Hein pitches plan to reform county’s campaign finance laws

County Executive Mike Hein, seen here with (from left) Legislator Pete Loughran (D-Kingston), Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner, NYPIRG legislative counsel Russ Haven and League of Women Voters of the Mid-Hudson Region President Dare Thompson, discusses proposed campaign finance reform. (photo by Dan Barton)

Flanked by good-government advocates County Executive Mike Hein on Wednesday, May 31 unveiled proposed legislation that would make Ulster the first upstate county to offer public matching funds for elections. Hein’s plan would also lower maximum contributions to candidates in county races, limit contributions from people or companies who do business with the county and strengthen campaign finance disclosure rules.

“We believe there’s an opportunity here to focus on the future,” said Hein. “I can’t fix the national issue but I can certainly do something here in conjunction with the legislature and we can set a model.”

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Hein’s legislation would only impact county-level races: county executive, county clerk, comptroller, sheriff and district attorney, as well as the 23 seats on the county legislature. Campaign finance rules for town, village and city offices and state and federal elections would not be affected. Compliance with the law would be overseen by a three-member board with one member each appointed by the county executive and legislative majority and minorities.

The legislation unveiled Wednesday would make Ulster County one of a handful of communities in the nation, mostly big cities, which offer public matching funds for elections. Hein’s bill would offer candidates dollar-for-dollar matching funds of up to $100 per contributor. The public funding would be capped at $23,000 for candidates in countywide elections and $1,000 for legislative candidates. The law also establishes a county budget line between $50,000 and $150,000 for matching campaign funds. How much money is placed in the fund, Hein said, would depend on factors like the county’s fiscal health and compliance with the state-mandated tax cap, as well as how many offices are in play in a given election year. The law calls for a $50,000 appropriation for the 2018 election cycle when the only eligible office in play is the sheriff’s. Currently, New York City is the only jurisdiction in the state that offers public funding for elections. Campaign finance reform advocates say public funding helps level the playing field for candidates without money or connections, and encourages a focus on small-dollar donations from constituents rather than corporate contributions.

“It makes a difference in reducing the influence of money in politics and encouraging action at the grass roots,” said Russ Haven, legislative counsel for NYPIRG, who attended the press conference. “Too many races are totally unopposed or virtually unopposed because opponents can’t afford to get their message out.”

The proposed legislation would also limit maximum contributions from individuals. Currently, individual contribution limits are set based on a formula of five cents per registered voter in the candidate’s election district, up to a maximum of $50,000. The new law would cap contributions at $5,000 in countywide races and $500 in legislative contests. County Attorney Beatrice Havranek, who helped draft the law, said the limits were calculated to be lower than the state’s maximum.

The law sets an even lower limit for individuals who do business with the county. They would be limited to a maximum contribution of $1,000 in countywide races and $250 for legislative offices. Another section of the law would require candidates to disclose all committee’s funding their campaign and require candidate-authorized committees to report all contributions.

Havranek said the law had long been on the county’s legislative agenda. But, she said, a pending challenge to New York City’s campaign finance law — on which the local legislation is based — caused Ulster officials to hold off. A state Supreme Court appeals panel recently dismissed the challenge, opening the door to county-level legislation, Havranek said.

Hein said the law also reflected his determination to place Ulster County in the forefront of progressive legislation, as well as the financial flexibility stemming from a reorganization of county government and a series of tax trimming budgets.

“If an administration like mine can’t step up and push forward on an issue like this, then who will?” said Hein.

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