Thiele: Assembly Introduces Stronger 2013 Fair Elections Act to Establish Public Financing Option

Fair Elections Board will strengthen campaign finance enforcement measures

Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. (I, D, WF-Sag Harbor) today announced the introduction of an amended 2013 Fair Elections Act (A.4980-A) which would establish optional public financing for election campaigns that cover all statewide offices, state legislative offices, and constitutional convention delegates. Further, the Act would create a Fair Elections Board which would be charged with enforcement measures for candidates who opt into the system. The 2013 Fair Elections Act requires expanded disclosure of independent expenditures and electioneering communications.

Public Financing

The legislation reforms 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. The bill requires 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 $2000 per contributor limitation, but only the first $250 will be matched.

Candidates that 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 the 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 to enforce 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 new 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

This act also addresses 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 ensures 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. This measure adopts 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 a longstanding tradition of supporting campaign finance reform. When our election laws were first established, no one could have foreseen the emergence of high-dollar donors and their effect on the political process. I strongly support instituting a system that produces a fair and equitable competition to represent the people of New York State.