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Suffolk County debates whether to kill public campaign finance program before it starts

Suffolk County Legislature
Suffolk County Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Mercy Smith at a public comment hearing about a bill to repeal the program on June 8, 2022.

The Suffolk County Legislature this week heard public comments on a GOP-backed bill to repeal a law that would allow political candidates to use public money for their campaigns.

The program allows candidates running for office to spend a portion of the revenue the county brings in from the operation of Jake’s 58 Casino and off-track betting facilities. Supporters say it increases the number of candidates who can afford to run, and reduces the impact of special interest groups.

"It's a voluntary program that creates a gold standard of excellence for accountability and transparency in campaign finance," said Mercy Smith, who has led Suffolk County's public campaign financing program since it became operational last June.

She said similar programs throughout the country have been successful at prioritizing small donations from voters over large ones from special interests, which can make elected officials more accountable to their constituents.

But some Republicans, who now have the majority in the legislature since January, said the revenue from gambling belongs to county residents — not candidates. Newcomer Legislator Dominick Thorne, R-Patchogue, introduced the bill to kill the program now, even though it has not yet been fully implemented or used in an election cycle.

“I am the reason why we don't need this," Thorne said. "I was the epitome of a grassroots campaign, and one that was successful.”

Legislator Anthony Piccirillo, R-Holtsville, said he'd prefer that legislators who receive large special interest donations recuse themselves from votes when there’s a conflict of interest.

"We could end this whole charade right now, stop paying this board taxpayer money to operate, and we could have the same exact result we're looking to do without spending a dime of taxpayer money," Piccirillo said.

Lawmakers clashed over whether revenue flowing into county coffers from gambling qualifies as taxpayer money since it's not coming from sales or property taxes.

The legislature could vote on the measure as early as June 22.

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.