October 18, 2006

Levy Unveils "The Right Thing To Do"

He's calling it a landmark bill. And it's one County Executive Steve Levy has tried for years to pass. With the anticipated support of the Democratic majority of the legislature, last week he debuted a campaign finance bill that, if passed, would "level the playing field."

Rather than fund campaigns through contributions alone, in the future candidates could pay campaign expenses by dipping into one huge pot of money. The kitty would be fed through fees charged to companies that do business with Suffolk County.

Levy and Legislator Lisanne Altman from Nassau County dubbed the fund "clean money" that would free elected officials from even the appearance of being influenced by companies. It would work the other way around as well. The fees would be charged on a sliding scale to amass funds for the pot, ranging from $100 for companies that do under $50,000 worth of business to $5000 for companies who do over $1 million in business with Suffolk. Beyond those surcharges, the contractors would be banned from contributing to campaign funds, as would registered lobbyists, municipal labor unions and political action committees.

Many of the companies that do business with Suffolk County make donations to a variety of candidates and big contributions to others. The proposed surcharge could amount to less than they are currently donating, noted bill co sponsor Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher (D. East Setauket).

Hearing the details of the bill last Wednesday, South Fork Legislator Jay Schneiderman offered tentative support. "That sounds fine," he said. Schneiderman resurrected the campaign finance reform discussion earlier this year, filing a bill that capped contributions from contractors doing business with Suffolk at $500. The measure languished in committee and expired. He resubmitted the bill October 6.

Opponents to Schneiderman's bill argued that it is pre-empted by New York State Election law. Levy's plan clears the pre-emption obstacle because it is voluntary.

Voluntary, but making an offer only the richest candidates could refuse. Legislative candidates from the two major parties need to demonstrate a viable run by raising $10,000 to be eligible for participation in the program. If they opt in to the program, they will receive $20,000 in "clean money" from the blind trust, with a total campaign expenditure cap of $50,000.

"I could have won for $50,000," Schneiderman mused, reporting that he spent $70,000 on his re-election run last year. The program appears skewed to favor incumbents, he said, especially as it affects candidates in the county executive race.

The figures there jump significantly. A candidate must raise $180,000 to be eligible for a grant of $360,000, with a total spending cap of $900,000.

Levy's chief deputy Paul Sabatino offered that by their nature, campaigns are skewed toward incumbents. They have the name recognition and records to run on. What they won't have, under this program, is a war chest that's been built up over time. Levy reportedly has already amassed $1.5 million in his campaign fund. As a participant in the voluntary reform, he'd be prevented from spending any of that money and have to start from scratch.

If he decided not to opt in to the program, and his opponent did, the opponent would still get the $360,000 and wouldn't have to adhere to the $900,000 cap. That's free money, Levy pointed out, noting that few candidates would want to see a challenger receive such a huge sum without having to raise it on the stump.

But it may all be academic as far as the county executive is concerned, since the plan wouldn't go into effect for almost four years. A referendum must be held to pass the measure, and it's too late for ballot consideration this year. That means it goes to public vote in 2007. Levy's financial experts figure it would take another three years of collecting fees to build the trust to necessary levels.

On Wednesday Levy recalled championing a campaign finance reform bill back in 1986. It "got sabotaged" by opponents. Over the years, each time the effort was renewed it was shot down. In 2004 as soon as he came into office, Levy submitted a campaign finance reform bill. With Republicans holding the majority in the legislation, "it went nowhere," his deputy Ben Zwirn recalled. Altman, too, spoke of past failure to enact reform in Nassau. A bill she promoted that prohibited the solicitation of campaign funds from vendors who do business with the county was, she said, "ignored in a bipartisan way." Viloria-Fisher noted her effort in 2002 was also debated and ultimately killed in a "hostile and adversarial environment."

With the Democrats in power, the time is right for the sweeping reform, Levy noted. Acknowledging that the measure would mean a windfall for challengers who traditionally have more difficulty raising money than incumbents, the county executive emphasized, "You don't find people in power passing legislation to limit our own power . . . Is it in our best self interest to do? No. Is it the right thing to do? Yes."

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