Legislative Update: Campaign Finance Reform in Ulster County – Part 2

This is the second installment of our series on Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform in Ulster County. Read Part 1 here.

Ulster People Unanimously Passes a Resolution Urging our County Legislature to Enact Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform

Ulster People Talk Campaign Finance Reform

Campaign Finance Reform led the agenda at Ulster People’s general meeting in May.  Joan Mandle, a 20-year veteran of the struggle, updated us on the dysfunction in Albany. County Legislator Kathy Nolan discussed the comprehensive campaign finance bill she has proposed for Ulster County.  I reported on the progress made by the Legislature’s subcommittee charged with crafting legislation that will (hopefully) give Ulster County our first publicly financed elections.

Ulster People’s Resolution in Support of Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform

After the presentations, Ulster People voted unanimously to endorse the following resolution: 

Ulster People for Justice and Democracy supports the efforts of the County Legislature to pass a Comprehensive Campaign Finance Law.  The two proposals currently before the Legislature (Proposed Local Law 16 of 2018 and  Proposed Local Law No. 21 of 2018) represent a start, but they differ in important ways from each other and from what we would like to see in the final law.

Ulster People would like the final legislation to include:

  • $2500 in public funds to be distributed in total when a candidate has raised $500 in donations of $5 or more including at least 50 individual donations;
  • A 5:1 matching fund ratio;
  • A cap on individual contributions of $250.

This resolution has been forwarded to the members of the Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform Subcommittee.

Work in Progress

This resolution will not be our last word on the subject of Campaign Finance Reform. 

First, it concedes that our goal of a closed system, in which all campaigns are publicly financed and all candidates bound by the same spending limits, just isn’t realistic at this moment.  It is, however, an important step in the right direction.  

Second, it pertains only to those aspects of the proposed legislation that the subcommittee has already taken up– specifically local campaigns.  Statewide campaigns have yet to be addressed.    

How we got there:

The Cap on Matching Funds

The subcommittee has (tentatively) agreed to a $2500 cap on matching funds for local candidates.  That is based on the total amount the subcommittee members believe the County might be willing to budget and the assumption that $3000 (the $500 raised to qualify plus $2500 in public funds) is a reasonable amount to finance a competitive local campaign. 

Ulster People is okay with $2500–as a starting point, though we would like to see a higher number.    

Qualifying for Matching Funds

The subcommittee (tentatively) agrees that, to qualify for public matching funds, candidates must raise $500 in small donations (between $10 and $100), including at least 50 individual donations

Ulster People agrees that 50 individual small donations to a campaign demonstrates a reasonable level of community support and helps weed out frivolous or non-competitive candidates.  But we strongly encourage the subcommittee to adjust their definition of a “small donation” and consider allowing $5 donations to also be counted towards the $500 qualification.  It obviously would take more effort to raise $500 in $5 increments,  but supporters who think their $5 won’t make a difference might think differently when told that when matched 5:1, $5 becomes a more substantial sounding $30.  If the goal is more citizens feeling invested in a candidate and a campaign, why not make the minimum $5?  

The Matching Fund Ratio

After the second subcommittee meeting, Ed and I had an Aha! moment I think worth sharing.  We (Ulster People) had been advocating matching fund ratios of 5:1 or 6:1,thinking candidates would get more public money.  Not so.  

The same qualifying threshold ($500) must be reached, including the same 50 individual contributions, but the maximum any candidate will receive in public funds remains the same. All a higher ratio changes is how long it takes to get there.

The subcommittee has (tentatively) agreed to a 3:1 ratio.  50 donations of $10 each gets a candidate to the qualifying threshold of $500.  When matched at 3:1, $500 becomes $2000, only $1500 of which is public money.  There’s still $1000 left in matching funds and any number of ways to get there (100 $10 donations; 10 $100 donations).

Ulster People wants a 5:1 ratio—if for no other reason than to avoid the weeds.  When matched at a 5:1 ratio, the qualifying $500 would become $2500, maxing out the public funds available.   Done.  It’s simple and straightforward.  Give them the money and be done with the calculations. 

Individual Contribution Limits

Remember that the presumed goal of enacting campaign finance reform is to counter the overwhelming influence of wealth on our political process.  But candidates who opt into this public financing program are free to continue raising money even after maxing out their public money.  The only constraint is the legal limit on individual contributions.  The subcommittee has (tentatively) agreed to a limit of $500.

Ulster People believes that a $250 is limit is one we can live with, though we would prefer it to be lower.  A lower cap on individual donations doesn’t mean that some candidates with deep pocket donors won’t outraise and outspend their opponents, but it does make buying an election proportionally harder– and the voices of small donors are proportionally augmented.  

The subcommittee has yet to resolve some tricky issues, among them:  Who will be responsible for oversight?  How much will the county have to budget to keep the program adequately funded?  Does it make sense to introduce legislation at the local level first and at the statewide level sometime in the future?   

To be continued….

Make Your Voice Heard

The subcommittee has now met three times and are scheduled to meet next on June 13th (6-8 PM at the Library, 6th floor of the Ulster County Office Building).  Tracey Bartels, Chair of the UCL, and the two Ulster County Board of Elections Commissioners, Ashley Dittus (D) and Tom Turco (R), are scheduled to appear to discuss, among other things, how the program might best be overseen. The public is welcome and encouraged to come.

Join Our County Legislature Observers Group

The Ulster County Legislature (UCL) Observers Working Group attends Ulster County Legislative and standing committee meetings and reports back to our larger body. Our attendance at the Legislature’s regular sessions, at committee meetings and at scheduled public hearings is seen by our endorsed candidates as support and is much appreciated. It’s also a great way to find out what is on their agenda and get to know the individuals who represent us. Please consider going!

Upcoming meetings of the Ulster County Legislature

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Skip the Straw Law passes UCL!

Chalk up a win for sanity!

On Tuesday May 21, the Ulster County Legislature passed LOCAL LAW NO. 20 of 2018 (A Local Law Requiring Restaurants And Fast Food Service Establishments to Provide Plastic Beverage Straws Solely Upon Request), otherwise known as “Skip the Straw,” 14-7, with all Democrats, plus Heidi Haynes, C-Stone Ridge, and Craig Lopez, R-Shawangunk, voting in favor.

Final approval rests with Pat Ryan, who was sworn in as the new County Executive on June 9.

Ulster People advocated strongly for passage, passing a unanimous resolution in support of the proposed law at our general meeting in May, that was read aloud prior to the Legislature’s vote.

Ulster County banned the use of polystyrene by the food service industry in March 2015 and a ban on single-use plastic bags is scheduled to go into effect in July. In fact, we led the way for the statewide bag ban, which takes effect in March 2020.

Fun fact: Malaysia and the Philippines are among those countries fed up with being our plastic waste dumping ground. Adding insult to injury, we then blame them for polluting our oceans. They’ve decided their best option is to send it back. Hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic waste in thousands of containers are heading back home, back to their countries of origin. Ball’s is whose court?

Skip the Straw isn’t THE answer to the crisis in our oceans, but it’s another small step in the right direction! Nothing wrong with celebrating small victories — as long as we don’t lose sight of the big picture.

If you are feeling brave, check out this heartbreaking video of a chef preparing a fish.

Skip the Straw Law

Not the Last Straw, but a step in the right direction.

On Thursday, May 9, the Ulster County Legislature’s Energy and Environment Committee approved passage of the “Skip the Straw Law”  (Proposed Local Law Number 20 of 2018:  A Local Law Requiring Restaurants And Fast Food Service Establishments Provide Plastic Beverage Straws Solely Upon Request).  The proposed law will be voted on by the full Legislature on Tuesday, May 21. As always, you are invited/encouraged to come make your voices heard.

This law does NOT ban plastic straws!  You can still have your plastic straws – all you have to do is ask.  It is no more than a gentle reminder to businesses and consumers that our oceans are facing a crisis we ignore at great risk.  

According to the Daily Freeman,reaction to the measure has been split among legislators and the public.”  Some feel it is too autocratic and costly for businesses. Some feel it doesn’t go far enough and should include other single-use plastic items, like stirrers and cutlery.  But, as Majority Leader Jon Heppner pointed out, amending the law would trigger more public hearings, more debate – and more delay. “It’s a step in the right direction.

At Ulster People’s May 20 general meeting, I will be introducing a resolution in support of the Ulster County Legislature’s “Skip the Straw Law.”

Fun fact:  

According to the international Earth Day Network, if we don’t change our ways, by 2025, the oceans will contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish. By 2050, we’re looking at an ocean that will be home to more plastic (by weight) than fish.  

Corporations, municipalities, and even national governments are implementing bans on plastic straws.  Starbucks has committed to eliminating them by 2020, thereby eliminating more than a billion straws a year.  So have Hyatt, Hilton American and Alaska Airlines, and Royal Caribbean. The E.U. banned them in April. Seattle and Malibu have banned them in 2018.  San Francisco and New York are considering proposals. And on May 13, Ron DiSantis, the Republican Governor of Florida, vetoed a bill that would have prevented local governments from passing plastic straw bans: the Sanibel, Ft. Myers Beach and Miami Beach plastic straw bans stand!

Another Fun Fact:

Common wisdom says paper straws are 6 to 10 times more expensive than plastic. But public pressure has created new markets for reusable straws made of materials like paper, silicone, stainless steel, glass and bamboo.  And for a disposable alternative: I ordered a 200-Pack of 100% Plant-Based Compostable/Biodegradable Flexible Alternatives for $8.99 (about .7 percent more) from Amazon. Report to follow arrival.

Weigh in on Skip the Straw!

Please consider coming  to the May 21 meeting of the Ulster County Legislature when a vote will be taken on the “Skip the Straw Law.”  You needn’t speak – your presence alone reminds our legislators that we are paying attention and that we care. If you do decide to speak (please do!), remember to show up a few minutes early to sign up.

Ulster People’s next general meeting

(at which I will present my resolution to support the “Skip the Straw Law” to our voting members) will focus on Fair Elections and Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform at both the state and local levels. It is open to the public.   Please come!

Legislative Update: Campaign Finance Reform in Ulster County

Campaign Finance Reform, in various iterations, has been before the Legislature for at least 5 years. Why hasn’t it passed yet?

In June of 2018 Democrats took a majority in the county legislature for the first time since Ulster People’s founding. Our organization was hopeful that some legislation we’ve long advocated for would finally be passed. At the top of our list was comprehensive campaign finance reform. But with two Democratic proposals on the table, Democratic infighting has stalled any progress.

Trying (and Failing) to Make Sense of the Stalemate

During Ulster People’s endorsement interview with Kathy Nolan (incumbent candidate for Ulster County Legislature District 22), we asked about the status of the campaign finance reform bill she introduced in the legislature (Proposed Local Law 16 of 2018).

Nolan expressed deep frustration that her bill and another similar one, sponsored by Dave Donaldson (Proposed Local Law No. 21 of 2018) had been held hostage in the Laws and Rules Committee, which Donaldson chairs, with no resolution in sight.  Donaldson promised a sub-committee, but it was never formed. Public hearings on the bills were postponed nine times.

That is truly a sorry state of affairs.

Showing UP

At Kathy’s suggestion, I attended the April 15 meeting of the Laws and Rules Committee.  Donaldson was not there and Kevin Roberts, as deputy, chaired the meeting. Other committee members present were Jon Heppner, Hector Rodriguez and Ken Ronk.  Kathy also came. Roberts gave me permission to speak. (I did so as an individual, not as a representative of UP because we had not yet discussed the issue formally and come to any conclusions about our position.)  So I simply told the gathering that campaign finance reform was a serious concern to me and to many of my friends, that I was not speaking in favor of either of the two bills, but that I felt that the delays had gone on for way too long and it was time to get this sorted and passed.

To my astonishment, everyone took out their calendars, a sub-committee was convened on the spot and a date was set for a preliminary meeting four days later.  Public invited.

Finally, Some Movement

Four UP members attended that first meeting (Ed Kowalewski, Elisa Tucci, Todd Wolgamuth and myself).

It was largely organizational.  A draft of the proposed legislation for circulation to all the legislators is planned for June 13th and a June 26th resolution deadline was set, with a floor vote of the full legislature planned for July (before everyone gets too involved with the budget).  Between now and then, the sub-committee will meet 4 more times (May 2, May 16, May 30 and June 13). Public invited.

This is a tremendous opportunity for Ulster People to take part in a decision-making process that will profoundly affect how our local democracy functions.  

Make Your Voice Heard

The next sub-committee meetings are on May 16, May 30, and June 13th from 6-8 PM at the Ulster County Office Building, 6th Floor. These meetings are open to the public, and we encourage you to attend and make your voice heard!

What’s At Stake

At issue:

  • What cap will be placed on spending limits?
  • How do we define “minimum” and “small”? To qualify for the program, candidates must collect a “minimum” number of “small” donations from the community they seek to represent.  This both encourages engagement between voters and candidates who seek to represent them and ensures that a campaign relies on local support, not special interests or out-of-district influence. Both minimum and small need to be defined.
  • The ratio at which contributions will be matched needs to be established.  Will it be 1:1, 3:1, 6:1? Consider the impact of a $10 donation becoming a $20 donation (1:1).  Now consider a $10 donation becoming a $70 donation (6:1). 6:1 is obviously a far more substantive amplification.  (NYC’s model uses 8:1 and, at our last general meeting, Ulster People discussed a 5 or 6:1 was a good place to start our negotiation.)

When enacted, comprehensive finance reform will:

  • establish the amount of public funding available for qualifying candidates who opt into the program;
  • place limits on contributions from individuals or groups;
  • set strict limits on contributions from appointees;
  • and set the total amount of public money to be set aside to fund the program and how it will be administered and overseen.

For a deeper dive into these issues, check out the Brennan Center for Justice’s whitepaper The Case for Small Donor Public Financing in New York.

Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform should be passed NOW. To fail would be a tragic missed opportunity. We can help make that happen.

Learn more about campaign finance reform at our general meeting on May 20

Ulster People’s next general meeting will be on the topic of Fair Elections & Campaign Finance reform. Joan Mandle, a former Colgate Professor who has been involved in the issue for 20 years, will update us on the dysfunction in Albany. County Legislator Kathy Nolan will discuss her comprehensive campaign finance bill for Ulster County.

The Ulster People voting membership will also consider a resolution in support of passing small donor public matching funds legislation in Ulster County.

Join Our County Legislature Observers Group

The Ulster County Legislature (UCL) Observers Working Group attends Ulster County Legislative and standing committee meetings and reports back to our larger body. Our attendance at the Legislature’s regular sessions, at committee meetings and at scheduled public hearings is seen by our endorsed candidates as support and is much appreciated. It’s also a great way to find out what is on their agenda and get to know the individuals who represent us. Please consider going!

Upcoming meetings of the Ulster County Legislature

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Getting on the Ballot in NY State Part 2: Caucus or Petition?

This post is an excerpt from our forthcoming The Ulster County Electoral Field Guide, developed by Ulster People Vice Chair Penny Coleman. We have done our best to ensure its accuracy as of March 2019.

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Getting on the Ballot: Caucus or Petition

Party nomination of candidates for elective office is made at either a party caucus or in a primary election.  In Ulster County, petitioning is used for all state and county-wide offices, legislative seats, and some town offices.  If more than one candidate from the same party submits enough valid petition signatures, there will also be a primary election.  The City of Kingston and the Towns of Woodstock and New Paltz have switched to petition, but in other towns the caucus is still used.

Continue reading “Getting on the Ballot in NY State Part 2: Caucus or Petition?”

Getting on the Ballot in NY State Part 1: Background

Getting on the Ballot in New York State - Part I: Background

This post is an excerpt from our forthcoming The Ulster County Electoral Field Guide, developed by Ulster People Vice Chair Penny Coleman. We have done our best to ensure its accuracy as of March 2019.

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New York’s Election Laws (Background)

Election laws and procedures are different everywhere you go in the U.S. and at every level of federal, state and local government.  The way things are done in Ulster County might be similar to the way things are done in Columbia or Green, but don’t count on it. It’s always best to make sure you understand what the specific local rules are for the office you are seeking. Check with the BOE and never assume that what was true for last year’s election will be true for the next.

Image by Let NY Vote

Some background on New York State Election Politics:

If you think voting restrictions are only a southern shame, think again.  New Yorkers have endured some of the most restrictive voting rights laws, and consequently one of the worst records on voter turnout, in the country.  In 2016, we ranked 41st in voter turnout. That was an improvement over 2014, when we ranked 49th, with only 27% of eligible voters making it to the polls.

Continue reading “Getting on the Ballot in NY State Part 1: Background”