This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News on June 5, 2020.
In the midst of a devastating pandemic and plummeting tax revenue, New York’s new budget law gives millions of tax dollars to politicians for their campaigns. As Assemblyman Mark Walczyk put it, “With unemployment at record levels… [Gov. Cuomo] has the audacity to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for campaign ads, consultants and those annoying robocalls?”
The program will inevitably fund things more toxic than robocalls. Your tax dollars will fund speech you won’t like, including hateful speech. That happened in New York City, which has a similar program. Former City Council candidate Thomas Lopez-Pierre received nearly $100,000 in taxpayers’ money for a blatantly anti-Semitic campaign.
Making matters worse, the program won’t even achieve its intended goals. The text of the budget bill claims taxpayer-funded campaigns will curb corruption, or at the very least, “the appearance of corruption.” But the vast majority of New York’s corruption has nothing to do with campaign finance. Most of it deals with lawmakers abusing their power — often their power over the public purse — for personal gain. Besides, tax financing doesn’t prevent campaign finance scandals. It will simply inject taxpayers’ money into these scandals.
Plus, the program will enable a new form of campaign finance malfeasance: defrauding taxpayers.
Politicians will have access to tax dollars through “matching funds.” Participating statewide candidates will have contributions of up to $250 matched 6-to-1 with tax dollars, so a $250 contribution from a constituent will earn candidates $1,500 from taxpayers. Politicians running for statewide office can take in up to $7 million in taxpayer funds.
For over 30 years, New York City’s similar program has been subject to fraud and abuse.
Anthony Weiner’s ill-fated mayoral campaign committed several infractions with tax dollars after receiving more than $1.6 million in matching funds. Weiner also used tax funds on personal expenses such as drycleaning and phone bills.
Lopez-Pierre also spent matching funds on personal expenses, among other misconduct. The campaign’s treasurer testified that the candidate exploited her inexperience “so that he might commit fraud when possible.”
Veteran Councilman Sheldon Leffler schemed to defraud the city’s tax-financing program of $38,000. He and a donor conspired to divide a $10,000 contribution into 38 smaller contributions that would qualify for matching funds.
These stories are a small sample of the taxpayer-funded corruption enabled by New York City’s program. But equally concerning is what’s perfectly legal.
Incumbents have been able to exploit tax financing to increase their advantages over challengers, in direct contradiction of the program’s goals.
By the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s own admission, “the program’s requirements…appear to have contributed to greater disparities between officeholders’ and challengers’ campaign finances…” The Board also said that “the Public Fund has helped to finance possibly unnecessary campaign expenses and uncompetitive campaigns.”
For example, Mayor de Blasio received nearly $3 million from taxpayers for the primary alone during his most recent reelection. He had already outraised his nearest opponent, who did not qualify for matching funds, 39-to-1. It’s hard to imagine a bigger backfire for a program intended to help challengers compete with incumbents.
Letitia James, who is now the state’s Attorney General, received more than $750,000 in public matching funds for her 2017 reelection as public advocate against a little-known and poorly funded first-time candidate. James received over 80% of the votes between her and the nearest competitor. James spent a whopping half-million in one day — Nov. 7, the date of the general election, when she reported the $500,000 payment to Global Strategies Group.
Why return taxpayers’ money when you can spend it on self-promotion?
New York City’s matching funds program has not cleaned up city politics or made challengers more competitive. In many cases, it has had precisely the opposite effect, while wasting millions of tax dollars. Instead of lear ning from the sordid history of the city’s program, Gov. Cuomo and state legislators have set the state up to repeat it.