Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Lobbying Spending in New York Hits a Record

Posted by NYPIRG on April 15, 2019 at 9:15 am
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After the frenzied fight over New York’s $175 billion budget, it’s not surprising to learn that special interests spent astronomically to influence policy in New York. Last week, the public got to see just how much gets spent to influence government in New York.

In its annual report, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) revealed that a record-breaking $262 million was spent on lobbying in New York last year, an eight percent increase from the year before. The number of lobbyists registered in New York also jumped by nearly 1,000 from the year before. The number of registered lobbyists now exceeds 7,700.

The industries that ranked in the top ten included perennial top spenders – lawyers, unions and health care interests. The healthcare industry was the most active, representing 19% of the registered lobbyists in the state. The real estate and construction industries combined to account for just under 16% of registered lobbyists, according to the report.

But it was ride-hailing giant Uber that roared to the top, spending nearly $6 million.

When New York first started requiring lobbyists to report their spending in 1978, a paltry $6 million was spent. If lobbying spending had merely increased at the rate of inflation, the number would have risen to $22 million in 2018, or roughly one-tenth of what it is today.

During that time – due largely to lobbying corruption scandals – New York’s law became more comprehensive and thus more spending is required to be reported than back in the day. However, the gigantic increase in spending is overwhelmingly the result of interest groups’ efforts to influence policymaking.

And it must be working, otherwise why would they keep spending more and more?

Spending on lobbyists and related public relations campaigns are just one side of the influence-peddling coin; the other side includes campaign contributions from those same interests.

Over the past 30 years, campaign spending on legislative races has also increased dramatically. And those with business before the government are most likely to give.

As one state-created Commission observed, “When running for public office requires enormous expenditures of privately raised funds, challenges to incumbents are all but limited to the most wealthy and well-connected. Moreover, huge campaign costs pressure candidates to maintain political views that do not offend big money.”

After funding the races of successful candidates for office, these special interests then hire well-heeled lobbyists and underwrite public relations campaigns to cash in – usually at the expense of the public’s best interests.

Albany’s political culture has merged both lobbying and campaign financing. So far during the legislative session, Governor Cuomo and legislators have held over 125 campaign fundraisers – the vast majority of them occurring just steps from the Capitol in Albany. Those fundraisers are designed to hit up lobbyists and their clients for campaign contributions. What could be more brazen: lobbyists meeting lawmakers in their offices asking for favors during the day and then handing over campaign contributions to those same lawmakers at nighttime fundraising events?

So what should be done? It’s very difficult to restrict political speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it impossible to limit lobby spending and extraordinarily difficult to limit campaign spending.

Policies are allowed, however, that work to separate the two to protect the integrity of government decision making.

Half the country, for example, places restrictions on the campaign fundraising role of lobbyists. Most do it by limiting campaign fundraising during the legislative session and some take it one step further by limiting contributions from lobbyists, the special-interest clients who pay them, and any connected political action committees. Similar legislation is being discussed in New York.

Let’s hope that Albany limits lobbyists’ campaign donations. The effectiveness of lobbyists should be measured by the depth of their knowledge, not the thickness of their wallets.

President Trump Fiddles While the Earth Burns

Posted by NYPIRG on April 8, 2019 at 8:14 am
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In the 1970s, scientists at major oil companies identified a growing threat – that the burning of oil, coal and gas was contributing to a rapid warming of the planet and that left unaddressed, the existence of civilization was at risk.

Instead of warning the world of this threat, the oil industry chose instead to shutter its global warming research and use its wealth to tell the public that in fact the opposite was true. They were so successful that even today well-meaning Americans think that the science of global warming is still under debate. The industry’s efforts were so successful that recently a well-respected journalist told me that he didn’t “believe” that global warming is largely the result of human activities.

It’s not a belief. It’s a fact.

The Trump Administration is so much more interested in “weaponizing” governmental decision-making in its ongoing battle with its political opponents that it has done all it can to destroy the nation’s efforts to tackle the terrifying threat of global warming.

In August of 2017, the Trump Administration closed the research work of the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment. This group had been charged with providing the national government with scientific advice on how to respond to the increasing possibility of climate catastrophe resulting from global warming.

Like the oil companies of the 1970s, the Trump Administration was more interested in tending to the needs of oil, coal and gas companies than it was to learning from the overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming and assessing what the nation needs to do to mitigate this looming disaster.

The story could have ended there, but New York Governor Cuomo, Columbia University and the American Meteorological Society reconvened the panel, now known as the Science for Climate Action Network. Last week the panel issued a report arguing that Americans are now put at risk as the result of a warming planet and the failure of the nation to act.

The panel stated that the world is experiencing the impacts of climate changes and that it’s only going to get worse. The panel cited the work of the fourth National Climate Assessment released in November of last year. The Assessment, the work of 13 U.S. government agencies, argued that individuals will be harmed by the effects of global warming. President Trump said that he didn’t “believe” the report.

According to the panel, unless the nation organizes itself to act, it is estimated that the U.S. economy will lose $500 billion a year from crop damage, lost labor, and extreme weather damages. The assessment found that rainfall levels and flooding have increased in much of the country and that there is an estimated sixfold annual increase in the area of the U.S. West expected to be consumed by wildfires.

But these warnings have too infrequently resulted in policy changes by cities and states across the U.S., due to a lack of knowledge, political will, or funding. The U.S. has no national sea level rise plan, for example, and the Trump Administration has scrapped rules around building infrastructure in areas deemed particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Even in New York which took the laudable step of convening the Advisory Committee, the rhetoric has not yet matched the needed reality of action. The Cuomo Administration talks about its own efforts to combat climate change, specifically its commitment to ensure that 100% of the electricity used in the state will be powered by non-fossil fuel sources. Despite that public pledge, as of today, the stated goal has not been put into law or enforceable regulation.

According to lore, the Roman Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned.” While historians do not believe that to be true, the meaning today is clear – it describes someone who has been neglecting his duties. When historians look back on the decisions made by the United States over the past few decades—and most importantly the neglect of the Trump Administration—the phrase will be both apt and accurate.

Of course, as Americans who are the most responsible for global warming, we cannot ignore our moral responsibility to act. If Washington won’t lead, citizens must. States like New York must step forward. If current elected officials won’t act, we should elect those who will.

New York Bans Plastic Bags

Posted by NYPIRG on April 1, 2019 at 9:15 am
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A lot happened in this year’s new state budget agreement – from increased spending to the establishment of a commission to develop a voluntary system of public financing for elections. Many of these decisions were consequential, but one will be noticed by all New Yorkers – a ban on the use of plastic shopping bags. The ban goes into effect in one year.

Thin plastic shopping bags have been targeted because their lightweight nature makes them easily airborne. They can be found hanging from tree branches and clogging city drains. They are eaten by wildlife, including cattle and other large animals, and when shredded by birds and other small creatures.

In marine environments, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food. Fish eat them. A number of whales have also died as a result of eating plastic bags. That includes a whale found recently in the Philippines with more than 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Then there’s the latest horrifying news that micro-plastics are now being found in our tap water, and even our bodies.

It’s been estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans annually and the average American throws out 185 pounds of plastic every year. It’ll only get worse unless states and countries act.

And the world has begun to act. So far, at least 127 nations have imposed bans or taxes on plastic bags, according to a United Nations tally through July 2018. Europe began phasing out plastic bags 15 years ago. In March, the European Parliament took steps to ban 10 items most commonly found on European beaches, including bags, by 2021.

The United States, while late to the attack on plastic bags, have seen action at the local level. The most successful model for banning plastic bags comes from California, where they also included a fee on paper bags. Like New York, California has a large, diverse population with large urban areas, extensive rural communities, large suburban regions and a substantial coastline.

After California acted, not only were that state’s consumers able to handle the change in their shopping experience, but there was a significant reduction in the number of plastic bags found on California beaches. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Plastic bags (both the banned and the legal variety) accounted for 3.1% of the litter collected from the state’s beaches during the 2017 Coastal Cleanup Day, down from to 7.4% in 2010.”

If California can do it, why not New York?

New Yorkers use 23 billion plastic bags annually. A significant number of these bags make their way into the environment, threatening wildlife and waterways. New York City alone uses more than 10 billion single-use plastic bags a year. The New York City Department of Sanitation currently estimates that it collects an average of 1,700 tons of plastic bags per week, costing $12.5 million per year in collection and disposal expenses.

Tucked into this year’s state budget, Governor Cuomo and lawmakers agreed to a new law that bans the use of many plastic shopping bags. New York’s ban would grant exceptions to food takeout bags, bags used to wrap meat or deli products, garment bags, and bags sold in bulk, including garbage pail liner bags.

Banning plastic bags was the right move to make – the Governor and the Legislature deserve praise for doing it.

The new law goes into effect in one year yet does not contain a key element found in California’s law – a fee on paper bags. Paper bags are also bad for the environment because of the water, energy, and carbon emissions required to make and transport them.

Instead of a statewide fee on non-plastic shopping bags, the new state law allows, but does not require, cities and counties the opportunity to charge a 5-cent fee on paper bags. This provision will undoubtedly result in a patchwork system across the state. And in those localities that do not charge the fee, an increased use in paper bags will cause solid waste headaches.

Cities and counties in New York should opt-in to the 5-cent fee on paper. The public should call on their local elected officials and encourage them to move to add a paper bag fee as soon as possible. A bonus? The fee goes to support New York’s program that funds various environmental efforts, including recycling, and supports the distribution of reusable shopping bags across the state.

April is the month in which the nation celebrates Earth Day, a day to evaluate how we are doing in terms of preserving the environment. Of course, there is a lot of work still to do. But when it comes to plastic bags, New York has taken an important step in curbing the use of plastics that litters our streets and waterbodies.

Campaign Finance Reform Hangs in the Balance in Albany

Posted by NYPIRG on March 25, 2019 at 8:25 am
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Last week, the debate came to a head over whether New York should create a voluntary system of public financing of elections. The state Senate, which appears to be a supporter, held a public hearing to gather testimony on the governor’s proposed plan.

It was clear there is strong support for establishing public financing in both the Senate and Assembly. Whether it gets done, however, is still an open question.

New York has long been on notice about the failure of its campaign finance laws. Thirty years ago, the final report of the Commission on Government Integrity found that New York’s campaign finance system was a “disgrace” and “embarrassingly weak.” That Commission then scolded state leaders for failing to act, “Instead partisan, personal and vested interests have been allowed to come before larger public interests.”

In 1987, then-Governor Mario Cuomo took a first step toward cleaning up campaign financing in New York State. Corruption scandals at the state and local government levels led to the creation of the Moreland Act Commission on Government Integrity to investigate ethics laws. The Commission issued 22 reports on a wide range of state and local ethics practices and held 17 public hearings, including one in which the governor and attorney general testified on their fundraising practices.

As a result of examining campaign financing practices, the Commission stated, “When running for public office requires enormous expenditures of privately raised funds, challenges to incumbents are all but limited to the most wealthy and well-connected. Moreover, huge campaign costs pressure candidates to maintain political views that do not offend big money.”

In its recommendations, the Commission called for immediate public financing of statewide races and to assess those results before expanding to legislative races. It viewed public financing as a “powerful tool” in curbing the power of organized and wealthy interests, to encourage electoral competition, and free candidates from at least some of their fundraising responsibilities.

Three decades later, New York City has one of the most far reaching and effective systems of financing campaigns for city office – in fact a model for the nation – and it has placed significant limits on the efforts of special interests to control government decision-making.

Yet in Albany, the work of the Commission was largely ignored. New York State still has sky-high campaign contribution limits, still allows unlimited donations to party and legislative leadership “soft money” housekeeping accounts, still permits unfettered campaign fundraising during the legislative session, and still lacks adequate independent enforcement.

In 2013, current Governor Andrew Cuomo created his own Moreland Act Commission to respond to “an epidemic of public corruption that has infected our state.” This Commission, like its predecessor, held public hearings, subpoenaed records, and issued a preliminary report.

A quarter century later, the second Moreland Commission arrived at similar conclusions as its predecessor, “Our investigation – including testimony taken at public hearings – also reveals that public financing systems, like the one in place in New York City, make a real difference, empowering regular citizens, reducing the power of massive checks and special interests, and increasing the accountability of officials to those they serve.”

Those findings were also ignored. Over the past thirty years, the scandals have not stopped. The failure to enact meaningful reforms after the first Moreland Act Commission’s reports sent an unmistakable signal – that Albany’s “pay-to-play” system was to be kept in place.

As a result, scandals continued and have continued. The state’s abysmal campaign finance system is inextricably linked to the state’s anemic democracy: It turns off voters by sending the message to average New Yorkers that your participation doesn’t matter.

Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers are elected to solve problems. Corruption and a disgraceful campaign financing system that fuels that corruption is a big problem. They’ll be making a big decision this week to continue to ignore or act upon the corruption crisis in state government.

Will Albany make history and address corruption? If so, they must act.

Sunshine Week in America, but Still Darkness in Albany

Posted by NYPIRG on March 18, 2019 at 6:56 am
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Last week was Sunshine Week; an annual celebration of the benefits of open government and discussion about ways to safeguard and expand upon current transparency laws. If the success of a representative democracy hinges on the informed consent of the governed, it is critical that the public know as much as possible about the information used and the processes by which its representatives spend tax dollars, act on policy recommendations and administer the laws.

As we all know, the reason such a week is needed is that our public servants far too frequently mislead the public and secretly make decisions that benefit favored special interests. For example, last week a former top aide to Governor Cuomo was sent off to prison to begin a six-year sentence for public corruption.

In his case and others that also resulted in corruption convictions, the evidence laid bare by federal prosecutors showed sweetheart deal making between government officials and lobbyists, “pay-to-play” campaign practices that hinged on big campaign contributions from those receiving lucrative government contracts, and a web of shadowy corporate entities created by the government through which billions of taxpayer dollars were spent outside of the normal transparency measures required of traditional government entities.

At the heart of some of the biggest scandals in modern New York are two non-profits set up by the government to act on its behalf. Since these two entities are technically not government, they fall outside of the normal public accountability measures found in the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws.

Fort Schuyler Management Corp. and Fuller Road Management Corp. are the two entities that have been at the center of the state’s economic activities as well as central to major corruption schemes. Fuller Road was formed in the mid 1990s and Fort Schuyler has been around since 2009. For years, Fort Schuyler and Fuller Road have operated with little scrutiny. They have been at the core of the state’s nanocenter enterprise that has spread across New York.

Fort Schuyler owns and oversees the massive projects at the center of the Buffalo Billion, a 2012 plan advanced by the governor to spend $1 billion to revitalize the state’s second-largest city, as well as other projects in Buffalo (including SolarCity), Albany, and Utica.

The corruption cases brought by the U.S. Attorney that led to the convictions of the governor’s top aide as well as the leader of New York’s hi-tech economic development efforts highlighted that the secrecy surrounding their deal making contributed mightily to a culture in which the risk of corruption grew.

That lesson has been taken to heart by the state’s top transparency office. The New York State Committee on Open Government – a state agency – recommended in its most recent annual report that any “entity created by a government agency or a subsidiary or affiliate of a government agency is, in reality, an extension of the government. The records of such an entity must fall within the coverage of FOIL.” FOIL—the Freedom Of Information Law—is the state law that gives the public the right to receive copies of government records unless they fall within one of a limited number of exceptions.

The annual report cited the U.S. Attorney’s investigation, stating “A significant element of a recent investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York focused on non-profit entities associated with the State University of New York (SUNY). Efforts by the news media to gain access to records of those entities have been rebuffed, despite the Committee’s view that many are and have been required to comply with FOIL.”

During the current budget discussions, there appears to be agreement that the role of the state Comptroller—New York’s independently-elected fiscal watchdog—should be strengthened in overseeing these types of non-profit companies created by the government to supplement the government’s work.

Yet, there appears to be no movement to empower the public through more transparency in economic development decisions. There must.

It’s long past time that New York State and local governments comply with the highest standards of openness and public accountability. Unfortunately, after years of convictions of top ranking officials in both the Executive and Legislative branches, far too little has been done to bolster the public’s ability to better monitor its own government.

As we reflect on the benefits of transparency during Sunshine Week, this year the time is ripe to overhaul what ails Albany.