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Money in Politics This Week: NY Senate Fails to Pass Reform Bill, Pushes Through Gambling Expansion

Last week, the New York Senate failed to pass public financing for state elections, but voted through a bill expanding casinos after accepting millions in contributions from the gambling industry.

  • Syed Zaidi
June 25, 2013

Crossposted at ReformNY.

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 Fails to Clear Senate by Two Votes

Last week, New York State legislators failed to pass a campaign finance reform measure that would end Albany’s dysfunction. A bill had passed the Assembly but could not get through the Senate before the end of the legislative session last Sunday. The coalition of Republicans and Independent Democrats that control the Senate refused to bring any of the campaign finance reform bills to the Senate floor for a vote, not even the one that the IDC introduced. Senators supportive of Fair Elections were left with no choice but to bring the bill to a vote through a “hostile amendment.” Senator Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) introduced an amendment for public financing of elections to a bill authorizing lever machines for run-off elections. The amendment failed by only two votes. Addressing the press, Senate Democratic Conference leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins asked the Senators to “reverse course, pass campaign finance reform and return government to the citizens of New York.” After the vote, Karen Scharff, Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York, said that “Unfortunately, the leadership coalition that rules the State Senate is apparently comfortable with the atrocious pattern of corruption in state government, along with the dismal public approval ratings and the lack of public trust that accompanies this corruption.”

Governor Cuomo Announces Commission to Investigate Legislative Corruption

Shortly after introducing his own bill on campaign finance reform, Governor Cuomo asked the Senate leadership to bring Fair Elections legislation to the floor for full consideration. He stated that Senators “Klein and Skelos should bring this bill, as well as the other bills that would address public corruption, to the floor for a vote of the full Senate before the session concludes this week.” Following the refusal of the Senators to bring the bill to the floor and the subsequent lack of legislation addressing corruption – a priority for Governor Cuomo – the governor announced that he would launch a Moreland Commission to investigate potential corruption in the legislature.  “I don’t believe in the concept of self-policing,” Cuomo said at a press conference. The governor insisted that the commission would review existing campaign finance laws, send corruption cases to the DA if any are discovered and make recommendations for improving the way we finance campaigns. He stated that unresolved issues including campaign finance reform, public financing and the broader anti-corruption measures would be election issues in 2014.

Strong Majority Support Public Financing and Matching Small Donations in NY

According to a June 17th poll by the Siena Research Institute, a plurality of New Yorkers—44 percent—wanted the state legislature to address corruption as a number one priority before the end of the session, including voters across every region, party and demographic group. When asked specifically whether they support creating a system of public financing in New York that would limit the size of political contributions to candidates and match smaller contributions made to candidates for state offices, 61 percent answered in the affirmative. Despite popular support for these legislative agenda items, the New York legislature adjourned without passing a single anti-corruption reform.

Post-Standard Editorial Criticizes Senate for Inaction on Corruption

Last week, the Syracuse-based Post-Standard urged Albany legislators to “do big things in the final week of the legislative session.” At the top of the list was addressing corruption in state government. The Utica Observer Dispatch echoed the sentiment on Friday. Governor Cuomo proposed a broad set of laws including stricter limits on campaign contributions and party spending on behalf of candidates, public financing of elections to match small contributions from individuals, and new public corruption crimes in an attempt to reduce the culture of corruption in Albany. Despite quickly passing bills on casino gambling and tax-free zones for startup businesses, the legislature did nothing to clean up Albany. This week the Post-Standard again editorialized, this time criticizing the legislature’s failure. “Their inaction is beyond shameful, coming on the heels of the arrest of two legislators, the jailing of two more and the resignation of a third—and that’s just this year… The IDC’s entire reason for being was to bring progressive legislation to the floor, but it never put up its own reform bill for a vote.”

Gambling Bill Passes after Millions in Campaign Contributions from the Industry

Despite New Yorkers’ clamoring for comprehensive campaign finance reform, as shown by polls, petition campaigns, and countless op-eds and editorials, the legislature did nothing to address the crisis of corruption in Albany this year. Apparently, legislators had other priorities: they passed legislation aimed at expanding casino gambling in the Empire State. One possible reason that casino legislation was favored over anti-corruption reform? Over two million dollars in campaign contributions from the gambling industry to Albany politicians in the last two years, plus $2.6 million to the pro-Cuomo Committee to Save New York. In fact, a provision that would have banned campaign contributions from casino operators was quietly removed from the bill at the last minute.

Unnecessary Tax Breaks for Real Estate Developers Were Passed in an Omnibus Bill in January

Although the New York legislature failed to enact reform legislation to target corruption in Albany this year, it had no problem passing a massive tax cut for millionaires in New York City. Five luxury high rises in Manhattan are now eligible for tax breaks — estimated to cost New York City tens of millions of dollars in property taxes. The developers of four of the projects, their relatives and affiliated companies gave $1.5 million to various state campaign committees during 2008–12. The contributions included $53,000 to the state Senate Republican campaign treasury and $34,000 to the war chest of Assembly Democrats. Nearly $150,000 was also donated to Governor Cuomo’s campaign, who signed the bill on January 30th. “The reason Albany lawmakers agreed to spend millions subsidizing luxury housing for the wealthy is clear: Developers who contributed to their campaigns . . . expected to be rewarded,” according to Jaron Benjamin, president of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. This giveaway to some of the richest downstate residents was apparently irrational as a matter of policy, since it benefitted developers who have already almost finished their buildings. As Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) pointed out, “A tax incentive given retroactively is the stupidest thing in the world.”