Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) held a press conference in Hauppauge on Friday, June 17, in support of public campaign funding for county offices.
Under a 2017 law, a public campaign finance fund was created to use revenue generated by Jake’s 58 casino. the Republican majority in the County Legislature, which favors the use of these funds for public safety initiatives.
Under pressure to repeal the law, Bellone explained the intention of this experimental program, saying its basis is to maintain “the faith and confidence of the people in the government”.
“For too long, people power has been drowned out by these other stakeholders, has been overwhelmed by them, and it has real consequences.”
Bellone defended the public campaign finance law, saying it achieves two goals: allowing ordinary citizens to run for public office and weakening the power of special interests and party leaders. He suggests that the law preserves the integrity of the electoral process and strengthens democracy.
“For too long people power has been drowned out by these other stakeholders, has been overwhelmed by them, and it has real consequences,” he said. “It has consequences for taxpayers because you get a less effective government, a government that’s not necessarily focused on solving the problems of the citizens it represents, but more focused on those other stakeholders, those interests individuals.”
The county executive stressed that the campaign finance program is not funded by taxpayer dollars. Rather, it is backed by revenue from Jake’s 58 Casino, which Suffolk Regional Off-Track Betting bought last year for $120 million. “I can’t think of a better way to use those dollars,” he said.
Compared to the county’s multi-billion dollar annual budget, Bellone added that this fund is negligible. For this reason, he advocates using this small portion of public revenues to invest in the political process.
“We spend public funds every day with the goal of benefiting the public, whether it’s housing, water quality or a host of other issues,” he said. “We’re talking a little compared to the county’s $3.5 billion budget – it’s practically nothing. Let’s spend this small portion for our democracy.
Jason Richberg (D-West Babylon), Minority Leader of the County Legislature, joined Bellona in championing the program. Richberg has primarily opposed repeal efforts on the grounds that the program has not even been tested, arguing that Republicans in the Legislative Assembly should give it a chance before tearing it down.
“Time and time again we hear in the Legislative Assembly that we are putting money after evil,” he said. “There is funding. We have a plan. Run it and let’s critique it after it’s run. He continued, “Let it be and if you don’t want to join, then don’t join.”
Mercy Smith, executive director of the Suffolk County Campaign Finance Board, reiterated those points. She emphasized the voluntary nature of the program, saying individuals can opt out if they do not want to participate. She also said the program encourages grassroots campaigning, a break from the current practice of soliciting large contributions from special interest groups.
“The program is truly designed to maximize the potential of all Suffolk County residents who have the desire, the courage and the ability to persevere and run for office,” she said.
Smith said the program holds participants to a high standard, promoting transparency in the public disclosure of their campaign finances. Participants are required to be fully financially responsible, adhere to retention and spending limits, comply with board oversight and auditing procedures, and commit to program spending limits .
Additionally, the program does not discriminate on the basis of party, tenure 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 improve our government in Suffolk County.”
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the goal of public campaign finance both in Suffolk and across the country is to put voters at the heart of the political process.
“The purpose of the campaign finance program, a matching fund program, is to center voters in our government process,” she said. “Not special interests, not people who can write oversized checks, but the ordinary people of Suffolk County.” She added: “This system is set up to do just that, using specially designated funds, not taxpayers’ money, to encourage candidates to invite 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 needed to override a county executive veto.