMB forecasts the agency’s budget at an

additional $12 million.

When you extrapolate those allocations and the costs of administration for local municipal races and races for state legislature across 62 counties – not to mention the big-ticket races for Governor, AG and Comptroller – we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars and a new state agency that may make the DMV look like a model of efficiency.

For those who fear government becoming too expansive, a future with state-administered public campaign financing does not look so bright.

Like the prize fight that turns out to be all hype, this battle may be over before it begins. Assuming that Cuomo will indeed advocate for public campaign financing, it is not hard to imagine participants voluntarily opting for public campaign finance and agreeing to limit contributions and greater government scrutiny in a world where candidates -- especially incumbents -- can still receive hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) in independent expenditures. Thus, limits would not really be limiting. In fact, that may be a fair summary of the 2013 election cycle in NYC.

No matter what side of the issue one prefers, there is no denying that NYPPP v. Walsh has at least set the stage for a titanic clash. Someone cue Michael Buffer, because we’re getting ready to rumble. Let’s just hope that Don King isn’t the promoter.

Photo Credit: Nagel Photography /

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