Tom O'Mara (Courtesy of his website)

ITHACA, N.Y. — In early December, a New York state commission charged with designing a system for publicly financed election campaigns also devised new requirements as part of its binding recommendations that will make it difficult for minor parties to get onto the ballot.

The Public Campaign Financing Commission was created by the legislature in a package of legislative initiatives passed in the waning days of the legislative session in June. The commission was set up to determine the details of a system where the state would match campaign contributions for candidates running for offices like Assembly, Senate or Governor.

Ithaca’s Assemblymember Barbara Lifton supports most of the commission’s recommendations.

“I don’t think the proposal is terrible at all. It is an attempt to emphasize small donors into campaigns, something I’ve always done myself and supported,” said Lifton.

As with previous commissions, like the one that raised legislator’s pay last year, the Public Campaign Financing Commission would propose recommendations in early December which would become law on Jan. 1, 2020, unless the legislature reconvened and voted otherwise.

The chances of that happening were always slim.

Lifton was a proponent of publicly financed campaigns long before Senate Democrats gained control over the state’s upper chamber, breathing new life into the initiative.

Despite being in favor of the recommendations made by the commission, she says that she would’ve likely voted against the use of a commission to write the law.

“I didn’t like that it had been taken out of the hands of the legislature,” Lifton said. “I thought that we should listen to the public, take the time and put together a good bill and not have it go off to a commission, an unelected appointed commission.”

After reviewing polling on the topic and discussing the matter with constituents, Lifton said she began to see waning public support for such an initiative.

“I’m like, oh my heavens, the public doesn’t actually support this,” she said.

Republican state Senator Tom O’Mara didn’t return request for comment but spoke on the Senate floor about his disdain for the use of commissions earlier this year.

“You know, two years ago, the legislature passed a legislative pay commission because we didn’t have the balls to pass a raise for ourself and we’re living with the result of that now,” O’Mara said, referring to the Legislative Pay Commission that recommended a ban on outside income, a measure still tied up in the courts, to the chamber. “Then this year, we created two more commissions.”

Lifton ultimately voted in favor of the end of session legislative package which included the public campaign finance commission and a number of other measures including the creation of a new judge for Tompkins County, a limitations on solitary confinement, marijuana decriminalization and allowing drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants.

The new law created by the commission’s recommendations will permit the state to match candidates’ campaign contributions up to $250. It also lowers the amount an individual can contribute to a single candidate to $18,000 from $60,000.

The most contentious binding recommendation from the commission increases the number of petition signatures that parties need to appear on the ballot to 45,000 from 15,000 or receive at least 2 percent of the vote for Governor or President on their line every other year. The provision passed via a separate 6-3 vote.

This could mean dire thresholds for the Working Families Party, Green Party, Independence Party and other small parties who haven’t met that threshold in previous elections. The only party that would’ve met the new threshold in 2018 was the Conservative Party.

Critics have accused the commission of having instituted the threshold as revenge for the Working Families Party endorsing Cynthia Nixon for the 2018 gubernatorial election. She lost the primary, though won Tompkins county with 56.7 percent of the vote and visited for a rally in an upstate barnstorm.

Vaughn Golden

Vaughn Golden is a freelance radio and print reporter covering politics around the southern tier and central New York. He authors the weekly "Capitol Watch" watchdog report on Ithaca's representatives...