The state must lower contribution limits that are highest in the country while also closing loopholes for big money to party committees.
What are contribution limits?
Various levels of US government – federal, state, and local – can each place limits on who can contribute, and how much money they can contribute, to political campaigns and related entities. These limits vary widely across states, and some states have NO limits.
Why do contribution limits matter?
We believe that high contribution limits pave the way for a small group of very rich people to exert far too much influence on candidates and election outcomes. More importantly, these rich people can have far too much influence on elected officials and policy, after they’ve helped put candidates in office.
Regular citizens, who are far more numerous, have far less influence. Even when there are matching funds for small donations, extremely large donations can keep the field tilted toward the rich.
What are the current contribution limits in New York?
New contribution limits were part of the plan released by the State Campaign Finance Reform Commission, which then became New York state law, in December 2019.
Previously, New York allowed individual donors to contribute as much as $69,700 to candidates for statewide office, such as governor. Under the commission’s plan, that would be slashed to $18,000, beginning in November 2022 [after the next gubernatorial election].
For State Senate [Upper House] candidates, the limit would be slashed to $10,000, down from $19,300. Assembly [Lower House] candidates would be able to receive individual contributions of $6,000, down from $9,200.
These contribution limits are far higher than what the average citizen gives to candidates. According to a 2017 Pew Center study, of all Americans who reported donating to a candidate or group working to elect a candidate in 2016, 87% gave $250 or less.
New York Candidate Contribution Limits vs. Other States
The National Conference of State Legislators research shows eleven states have NO limits on donations to candidates for state-level office.
Of the states that have limits, NY had the highest in the nation, before the change in December 2019. While the changes may sound dramatic, New York remains in the top tier of states with the most generous campaign contribution limits.
Only four states (8%) have limits in five figures: CA $29,000, WI $20,000, NY $18,000, OH $12,707. Twenty-three states (46%) limit gubernatorial contributions to varying amounts $5,000 and under.
Only New York and Ohio are in five figures ($10,000 and up).
Two-thirds of states have limits of $5,000 or less. Seventeen states (34%) are $1,000 or less; sixteen states (32%) are between $1,000 and $5,000.
Including New York, only seven states (14%) have limits of $5,000 and up. 18 states (36%) have limits of $1,000 or less.
Donations To Party Committees
The Campaign Finance Reform Commission’s plan did not touch on donations to state party committees, which can raise $117,300 from individuals and then send those monies to the candidate of their choosing without any limits.
Campaign finance filings for the weeks ahead of the 2018 primary, in which a number of incumbent Democratic legislators had competitive challenges from the left, show the New York State Democratic Committee received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a handful of unions and political action committees.
Comparison of Party Committees Across States
According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 19 states impose no restrictions on the ability of state party committees to contribute money to a candidate’s campaign.
Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, and New York allow state parties to donate unlimited sums if the candidate meets certain qualifications.
The remaining 27 states have some sort of restriction on funds from political parties, falling into two camps. Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico and West Virginia require parties to follow the same contribution limits established for individuals. The other 20 states outline separate limits for political parties. These limits vary widely.
The Public Campaign Finance Commission’s plan, in addition to the failings outlined above,entirely omitted action on some key issues. These should be addressed when the legislature takes up the issue of campaign finance again.
The statewide Fair Elections coalition, and many others over time including Reinvent Albany, have advocated restricting contributions from people doing business with the state – a basic anti-corruption safeguard.
The Commission also left the deeply flawed State Board of Elections to enforce the new system, even though all five other states that provide public funds for legislative campaigns have independent campaign finance agencies. There should be an independent body created to enforce the new campaign finance system.
Dramatically lowering the campaign contribution limits should also be done.
“5 ways New York’s elections are set to change,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 12/2/19.
“Concern Grows as State Campaign Finance Plans Head Toward Law,” Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette, 12/20/19
“Cuomo’s Missing Ethics Agenda, “ Ethan Geringer-Sameth, Gotham Gazette, 1/15/20