Testimony to the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations in Support of Int. 732-A
April 15, 2019
Good afternoon, Chair Cabrera. My name is Tom Speaker, and I am a Policy Analyst at Reinvent Albany. Reinvent Albany is a watchdog organization that advocates for open and accountable government in New York.
Reinvent Albany strongly supports Int. 732-A, which is a step forward for empowering small donors in New York City. Though New York City’s public financing program is a national model, the numbers show that large donors have still provided the majority of campaign funds in recent elections. Raising the cap to 88.8% from 75%, as this bill proposes, would bring the system close to a full public match and allow small donors to have a greater voice.
Small donors are on the rise
Small donors are playing an increasingly significant role in elections: The Campaign Finance Board’s 2017 Post-Election Report stated 11 percent more individual contributions came from small donors in 2017 than in 2013. The recent special election for Public Advocate was the first in which candidates could receive an $8 to $1 match and have up to 75% of campaign expenditures covered by the city. Though that’s a small sample, the results are promising: The most common contribution in the race was $10, whereas it had been $100 in previous Public Advocate elections. We have also seen numerous candidates announce that going forward, they will not take donations above certain amounts ($250, for example). These are the types of campaigns that will give small donors, who make up the majority of New Yorkers, a larger role in campaign fundraising. As we see it, that is goal of the public financing system, and raising the cap would help meet that goal.
Greatest impact will be on City Council races
This legislation will most significantly impact City Council races, wherein candidates frequently reach the public match cap. Last year, Reinvent Albany and RepresentUs NY conducted an analysis of City Council members’ campaign donations in the 2017 elections. Even when donations could be matched $6 to $1 with a 55% cap, 54% of Councilmembers’ funds were from donations were over $1,000, and 88% percent from donations over $175 (see page 38).
Under the new system, the cap and the matching ratio have risen. But to reach 25% of their spending limit, City Council members will still have to raise $47,500 from private funds. To meet these targets, even with lowered donation limits, candidates will likely turn to wealthy donors, who can fill the gap most quickly. Raising the cap can reduce that dependency and allow for more donations from small donors.
Citywide races likely to benefit
Given the trend toward small donors, we believe that this legislation will positively impact citywide races as well. An October 2018 report by the Independent Budget Office suggested that the current system advantages established candidates, and the Campaign Finance Board raised concerns that a higher cap might boost incumbents’ advantage. We disagree that this bill would overly benefit candidates that already have well-established funding networks. It is true that to date only one candidate for mayoral office – Christine Quinn – has hit the public match cap. But as mentioned earlier, more and more candidates are resolving to run on small donations, and their campaigns will benefit from a higher share of public contributions.
It’s clear that New York City voters are widely supportive of measures like this, as evidenced by the passage of Question 1 in November and the 33 co-sponsors of this bill. But there remains room for improvement in the system, and taxpayers continue to be concerned about pay-to-play in local government. That’s why we support Int. 732-A and urge its quick passage.
I thank you for allowing me to testify and welcome any questions you may have.
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