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Campaign Finance

Photo from Steve Bellone's Flickr page

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) held a press conference in Hauppauge on Friday, June 17, in support of public campaign finance for county offices. 

Under a 2017 statute, a public campaign finance fund was created to use revenues generated by Jake’s 58 casino. The program, which is set to begin during the 2023 election cycle, is now meeting stiff opposition from the Republican majority in the county Legislature, which favors using those funds for public safety initiatives. 

Under pressure to repeal the law, Bellone explained the intent of this experimental program, saying its basis is to maintain “the people’s faith and trust in government.”

‘For too long, the power of the people has been drowned out by those other stakeholders, has been overwhelmed by them, and that has real consequences.’

— Steve Bellone

Bellone defended the public campaign finance law, claiming that it achieves two goals: Empowering ordinary citizens to run for public office and weakening the power of special interests and party leaders. He suggests the law preserves the integrity of the electoral process and strengthens democracy.

“For too long, the power of the people has been drowned out by those other stakeholders, has been overwhelmed by them, and that has real consequences,” he said. “It has consequences for taxpayers because you get a less efficient government, a government that is not necessarily focused on solving problems for the citizens it represents but focused more on those other stakeholders, those special interests.”

The county executive emphasized that the campaign finance program is not financed through tax dollars. Rather, it is supported through revenues collected from Jake’s 58 casino, which Suffolk Regional Off-Track Betting purchased last year for $120 million. “I can’t think of a better way that we can utilize those dollars,” he said.

Compared to the multibillion dollar annual county budget, Bellone added that this fund is negligible. For this reason, he advocates using this small portion of public revenue to invest in the political process.

“We spend public monies every day with the intent of benefiting the public, whether it’s on housing or on water quality or a host of other issues,” he said. “We’re talking about a little relative to the county’s $3.5 billion budget — it’s virtually nothing. Let’s spend that small portion on our democracy.”

Jason Richberg (D-West Babylon), minority leader of the county Legislature, joined Bellone in defending the program. Richberg primarily objected to the repeal efforts on the grounds that the program has not even been tested, arguing Republicans in the Legislature should give it a chance before tearing it down.

“Time and time again, we hear in the Legislature that we’re putting good money after bad,’” he said. “There’s funding. We have a plan. Run it and let’s critique it after it runs.” He continued, “Let’s let it go through and if you don’t want to join, then don’t join.”

Mercy Smith, executive director of the Suffolk County Campaign Finance Board, reiterated these points. She highlighted the program’s voluntary nature, saying that individuals can opt out if they do not want to partake in it. She also said the program encourages grassroots campaigning, a departure from the current practice of soliciting large contributions from special interest groups.

“The program is really designed to optimize the potential of all Suffolk County residents who have the desire and the gumption and the ability to persevere and want to run for office,” she said.

Smith said that the program holds participants to a high standard, promoting transparency in the public disclosure of their campaign finances. Participants are asked to be fully fiscally responsible, to adhere to conservation and expenditure limits, to comply with the board’s oversight and audit procedures, and to commit to the program’s spending limits.

Additionally, the program does not discriminate on the basis of party, incumbency status or any other criteria. “This program is for teachers, it’s for first responders, police officers, it’s for business owners,” she said. “This program is for anyone who wants to participate and become a public servant and make our government in Suffolk County better.”

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the purpose of public campaign finance both in Suffolk and around the country is to place voters at the core of the political process.

“The whole purpose of the campaign finance program, a matching fund program, is to center the voters in our government process,” she said. “Not special interests, not people who can write outsized checks, but the everyday residents of Suffolk County.” She added, “This system is set up to do exactly that, using specially designated funds, not taxpayer money, to encourage candidates to invite the voters into the system.”

A vote to repeal the program is scheduled for Wednesday. Republicans control the county Legislature with an 11-7 majority. A two-thirds majority of the Legislature, or 12 votes, would be required to override a veto from the county Executive.

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If there is but one positive to come out of the contentious primary season for both the Democratic and Republican nominations for U.S. president, it has been a spotlight on the issue of money in politics.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made “political contributions from the millionaire and billionaire class” a cornerstone target of his campaign, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been forced to respond to her clocking in millions of dollars in compensation for speeches she had given to Wall Street bankers and others while not holding public office. On the Republican side, presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump made it a public point of pride that he was not accepting money from other corporate bigwigs, but instead was self-funded or relying on small grassroots contributions.

Clearly, the electorate is sensitive to big money’s influence on politics. Ask anybody on the street if they feel that gigantic chunks of money are perverting American democracy and, chances are, they will agree with you. And here we are.

New York State watchdogs stood in front of the Smithtown office of state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) on Tuesday to make some noise over his stance on the Senate Republican Campaign and Housekeeping committees accepting some $16 million in contributions, thanks to a loophole in campaign finance law that allows limited liability companies to use a much higher contribution limit than corporations do. With the clock ticking before the legislative session comes to a close on June 16, groups like MoveOn.org and Common Cause New York called on Flanagan and his Republican colleagues who control the Senate to bring a bill to a vote that would close that loophole.

Flanagan did not speak at the press conference, but he did say in a statement that the legislation to close the loophole was a “red herring,” and instead said the state had bigger fish to fry if it was serious about addressing campaign finance reform, like addressing straw donors, for example.

We agree that this LLC loophole is not the end-all solution to campaign finance reform, but it is certainly a piece of it.

There is no doubt about the influence money has on elections and, later on, the votes of those who are elected. Perhaps the problem is so deeply rooted that holding press conferences like the one on Tuesday ends up being more like preaching to the choir than anything else. Some may go into office wanting to remain completely independent, but find that difficult under the pressure of the way our campaign contribution system works.

Whatever it may be, though, We the People have to find ways to unite with bigger numbers behind a common cause if we expect our elected leaders to rehabilitate their addiction to political money.

Olivia Santoro of the Long Island Progressive Coalition speaks beside Susan Lerner of Common Cause/NY outside state Sen. John Flanagan's office in Smithtown on Tuesday. The group advocated for the passage of legislation that would close a loophole allowing limited liability companies to funnel large sums of money to political campaigns. Photo by Phil Corso

Time is running out for the state Legislature to change the way it allows money to influence politics, and Long Island activists took to the Senate majority leader’s Smithtown office on Tuesday to make some noise.

A loophole in the state’s campaign finance laws has become a political talking point for the better part of the past year, allowing limited liability companies to contribute large sums of cash to political campaigns and committees in amounts far greater than the average corporation can. On Tuesday, groups including Common Cause/NY and Moveon.org took to state Sen. John Flanagan’s (R-East Northport) office to draw attention to legislation that was written to change that, with hopes of swaying a vote on the Senate floor before session ends June 16.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY said her group, which investigates public officials and political contributions, found the state Senate Republican Campaign Committee was one of the largest benefactors of what has been dubbed the LLC loophole, bringing in about $5.6 million in campaign contributions from LLCs over the past 10 years — with 68 percent of which coming from the real estate industry. The Senate Housekeeping Committee also netted more than $11 million over the past 10 years in the same fashion.

Lerner argued that as long as elected leaders are receiving such lump sums of money from politically motivated groups, they will never allow for legislation to come to a full vote enacting any kind of change.

“It’s time for the Senate Republicans to stop blocking the necessary reforms,” she said. “The LLC loophole has a warping affect on public policy.”

Flanagan, who the Long Island advocates singled out on Tuesday as one of the benefactors of LLC contributions to the tune of $159,000 over the past 10 years, referred to the legislation as a “red herring that fails to fundamentally address the root cause” of the campaign finance flaws. He said the state needed to be more aggressive in beefing up money laundering laws and targeting straw donors to keep groups from contributing in the shadows.

“If we are going to achieve real campaign finance reform and target corruption, you can’t close one loophole and declare the job done. In fact, one needs to look no further than New York City for evidence of multiple campaign finance transgressions that must be addressed,” Flanagan said. “We need to take additional steps to prevent the funneling of big money through county organizations and directing where that money will be spent, which is already illegal under state law.”

Senate bill S60B has been sitting in the Senate’s Codes Committee since May 9. The bill, which state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D- Brooklyn) introduced, saw success in the Democrat-controlled Assembly in the past before previous versions died in the Senate. In the legislation, Squadron argued that the Legislature must avoid such loopholes that allow “unlimited sums of anonymous dollars to undermine the entire political process.”

Lisa Oldendorp, of Moveon.org’s Long Island chapter, said the political loophole was a threat to democracy in the United States.

“We are sick and tired of the role that money plays in campaigns,” she said. “It’s way beyond time to pass this law. We want the voice of the people to be heard.”

Alejandra Sorta, organizer of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table, which works with working class communities of color to turn the tide of anti-immigrant and anti-worker politics, said the timing was right for such legislation to pass, citing various corruption scandals sprouting up across various local and state governments, which has taken down some major political players.

“In light of persistent corruption charges, indictments and/or convictions stemming from unethical and illegal activity at the hands of some of our most powerful and influential leaders in Albany, communities of color are raising their voices and speaking out against big money in politics,” she said. “We demand concrete electoral reforms that will assure transparency and accountability at every level of government.”