How does New York City’s public funding program work?

New York City's program began with an old-f ashioned political scandal. An investigation into political corruption—not an unusual event in New York—snared some prominent city politicians in 1986. Calls for reform went nowhere in Albany, but in 1988 the New York City Council passed a voluntary public financing law. The original law required candidates to agree to contribution and expenditure limits, but provided a one-to-one match for contributions of up to $1,000.49

The 1988 reform was an improvement on the existing law, but over the years the City Council raised the matching ratio and lowered the matchable dollar amount to bring more small donors into the system. Since 2009 there has been a six-to-one match for contributions of up to $175. That means that a $50 contribution, after a $300 match from public funds, turns into $350 for the candidate. The high matching ratio has brought thousands of new, small donors into city elections, and they are a much more diverse group than traditional donors.50

Only individual contributions from New York City residents are matched, and not from all of them. Lobbyists and people doing business with the city can write checks, but their contributions are not eligible for public matching funds. PACs, unions, and nonresidents can give, too, but their contributions are also ineligible for matching.

As with the FECA's presidential election law, candidates must meet certain fundraising requirements to qualify for public funding. Candidates for mayor have the toughest requirement: raising $250,000 in $175 contributions. They can get much larger contributions, but only the first $175 counts toward the $250,000 threshold. City Council candidates only have to raise $5,000, but they have to get that money from at least seventy-five residents of their districts, which means they have to get contributions even smaller than $175.

New York City's program is administered by the Campaign Finance Board (CFB). Unlike the FEC, which has six members, with three Republicans and three Democrats, the CFB has five members and is legally required to be nonpartisan. The mayor appoints two members, the Council Speaker appoints two, and they jointly approve the fifth. There is no way to ensure that appointments made by politicians will be nonpartisan, but the CFB has been notably free of the partisan discord that plagues the FEC.

New York City's program provides only partial financing for election campaigns, which means that participating candidates must raise private money to cover most of their campaign costs. In the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, for example, the four candidates who received public funds got from 60 to 80 percent of their money in private contributions. New York City's program reduces candidates' reliance on private donors, but those donors still provide most of the candidates' campaign funds.51

The biggest donor of all was three-term mayor Michael Bloomberg, whom Forbes ranks as the fourteenth-richest person in the world. He never participated in the public funding program and was the sole donor to all three of his campaigns. The margins by which Bloomberg won his first and third elections were much smaller than the margins by which he outspent his publicly funded opponents, raising doubts as to whether he could have won without his money. New York City's program allowed his opponents to launch campaigns and recruit demographically diverse groups of small donors, which is a good thing in itself. But it might not have been nearly enough to compete effectively against the kind of big money the program was intended to keep out of elections. The 2013 election was the first since 1997 in which both mayoral candidates were program participants.52

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