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 Katherine Munyan and Syed Zaidi.
For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.
Good Government Groups Ask Gov. Cuomo for Reform
Thirty good-government, trade and faith-based organizations penned a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday, urging him to include public financing of state campaigns in his annual executive budget proposal. “New Yorkers have waited long enough for action on curbing corruption and reducing the undue influence and role of campaign money in state government,” the letter stated. Governor Cuomo can add campaign finance reform in his executive budget proposal set to go out next Tuesday. This would force the state legislature to negotiate on anti-corruption measures. According to the groups, the “state budget process allows the best opportunity for making campaign reform a reality in 2014.” The Brennan Center, Common Cause NY, the New York Public Interest Research Group, the State Council of Churches, the Long Island Progressive Coalition, and the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce were just some of the signatories to the letter.
Common Cause: Pro-Fracking Interests Spent Millions on Politics
A new Common Cause/NY report released Monday highlights the role that money plays in the policy debate over allowing hydraulic fracturing in New York. Since 2007 and up until July of last year, pro-fracking businesses, trade organizations, and unions spent $15.4 million on campaign contributions to state lawmakers, who are set to determine the fate of the practice in New York. By comparison, anti-fracking environmental organizations, unions and advocacy groups spent merely $1.9 million on campaign contributions during that period. In addition to campaign contributions, both sides spent huge sums on lobbying lawmakers, according to state records. Pro-fracking interests have focused contributions on the parties in power. The Senate Republicans and the four-member Independent Democratic Conference—who jointly control the chamber—received $3.1 million and $194,000 respectively, whereas Senate Democrats garnered only $785,000 from pro-fracking groups. In the Democratically controlled Assembly, the Democrats obtained $1.3 million and Republicans acquired just $643,000. Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY, noted that “Hydraulic fracturing has been one of the most polarizing issues in recent history, with no shortage of political money invested by pro-fracking interests to achieve a favorable outcome… New York State needs comprehensive campaign finance and lobbying reform to assure New Yorkers that public policy is based on their interest, not the special interests.”
Norden: Public Financing Is More Effective than a Constitutional Amendment
Last week, Sam Fedele, coordinator of Move to Amend-Rochester, authored an op-ed in the Democrat & Chronicle criticizing the Moreland Commission’s recommendations to fix the perilous state of corruption in Albany. Fedele argued that in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the only remedy is a constitutional amendment that allows all money spent on politics, including independent expenditures, to be restricted. Lawrence Norden, Deputy Director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, responded with an op-ed of his own. He reasoned that although passing a constitutional amendment is a worthy endeavor, it could take years, if not decades. On the other hand, comprehensive campaign finance reform, including public financing, can be enacted this year. The proposal came shy of passing the State Senate by just one vote last year. Furthermore, Fedele conflates state lawmakers from New York City with city lawmakers from New York City: “18 of the 19 corrupt Senators and Assembly members cited by the commission represented districts from within that very same New York City matching system,” he claims. However as Norden points out, those 18 lawmakers ran for state office under the state’s campaign finance system, not for city office under the city’s public financing system. In fact, corruption in New York City has decreased since public financing was instituted in 1989. In 2012–2013, individuals were responsible for 93 percent of all contributions in city elections, compared to only 31 percent of all contributions in state legislative elections—the remainder of the contributions were made by special interest groups.
Trade Organization Files Suit over Washington’s Campaign Finance Laws
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a Washington D.C.-based trade organization, has filed a civil-rights lawsuit alleging that Washington State’s campaign finance laws violate the federal and state constitutions. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the GMA in October for concealing its donors to a $10.6 million fund opposing a state ballot initiative that would have mandated labeling genetically modified foods. The GMA agreed to identify its donors, but is still fighting financial penalties for violating state disclosure laws. The GMA argues that Washington’s requirements that it report donations as a political committee put a burden on it “not justified by any substantial government interest.” The GMA also claims the Washington law unconstitutionally discriminates against out-of-state citizens, since it bars political committees from transferring money to another political committee unless at least ten of its donations came from Washington donors – meant to make it more difficult to shuffle funds to conceal donors.
FEC Staff Concluded Crossroads GPS Likely Violated Campaign Finance Laws in 2010
A recently-released Federal Election Commission (FEC) report reveals that the FEC’s legal department concluded in 2012 that Crossroads GPS probably violated campaign finance laws with its spending in the 2010 midterm elections. A non-profit “social welfare” group founded by Karl Rove, Crossroads GPS is a conservative spending powerhouse that raised over $200 million in 2012. Categorization as a “social welfare” non-profit requires that an organization spend less than 50 percent of its budget on campaign-related activity. FEC staff determined that Crossroads GPS surpassed this limit in 2010. If the Commissioners had agreed, Crossroads would have been required to register as a political committee. That would mean revealing some of the deepest pockets in conservative politics – one donation alone in 2012 was for $22.5 million. The FEC report recommended further investigation of Crossroads GPS. However, because the ideologically-split Commission deadlocked with a 3–3 tie on consideration of the report in December, no action will be taken.
Feds Investigate Christie’s Potential Use of Relief Funds for Campaigning
The Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is investigating New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s use of relief funds allocated by the federal government after Superstorm Sandy. The federal government financed a $25 million ad campaign encouraging tourists to return to the Jersey Shore. The HUD investigation is focused on a television advertisement series dubbed “Stronger than the Storm,” which featured Christie and his family and aired in April as Christie was beginning his reelection campaign. The winning bid for the advertisements cost $2 million more than the losing proposal, which did not feature the Christies. Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) requested the investigation in August, alleging that Christie abused the funds for campaign purposes. The HUD audit will last several months and culminate in an official report.
Conservatives Criticize Choice of Obama Donor to Lead IRS Investigation
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) are requesting that the Department of Justice (DOJ) remove DOJ trial attorney Barbara Bosserman from the investigation into the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The DOJ is investigating allegations that the IRS targeted conservative groups for unwarranted scrutiny of their tax-exempt status, and Bosserman has been tapped to lead the investigation. According to federal campaign finance records, Bosserman has donated a combined $6,750 to the Democratic National Committee and Obama’s election campaigns between 2004 and 2012. Representatives Issa and Jordan, as well as several of the conservative groups suing the IRS, have criticized her appointment as political because of these donations. DOJ spokeswomen Dena Iverson has responded strongly to their criticisms, characterizing their recommendations as a violation of equal protection law since “it is contrary to department policy and a prohibited personnel practice under federal law to consider the political affiliation of career employees or other non-merit factors in making personnel decisions.”