New York steps forward as New Jersey leaps backward on campaign cash

New York is set to implement a new public campaign financing program that will match small-dollar donations, allowing candidates to rely on the support of everyday New Yorkers rather than wealthy donors and special interests. The funding for the program was approved in the state budget, and it is expected to bring about a significant change in how campaigns are funded in the state.

Meanwhile, New Jersey continues to struggle with a corrupt campaign finance system that facilitates pay-to-play bribery and allows political insiders to maintain their grip on power.

Despite calls for reform, New Jersey politicians have shown little interest in making the state more democratic, and a new law enacted by Governor Phil Murphy will make things worse.

The newly signed bill in New Jersey brings about several changes to the campaign finance system. Contribution limits have been doubled, and automatic future increases have been established. State and political parties will see their limits tripled through the introduction of “housekeeping accounts.”

Additionally, there are new disclosure requirements for certain organizations, and a retroactive two-year statute of limitations on enforcement against campaign finance violations.

The most notable aspect of the bill is the Murphy administration’s attempt to remove Jeff Brindle, the executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). Under the new law, the governor will have the power to appoint new ELEC commissioners, who are expected to oust Brindle.

The Elections Transparency Act doubles campaign contribution limits, and allows companies with government contracts to contribute to political party campaign committees. It invalidates local pay-to-play laws in favor of generally weaker statewide standards.

The bill was sponsored by Senate President Nicholas Scutari, the Union County political boss who was accused of soaking taxpayers with a no-show job and more recently gave unfair ballot advantages to an anti-abortion lawmaker who closed six Planned Parenthood clinics and a Mayor who was convicted for selling heroin in New York and covered up that fact when he applied for and got two government jobs directly interacting with children.

“We must have reform based on a foundation of public transparency. Reform that secures our elections from improper influence and expands access for the people,” said Democratic state Sen. Nia Gill. “A fair and impartial campaign finance system is essential to preserving the foundations of our democracy. This legislation creates the opposite. “

“This bill effectively rolls back years, years of progress, in fighting corruption in our election system,” said Republican Assemblyman Brian Bergen.

Despite the significance of these changes, Governor Murphy signed the bill without holding a press conference or issuing a written statement. The lack of attention from Democrats suggests a deliberate attempt to avoid scrutiny. Critics have pointed out the irony of the bill’s name, the “Elections Transparency Act,” considering the provisions that actually increase contributions and reduce oversight. However, the bill does introduce some transparency measures regarding “dark money” disclosures, although their constitutionality may be questioned.

In contrast, New York’s new public campaign financing program has received widespread support from advocates of campaign finance reform. The program, which will be effective from the 2024 elections, will provide candidates with public matching funds for small contributions, amplifying the impact of small-dollar donations up to $250. Statewide candidates opting for the program can receive public matching funds of $1,500 for a $250 contribution, while state legislative candidates can receive up to $2,300 for a $250 contribution.

The funding for the program was included in the state budget after bipartisan agreement. The program will be administered by the newly established Public Campaign Finance Board (PCFB). The $39.5 million budget allocation includes $25 million for matching funds and $14.5 million for program administration.

Campaign finance reform advocates, such as the Brennan Center for Justice and the coalition Fair Elections for New York, have praised the funding approval. They believe that the program will reduce the influence of mega-donors and special interests, empower grassroots candidates, and make elected officials more responsive to their constituents.

The program in New York builds upon the successful model of a matching program used in New York City. It incentivizes small donations, with the majority of contributions in the city’s program coming from individuals donating $250 or less. Candidates must qualify for the program by reaching a threshold of small donations and adhere to disclosure and funding audit requirements.

While New York takes steps towards a more democratic campaign finance system, New Jersey lags behind, with party insiders hand-selecting candidates and imposing restrictions on political slogans. Some candidates in New Jersey have filed a lawsuit challenging the restrictions, claiming that they violate the First Amendment by limiting speech based on content.

Public campaign financing programs have been gaining traction across the country, with New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Oakland implementing or strengthening similar initiatives. These programs aim to reduce the influence of big money in politics and promote grassroots participation in

the democratic process. By amplifying the voices of everyday citizens through public matching funds, these programs level the playing field and make elected officials more accountable to their constituents.

In New York, the closure of the infamous “LLC loophole” has been a significant step in curbing the influence of large donors. For years, the loophole allowed pass-through companies to be treated as individuals, enabling them to make multiple large donations to candidates. The closure of this loophole in 2019 has brought more transparency and fairness to campaign financing in the state.

However, in New Jersey, the political landscape remains plagued by corruption and a lack of transparency. The pay-to-play system allows political insiders to maintain their power by engaging in bribery and favoritism. The hand-selection of candidates and restrictions on political slogans further restrict democratic participation and limit free speech.

While progressive groups in New Jersey fight for change through the courts, their counterparts in New York celebrate the progress made with the implementation of public campaign financing. Advocates argue that New York’s program, along with similar initiatives in other cities and states, serves as a model for campaign finance reform across the nation.

The disparities between New York and New Jersey highlight the urgency for comprehensive campaign finance reform at the state and federal levels. The need to reduce the influence of money in politics, increase transparency, and empower grassroots candidates is crucial to ensuring a truly democratic and representative government.

As New York prepares to embark on its public campaign financing program, candidates and voters alike eagerly await the transformative potential it holds. By prioritizing small-dollar donations and amplifying the voices of ordinary citizens, the program aims to shift the balance of power away from special interests and toward the people.

In New Jersey, county party chairs and elected clerks have unprecedented power to design our ballots. These politicians award the coveted party “line” to favored candidates, grouping them together in a prime position on the ballot to attract maximum attention from voters.

The candidates who are not endorsed by party bosses are relegated to “Ballot Siberia,” in places where voters have a harder time finding them, minimizing visibility. The result is devastating for candidates fighting for political change, as no incumbent state legislator has lost a primary in New Jersey since 2009

Candidates awarded the county “Line” position gain, on average, a 35-point advantage. The result is an election system that is fixed, which diminishes the power of voters and ensures that politically connected candidates are elected again and again. 

Ultimately, the diverging paths of New York and New Jersey in campaign finance reform underscore the importance of creating a fair and equitable electoral system.

While New York takes significant strides toward democratizing its campaigns, New Jersey faces ongoing challenges in dismantling a corrupt pay-to-play system that allows political insiders to maintain their grip on power.

The outcomes of these efforts will shape the future of democracy in each state and serve as a testament to the power of campaign finance reform.

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