August 22, 2008

By: Laurence D. Laufer

As Goes Term Limits, So Does Campaign Finance?

In the last decade, competitiveness in New York City elections has increased substantially. The “chicken and egg” question has always been: was term limits or enhanced public campaign financing the key reform? Now comes talk of legislative change or repeal to the two-term limit for NYC officeholders. Should the 36 currently term limited NYC office-holders gain legal permission to seek re-election in 2009, what will be the campaign finance ramifications? For example, some term-limited officials are raising and spending funds at the higher limits the law permits for candidates seeking higher office.  A change in the term limits law could convince some to lower their sights and seek re-election instead. Each such switch potentially creates a campaign finance chain reaction. For example:
  • How will prior campaign spending be treated? If it is subjected to the spending limit applicable to the lower office, will that be a disincentive to accepting spending limits?
  • If so, will the resulting “non-participation” lead to “bonus” matching funds payments for the larger field of opposing candidates that had emerged when the seat appeared to be open?
  • Alternatively, if some of those other candidates decide not to oppose an incumbent, what becomes of the campaign contributions they had already accumulated? Will these function as a matchable warchest that discourages competition in the election after 2009? Or, could these funds be converted to “political action” uses that influence the 2009 election in other, unforeseen ways?
  • How would NYC’s two-tiered contribution limits be applied to funds raised for a city-wide race that will now be used instead for a lower office? Given the current reach of City law to non-participants, “opting-out” doesn’t seem to be an option for avoiding a retroactive contribution limitation.
The danger is that amendments to the term limits law will ignore the campaign finance ramifications.  Silence could lead to chaos for hundreds of potential candidates and affect the disbursement of tens of millions of public matching funds in unforeseen ways.

Tag: New York City