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Bellone vetoes repeal of Suffolk County's public campaign finance program

Mercy Smith, executive director of Suffolk County's public campaign finance program.
Office of Suffolk County Executive
Mercy Smith, executive director of Suffolk County's public campaign finance program.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has vetoed a bill that would repeal its public campaign finance program.

Suffolk is the largest county in the state outside of New York City to have a campaign finance program. It would allow candidates for county executive, comptroller and legislator to access public dollars to run for office.

Bellone said it would be a step backwards for building diversity and equity in county government.

“I fundamentally believe that this bill is critical to our future here,” Bellone said. “We need to do everything that we can to help restore people's faith in government to work, to make government more effective and efficient and to serve the people that it represents.”

The first time the program will be available for candidates running for county executive, comptroller and legislator will be in 2023.

Mercy Smith, the program’s executive director, said the goal is to allow more low-income women and people of color to compete against big donors.

“This program removes financial barriers to entry and levels the playing field and serves to mitigate special interest. It allows equal opportunity for all regardless of personal wealth, or access to large donors and financial support, where they have the ability to really compete and win.”

The Republican-led legislature repealed the program last month, before its first payout for candidates running in 2023. The GOP would rather use the program’s $2.6 million on public safety, like hiring more 911 dispatch operators and Shotspotter gun-fire detection technology.

Bellone argued that not “a dime of taxpayer money” is being used, because the program is funded by tax revenue from Jake's 58 Casino and other off-track betting operations in Suffolk County.

“Just a tiny share — we're talking about about $2 million out of a $3.5 billion budget — to ensure the health of our democracy, to ensure better governance is guaranteed,” Bellone said. “A very tiny investment in our electoral system and in democracy will pay for itself many times over in reducing the kind of cronyism that we have seen, not just here, but in places all across the country.”

Sixty-percent of the legislature — 10 Republicans, a Conservative and at least one Democrat — is needed to overturn Bellone’s veto.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.