Every Friday, the Brennan Center will be compiling the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Syed Zaidi.
For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM AND ETHICS NEWS
League of Women Voters of NYS Launches Series of Forums
In the Journal News, Madeline Zevon, president of the League of Women Voters of White Plains, asks voters to help pass campaign finance reform in order to clean up our elections. The League of Women Voters has launched a series of forums around the state to educate citizens about viable solutions to the millions of dollars that flow unchecked into our elections. Governor Andrew Cuomo has already established reform as an important priority following the completion of the state budget. Zevon illustrates how New York City’s reforms 20 years ago drastically transformed the political system, allowing small grassroots donors to participate actively in the government. New York State legislators on the other hand, are still forced to spend an inordinate amount of time raising money for their campaigns, instead of meeting with their constituents or severing their needs. By limiting the size of campaign contributions, closing loopholes, and mandating disclosure from big donors, we can restore this relationship and increase public trust in Albany.
He Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune
In New York politics, the saying “he who pays the piper calls the tune” rings true now more than ever. A small group of rich and powerful campaign donors help to elect their favorite candidates to office, and then call the tune once they reach Albany. As Heather McGee explains in an Amsterdam News op-ed, this process shuts out average New Yorkers as their voices are “overwhelmed by campaign checks bigger than most Black New Yorkers’ yearly paychecks.” Adopting a Fair Elections system, with low contribution limits, timely disclosure of donations and public matching of funds for small donations, can empower citizens to demand and expect more from our elected officials. With these reforms, it would be worthwhile for state legislative candidates to knock on our doors and listen to our concerns, rather than spending all day at $500-a-plate fundraisers with lobbyists.
Auburn Citizen Editorial Asks Albany to Initiate a Public Financing Program
This week, The Auburn Citizen ran an editorial arguing that campaign finance reform is necessary to resolve the dysfunction in Albany. Although the state budget is on track for completion this year, the public is still largely shut out of legislative process. Deal making behind closed doors remains the norm. This can change if we elect more responsive public servants to office. Currently incumbents enjoy remarkable advantages in fundraising. They can obtain a heavy portion of their donations from special interests and mega-donors rather than small, individual donors in their districts. Qualified challengers, fearful of these large war chests, do not compete. Establishing a public financing system and matching small donations can alter this scenario. Earlier analysis by the State Senate demonstrated that there is $240 million in extra revenue available for the upcoming budget. A “portion of those funds could easily help get a public financing program started,” according to the newspaper.
DiNapoli and de Blasio Urge SEC to Push for Corporate Disclosure
In an op-ed in the New York Times, Thomas DiNapoli, New York State comptroller, and Bill de Blasio, New York City public advocate, urge the SEC to create a rule mandating the disclosure of political spending by publicly held corporations. Earlier this month, DiNapoli successfully pressured tech giant Qualcomm to publicly disclose its political spending by filing a suit against the firm. This Tuesday, the Senate Banking Committee voted 21 to 1 in favor of Mary Jo White, President Obama’s nomination to the Securities and Exchange Commission. DiNapoli and de Blasio insist, “if she really wants to make a difference, Ms. White, a former federal prosecutor, should tap into some of that good will in her first days in office and push forward a vital proposed rule on corporate disclosure that the SEC has been considering for over a year and a half.” The reform has been suggested in a petition to the SEC by 10 legal scholars. It has received nearly half a million comments, and virtually all of them in support of the initiative. Currently corporations do not have to reveal contributions to tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations that are used as clandestine vehicles for electioneering through sham issue ads . Pension officials, fiduciaries and regulators all have a compelling interest to ensure that consumers and shareholders have adequate knowledge about how their investments are being utilized by corporations.
Wyoming District Court Dismisses Case Challenging FEC Regulations
On March 19, 2013, the District Court of Wyoming issued an order granting the FEC’s motion to dismiss a suit by the organization, Free Speech. Free Speech is an unincorporated association based in Wyoming with a mission of promoting “free speech, limited government, and constitutional accountability.” The organization planned on using individual donations to finance $10,000 in Internet, newspaper, TV and radio ads independently of federal candidates, political parties or committees. Free Speech challenged the Federal Election Commission’s definition of express advocacy and other requirements for political committees and independent expenditures. The Court dismissed the challenge, reasoning that the FEC’s definition of express advocacy encapsulates Buckeley’s “magic words” as well as their “functional equivalent[s].” As for political committee registrations, the FEC adopted a sensible approach to determining whether an organization qualifies for PAC status. The “Commission’s multi-factor major-purpose test is consistent with Supreme Court precedent and does not unlawfully deter protected speech,” the decision stated.
Lobbying Industry Not in Decline, Merely Hidden
Reports throughout the past year have discussed how the lobbying industry is on the decline due to the recession, Congressional gridlock and the Obama administration’s reforms. However new research from the Center for Responsive Politics indicates that there is more to the story. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of registered lobbyists decreased by 25 percent, while expenditures of the 100 biggest lobbying firms increased by 19 percent. The precipitous drop in the number of lobbyists may be due to changes in reporting rules. The Lobbying Disclosure Act requires regular reports from individuals who make at least two lobbying contacts with covered government officials and spend at least 20 percent of their time on lobbying activities for which they are paid. Lobbyists and lobbying firms may be taking advantage of this feature by working as policy advisors and in other “unlobbyist” positions. More than 46 percent of the lobbyists who were active in 2011 but not in 2012 still work for the same employer, indicating that they have skirted reporting requirements, while still contributing to lobbying efforts.
Two Congressmen Face Ethics Investigations
The House Ethics Committee has commenced investigations to determine whether two Congressmen improperly used their campaign funds for personal expenses. Representatives Don Young (D-AK) and Robert Andrews (D-NJ) also face allegations that they made false statements to federal officials regarding the expenditures. Representative Young is being accused by a former aide of dipping into his campaign treasury for hunting trips, meals and charter flights to Alaska, in addition to separate hunting trips he took between 2001 and 2007, that were paid for by an outside party but went unreported in financial disclosure statements. Representative Andrews faces allegations that he used campaign money to pay for his daughter’s graduation and personal trips to Scotland and Los Angeles. The cost of business-class plane tickets, hotel, food, flowers and gifts for the Scotland trip totals to $30,000. Spokesmen for both lawmakers insist that they did not violate House rules.