How to fund state campaigns?

Tori Uthe

As presidential candidates debate the merits of campaign finance reform on a federal level, two regional candidates disagree on how to fund state campaigns.

As part of her platform,  Paloma Capanna, a Webster attorney and Democratic candidate for state Senate, an-nounced this week she plans to disclose her personal finances and cap the amount of contributions she will accept in her race against incumbent state Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette. She asked the senator to do the same.

But Nozzolio’s office responded by saying Capanna’s proposal includes funding campaigns with taxpayers’ dollars — something Nozzolio, who has represented the 54th State Senate District since 1992, opposes. The 54th District includes the western portion of Ontario County, Wayne County and the Monroe County town of Webster.

“We are not going to be able to bring about change on policy issues unless we look at what goes on during fundraising,” said Capanna.

Justin McCarthy, Nozzolio’s chief of staff, called Capanna’s proposal “hypocritical,” saying Capanna has, in the past, accepted “$15,000 from one labor union” — a charge Capanna denies.

State laws are part of the problem, according to Jim Bowers, political science professor at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.

While funding campaigns with taxpayer money is the practice in other states — and at the federal level — it remains a hot-button issue, Bowers said. It is voluntary and requires citizens check a box on their federal or state income tax returns.

A crucial issue, however, is whether the contributions a candidate accepts make him or her beholden to a wealthy contributor or big business — “who is likely to have access to these members once they are elected,” said Bowers.

 For that reason, limiting donations has appeal. But it can go too far, Bowers said, explaining that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that too many limitations are unconstitutional.

 A study released in 2006 by the Brennan Center for Justice, part of the New York University School of Law, reports that New York state’s campaign finance laws are among the nation’s weakest — “paper thin,” they were called.

“New York is behind in many reforms and the fact that it’s behind in campaign finance reform is a statement of the state’s political culture,” said Bowers.

Capanna ran briefly for Congress in 2006 but dropped out before the primaries to back Democrat Dan Maffei, who lost by a narrow margin to incumbent Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Onondaga. It was running for office on the federal level, she said, that made her aware of the discrepancies between campaign funding for state and federal campaigns.

Capanna is proposing:

• Limiting contributions from individual donors to no more than $1,000, instead of $15,000, for primary and general election funding.

• Limiting contributions from political associations or groups to $2,000, instead of $15,500, for primary and general election funding.  

• Limiting total private contributions to $50,000 and providing public money — tax dollars — for campaigns.

“The goal is to level the playing field and not have candidates running just because they have a lot of money,” said Capanna.

The first round of campaign financial statements for state candidates actively campaigning and fundraising is due on Jan. 15.

Contact Tori Uthe at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 218, or at