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Money in Politics This Week: Government Shutdown Strains Constituent Patience

A roundup with the latest news highlighting the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics and across the nation — and the need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform.

  • Katherine Munyan
  • Syed Zaidi
October 11, 2013

Crossposted at ReformNY

The Brennan Center regularly compiles 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 and Katherine Munyan.

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.


Gov. Cuomo Reportedly Wielding Influence Over Anti-Corruption Commission

Reports allege that the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption is being pressured by Governor Cuomo’s office to limit the scope of its investigations. Although the co-chairs of the commission signed off on subpoenas for several real estate developers that contributed heavily to Albany legislators and received large tax breaks this year, the subpoenas were never sent out. The commission also did not send subpoenas to the New York State Democratic Party, although it did subpoena the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and the State Independence Party as part of an ongoing examination of political party “housekeeping accounts.” William J. Fitzpatrick, the commission’s co-chair said the panel plans on subpoenaing the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee instead. Commission spokeswoman Michelle Duffy stated that though the commission receives input from the Governor’s office, the Attorney General’s office and other outside experts, it is the commissioners’ “judgment and discretion that governs the commission and determines its action.” Common Cause New York, in response to the allegations, sent a letter to Governor Cuomo and Attorney General Schneiderman asking their offices to ensure the panel has the independence to carry out important investigatory work. “We urge you to allow the Commission to fulfill its mission as it deems appropriate,” the letter said. “To do anything less would be a disservice to the outstanding men and women you have appointed to the Commission and a shocking waste of the momentum for meaningful change which its appointment created.”

Post-Star Tells Lawmakers to Reveal Outside Income

This week, the Glens Falls Post-Star editorialized in favor of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption’s request for disclosure of outside income earned by legislators in Albany. In a rare bipartisan response, lawyers representing lawmakers rejected the request. New York State Assemblymen and Senators serve the public for only part of the year and are allowed to maintain outside employment for the remainder. The anti-corruption commission’s concern arises from the potential for conflicts of interests. Republican Senate Co-leader Dean Skelos and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver made $250,000 and $450,000 respectively last year from their law practices. Twenty other states require the disclosure of outside income, and the New York State Bar Association also supports the measure. In a 2011 report, the bar’s Task Force on Government Ethics stated that the “public has an interest in knowing whether a public official has interests with or ties to particular special interests; and the public has an interest in knowing those financial interests that can affect a public official’s actions.”

Good-Government Groups Urge Commission to Recommend Campaign Finance Reform

On Tuesday a number of good-government groups including the New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause New York, the Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters of New York State sent a letter to the Moreland Commission. The organizations encouraged the anti-corruption commission to ensure that comprehensive campaign finance reform remains a priority in any ongoing investigations, deliberations and recommendations. The groups urged that real reform must include four key measures: (1) limited public funding to match small private donations, (2) independent and effective enforcement of campaign finance laws, (3) lower contribution limits including stricter caps for lobbyists and contractors doing business with the state, and (4) better disclosure of political expenditures. “Not including a bold prescription for campaign finance reform will almost certainly allow politicians in Albany to continue to ignore the public call for change,” the letter informed the commission.

Common Cause: Gambling Industry Contributed $3.2 Million in Past Two Years

As a November 5th ballot referendum on legalizing casino gambling approaches, Common Cause New York has released a new analysis showcasing influence of the gambling industry in state politics. Racinos, casinos, and Native American tribes with a stake in gaming have all contributed nearly $3.2 million to political campaigns and committees in New York State during the past two years. Legislative leaders, regardless of political party, have been the greatest beneficiaries of the contributions. The top three recipients include the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee at $414,750, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee at $403,750, and Governor Cuomo at $361, 500. The lawmakers who chair the Racing and Wagering Committees in each chamber have also received large sums in donations for their campaigns: Assemblyman Gary Pretlow (D) raked in $132,000 during 2011 to 2012, and Senator John Bonacic received over $85,000 from gambling interests in 2011.  Common Cause New York executive director Susan Lerner said that “The problem is that the rules of the game are stacked against average voters and the house always wins. We need campaign finance reform now to ensure that politicians are accountable to the people, not the highest pay-out.”


Supreme Court Considers Contribution Limits in McCutcheon v. FEC

This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case challenging aggregate limits on individual campaign contributions. Currently, an individual can give a maximum of $123,200 in total to candidates and parties in a two-year election cycle.   Most of the argument before the Court this Tuesday centered on hammering out the logistics of how campaign financing works, rather than the potential constitutional issues involved.  Justice Kagan, who argued the government’s case in Citizens United as President Obama’s solicitor general, offered up concerns about “special treatment” for large donors.  Justice Breyer suggested returning the case to a lower court to develop the facts. Justice Roberts appeared to seek a middle path, expressing concern about both about the consequences for corruption of lifting the limits and the consequences for First Amendment rights of retaining them.

Second Week of Government Shutdown Strains Constituent Patience

Republican incumbents may face a political backlash over growing public frustration with the government shutdown. Even typically  Republican-leaning big business lobbyist groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are now lobbying congress to come to an agreement on government funding and the debt ceiling “for the sake of the U.S. economy,” in the words of Business Roundtable President John Engler.  Some frustrated trade associations are considering supporting challengers in primary campaigns against the incumbents who have been behind the government shutdown.   In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a conservative stronghold, voters in 2010 elected Justin Amash (R-Mich.) to the House, but, after Amash’s role in the shutdown, many local business leaders are pushing for a more centrist candidate in the next primaries. The Republican Main Street Partnership, a centrist conservative group, has released several statements condemning fellow Republicans, as well as Democrats, for the unwillingness to compromise that has led to the shutdown.

Voter Initiative to Eliminate Dark Money in Montana Gathering Signatures

In Montana, a petition to eliminate “dark money” in state elections is now gathering the signatures necessary to appear on the 2014 ballot. “Dark money” refers to campaign-related spending by groups whose donors are not disclosed. Under current laws, as a general rule, political groups are required to report their donors, but there are ways to avoid disclosure. Non-profits can keep their donors secret if they call themselves “educational groups,” saying they educate about candidates’ positions on issues rather than actually campaigning. If voters approved Montana Initiative 168, the Stop Dark Money Initiative, the law would change to require public reporting of campaign-related spending and donors by all independent groups, and expand the definition of campaign-related communication. Launched by a group of Republican state legislators, the initiative grew out of local concern about the influx of out-of-state money into state elections. To get on the ballot in 2014, supporters will need to collect signatures from 34,000 Montanans, about 5% of qualified voters.

Tobacco Lobbyists Turn Talents to E-Cigarettes

With the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) preparing regulate the e-cigarette industry for the first time, tobacco lobbyists are harnessing decades of experience representing big tobacco to attempt to shape the rules for a new industry.  The FDA says that there is currently not enough research to determine how safe e-cigarettes are and what harmful effects they may have.  In this information vacuum, lobbyists are sweeping in to help guide public policy. E-cigarette company representatives have met with the FDA Tobacco Center dozens of times since September 2012. Lorillard Tobacco, a powerhouse that recently acquired an e-cigarette brand, spent $2.35 million on lobbying last year.  Their lobbying team, with former House speaker Dennis Hastert and several other former congressmen on the payroll, exemplifies the revolving-door between lawmakers and K Street.  Lobbyists are focused on lawmakers on the committees that oversee the FDA, creating the impression the protection of profits may be interfering with the protection of public health in a new industry already earning $2 billion in annual sales.