Ulster considers public financing for elections

The county’s proposed campaign finance reform law, which would allow candidates for  countywide office or county legislature to tap into a $75,000 fund per year in county money for their campaigns prompted more than a dozen speakers, over half of whom were in opposition and emphatic about their positions, and about 50 onlookers at the county legislature’s public hearing on the proposed law on Tuesday, Nov. 12.

“I’m very well acquainted with the services that county employees provide,” said CSEA 8950 President Janet Knott, who spoke against the proposed law. “From highways, to child protective services…I could give you an extensive list on how $75,000 could enhance those services. And what happens when that $75,000 becomes $100,000? Two-hundred thousand? Seventy-five thousand to finance a campaign, or $75,000 to help the residents here?”

Under the proposal, candidates would need to get a set number of contributions, at least $500 from at least 50 individual donors in the case of local political races and at least $15,000 in donations from at least 150 individual backers for county-wide candidates, before those donations could be matched at a 5:1 ratio. (Within the text of the proposed law, it’s noted that the county Board of Elections “shall make a recommendation to the County Legislature on whether the ratio and caps [indicated in the law]…should be adjusted” before it would go into effect in January 2020.) In addition to the designated budget for campaign finance, the Board of Elections is allowed to receive donations earmarked for the fund from which candidates would draw money; however, those donations cannot be specified for one candidate.

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Should the funds be insufficient for those applying, the $75,000 would be distributed proportionately. 

Campaign contribution limits would also be set — $3,500 per election cycle for countywide races and $650 per cycle for county legislature per individual donor. These figures are the same for individuals and organizations. The proposed law would also prevent candidates from accepting campaign donations from any business entities which have a contract with or which have gotten tax incentives from the county.

It is unclear what impact, if any, the proposed law would have on political action committees involvement in countywide and county legislature races. 

League of Women Voters of the Mid-Hudson Valley President Cynthia Bell spoke on behalf of the organization in support of the law.

Tom Denton of New Paltz said that the legislation was “a long time coming,” asserting that “democracy is a public resource.”

“I believe the legislature should be commending for tackling the subject of campaign financing,” said Denton. “[This law] will go a long way to temper the influence of money in our political system [and] will give good prospective candidates a chance they don’t have…[and] will make it possible to rebalance the power of large and small donors, will help to improve transparency…Passing a campaign finance bill will signal that the Ulster County Legislature is trying to be more fair.”

Four other speakers supported the proposed law; the remaining seven were in strong opposition.

“I don’t even know why you’re considering it,” said Attilio Contini of Rosendale, a former county legislator. “I can’t understand why you would consider considering it.”

A maximum of $2,500 would be available to legislative candidates, while the amount available in the so-called Ulster County Campaign Finance Fund for county-level candidates would max out at $23,000. Under the law, it would not be compulsory for candidates to make use of the funds.

“Where is the fairness in this, forcing a taxpayer to give money to a candidate that we don’t agree with,” said Cynthia Wagner of Wawarsing. “People express themselves in different ways, supporting a candidate that we like is one of them…It is not OK to spend our tax money for political campaigns.”

The majority of residents, including another CSEA local president, Todd Schmidt, and CSEA labor specialist Howard Baul urged officials to vote down the legislation.

“What is government’s job? It’s to provide services to its people, whether it’s with the winter weather we had this morning, salting and plowing the roads, taking care of our veterans and elderly, taking care of people in need, unemployed,” said Schmidt. “That is what the purpose of government is, not publicly financing campaigns for people who want to get into the political arena. I strongly urge both Republicans and Democrats to vote ‘no’ on this.”

“I’ve watched the legislature have verbal bloodbaths over as little as $1,000 in a proposed budget,” said Baul. “I’ve watched as our county’s services have been reduced or eliminated in an effort to lower taxes. Our county is still suffering with inadequate mental health services…drug crimes are increasing, but we’re considering spending thousands on campaigns. That’s just ridiculous.”

The Board of Elections would be responsible, should the proposal become law, for auditing a candidate’s expenditures. Any attempt to falsify those expenditures would be “punishable as a class A misdemeanor for offering a false instrument.”

Supporter Penny Coleman of Rosendale said that the law would “put the needs of their constituents above those of their donors.”

“What campaign finance reform does is effectively limit the intrusion of big money in our countywide elections,” she said. “When voters feel that only big donors have a say, they have less reasons to turn out and participate in other ways…When voters distrust our political processes, we all lose.”

“I do not understand how any member of this body has the right to come into our homes and take the food off of our tables to finance your own personal gains,” said Thomas Maerling of Wawarsing. “You want to run for office, pay for your run. We’re not talking about funds to repair infrastructure or feed the indigent…we’re talking about politicians buying yard signs, bumper stickers and other political nonsense…You’re stripping us of the right to not fund politicians we don’t agree with.”

Lawmakers in Albany are considering similar legislation on a state level; a Public Campaign Financing Commission was established and must devise how $100 million annually, already allocated in the FY 2020 budget, will be divvied for legislative and statewide offices, according to the official state website.

 

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