Expenditure Limits in the State Public Finance Program

There are many similarities between the New York City and State public funding programs.  One area they significantly diverge is in expenditure limitations.  The New York City program still has expenditure limits for participating campaigns, the State program does not.  State legislators got it right.        

Some of the ideas behind imposing expenditure limits are good ones.  They are meant to level the playing field between candidates so that access to large financial resources is not determinative of election outcomes.  They also help curtail the money chase.  You don’t need to raise more money if you can’t spend money beyond the limit.  It encourages campaigns to spend more time with the voters instead of the donors and reduces the potential for corruption. 

All of these are worthwhile goals.  The problem is expenditure limits don’t account for the elephant in the room; independent expenditures.  When the New York City program was passed, independent expenditure groups were not the major player in political campaigns that they are today.  And with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, corporations and all manner of otherwise regulated organizations can now engage in the political process through making enormous independent expenditures on behalf of candidates. 

Today, expenditure limits do not level the playing field, they only penalize candidates who are facing large infusions of campaign spending from special interests working against them.  If you’re running for the New York City Council and your opponent is supported with half a million dollars in outside spending, is your $207,000 spending limit keeping you on an even playing field?  Of course not. 

Candidates participating in the public funding program are also hindered when they face candidates who do not participate in the program and can spend as much money as they choose.  It is not leveling the playing field to tell a candidate they can only spend $207,000 against a person spending $1,000,000 on their own campaign.  The New York City law has provisions to lift expenditure limits when an opponent spends a certain threshold amount, but if you’re spending large sums of your own money, it is very easy to legally evade the triggering mechanism until it is too late for your opponent.  The City’s Campaign Finance Board even warns candidates in its handbook: “Note: Never assume your expenditure limit has been increased or suspended unless you receive written confirmation from the CFB.” As long as the Supreme Court of the United States equates money with speech and allows individuals and entities to spend as much as they choose on political campaigns, these kinds of campaign spending are here to stay. We cannot legislate such expenditures out of existence.  What we can do is be generous in our public funding of campaigns so that candidates can get their message out effectively, and not hobble their ability to match their high spending opponents.  The New York State Public Funding Program strikes the right balance


Leo Glickman