The New York State Capitol in Albany. (Photo: Looks Eeseen)
The opinions of lawmakers and government watchdog groups regarding good-governance reforms in Albany’s recently completed 2013 legislative session have a lot in common with the perception of beauty: They are all in the eye of the beholder.
While several measures aimed at cleaning up government were proposed and debated separately in both cham-bers of the statehouse, none came close to becoming law. However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has convened a Moreland Commission to investigate and expose corruption in the state’s political system after the Legislature refused to adopt the anticorruption measures he put forth last spring.
In creating the commission, Cuomo gave it the teeth to investigate by issuing subpoenas and examining witnesses. Thus far it has ordered both the state Board of Elections and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics to retain documents that might be needed for its probe. Cuomo has mandated that the commission issue a preliminary report this December and another at the end of 2014.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that the Moreland Commission will make comprehensive recommendations with real threats of criminal charges, and that combined with public threats in an election year, it will serve as a real motivation for the governor and Legislature to get campaign finance laws fixed,” said state Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat.
Krueger added she also believes the commission will follow the money, which she says often buys or stalls legislative proposals. The commission may also recommend that the LLC loophole that allows limited liability companies to be treated like individual campaign contributors—as opposed to regular corporations, whose maximum allowable contribution level is significantly less—finally be closed.
But Scott Reif, a spokesman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, called the commission a Cuomo power play after lawmakers refused to fall in line with his anticorruption proposal without any compromise. “It was the governor’s decision, and we’ll wait and see what [the Commission] comes up with,” Reif said.
Despite this ongoing tension, Reif characterized the 2013 legislative session as a success on many levels for governmental reform, citing the final enactment of the 2011 ethics reform law and a “restored functionality to the Senate.”
“We talked about the need for additional transparency and reporting requirements so the public would know who’s contributing, and when Democrats were pushing for approximately $200 million in taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns, we opposed it as a nonstarter,” he said. “There are many good uses for that money, including putting it into schools or roads or to pay for property tax relief.”
Mike Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, noted that the Assembly approved campaign finance reform legislation (the Fair Elections Act) this past session, and that getting it actually enacted will continue to be a priority next year.
“We also passed an early voting measure to help increase voter participation, and we hope the Senate votes on it,” he added.
While lawmakers generally pointed out the positives in the 2013 session, government watchdog groups had a more mixed opinion.
“Campaign finance was supposed to get done [in this session] and nothing went anywhere,” said Bill Mahoney, who works on good-government issues for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “And, unfortunately, there were more scandals then we’ve seen in some time, but the Legislature said they were okay with this, because they failed to pass any reform to reduce the frequency of these scandals in the future.”
Mahoney did express some optimism in the Moreland Commission investigating public corruption and abuses of power.
Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey said that while he was disappointed the 2013 legislative session did not enact comprehensive campaign finance legislation, including a matching funds system similar to that in use in New York City, there were some notable achievements, including instituting an open data system that will make more government information available online. He also praised another change: that the Board of Elections will now transfer results electronically, speeding up the time it takes to count votes on election night, he said.
Insight: Good Government
By Dick Dadey
Albany in 2013 featured one of the most corruption-ridden legislative sessions in recent history, as two legislators left office in a cloud of corruption and four more were indicted. Should all four leave office this year, a total of 26 legislators since 1999 will have been forced to leave office in disgrace amounting to an escalating crime wave of corruption.
Citizens Union was formed in 1897 to combat the corrupt, transactional politics of Tammany Hall. Yet now we find a new battle against corruption in light of the state Legislature’s unwillingness to find common ground and pass meaningful campaign finance reform and other anticorruption measures.
Our top legislative priority in 2014 is to polish up Albany’s tarnished reputation by pressing the Legislature to enact badly needed campaign finance laws and stronger ethics oversight. The state Legislature needs to pass campaign finance reform that reduces the influence of money on our democracy. That can best be accomplished by providing matching public funds to privately raised dollars, closing loopholes that allow extremely large donations to party committees, lowering significantly our current sky-high contribution limits, ending “pay to play” by limiting donations from those who do business with the state, tightening regulations to ensures that “independent” political spending is not in reality coordinated with candidates’ campaigns, and ensuring greater transparency of campaign and independent political spending. We must ultimately create an independent enforcement unit at the state level with strong authority to separately administer and ensure compliance with election and campaign finance laws.
On ethics reform, we will work to strengthen laws and enact stricter penalties for those convicted of political corruption and return to the attorney general the power to pursue independently allegations and initiate investiga-tions of public corruption. Beyond that, we must also change the voting structure of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics to remove the ability of a small minority of JCOPE’s members to block an investigation and require their votes be publicly disclosed in certain instances.
These measures are necessary to create the possibility of a more honest state government that is worthy of New Yorkers’ trust.
New York Public Interest Research Group
By Bill Mahoney
Campaign finance reform is a top priority for NYPIRG in the next legislative session. Why is there any reason to believe 2014 will see action undertaken by a Legislature whose long failure to address this issue has amounted to a tacit approval of Albany’s dysfunction?
For starters, one of the weakest campaign finance systems in the country has only gotten worse. The limits on acceptable use of housekeeping funds have been stretched so far as to render them meaningless. This soft money is used in ways that no rational person would claim are not directly connected on an election. This is largely due to nonexistent enforcement by the state Board of Elections, a partisan entity that sits idly by as political committees commit tens of thousands of violations every year. The Board has even created new problems, like the “LLC loophole,” which lets some individuals give candidates more than 10 times the theoretical limit. Finally, nascent super PACs have begun to appear, and are poised to play an increasing role in coming elections.
New Yorkers are fed up with being a national punchline and watching special interests crowd out their voices by opening their checkbooks to campaign committees. While the governor and state lawmakers hope to argue that Albany’s dysfunction is behind us, the crime wave that struck the Capitol in 2013 tells New Yorkers a different story. Against this backdrop and in light of his inability to forge agreement on comprehensive campaign finance reform, the governor has created a Moreland Commission charged with investigating public corruption.
The commissioners are off to a promising start, demonstrating that they understand that conduct that is completely lawful does even more to blemish the statehouse than the headline-grabbing criminal conduct. Reports indicate they have subpoenaed real estate interests to understand how exclusive tax breaks were made into law earlier this year. An exposé of the current “pay-to-play” system coming right before the pivotal 2014 election will do more to force legislators to reform the system than additions to the long list of convicts. If the Moreland Commission continues in this promising direction, then 2014 will finally be the year that a majority of legislators can no longer say they are comfortable with the corrupt status quo.
By Susan Lerner
2014 is an important year for campaign finance and election reform at both the state and city levels. Common Cause/NY will be working to discourage abuses of the city campaign finance system, while working with allies to reinvigorate the effort to enact meaningful reforms to the state system.
The 2013 legislative session ended with a particularly Albany-esque solution to campaign finance reform. Lawmakers ignored the public outcry for a system of small dollar donations built around a core of publicly financed elections and failed to pass Fair Elections, although the measure got closer to passage than ever before. Instead, the governor convened a Moreland Commission which so far seems to be taking its responsibility to investigate public corruption seriously. To that end, we have issued numerous reports that illustrate the ways in which industry and interests abuse the LLC loophole and party housekeeping accounts to circumvent existing laws. We will be evaluating the Commission based on its recommendations, and the governor and Legislature’s willingness to convert them into action.
Although the city campaign finance laws impose strict spending and contribution limits, outside special interests have invested millions into the 2013 elections through independent expenditures. That’s why we’re already working with Councilman Brad Lander to pass legislation that would require PAC-sponsored independent expenditures to list their top five donors on all political advertising. Currently voters receive mailings from, or watch ads by, cleverly named PACs on a variety of issues, yet few voters are likely to have the resources or know-how to research their true origins. That needs to change at both the city and state level.
More broadly, we’ll be working to make elections throughout New York State more accessible, focusing our efforts to pass early voting to make it easier for seniors, working people and parents to get to the polls. We’ll also be working to make the ballot more readable so that once people are at the polls they won’t have to squint to vote. The New York City ballot has used print as small 7.5-point font, meaning that anyone with less than perfect eyesight needed a magnifying glass just to see the candidates’ names. Finally, we will continue our advocacy for National Popular Vote, which has steadily gained support in the last few years.
Tags: Albany, Andrew Cuomo, assembly, Assembly Speaker, Bill Mahoney, Board of Elections, Citizens Union, Common Cause, Dean Skelos, Democrat, Dick Dadey, Fair Elections Act, Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Legislature, Liz Krueger, LLC loophole, Mike Whyland, Moreland Commission, New York Public Interest Research Group, NYPIRG, Scott Reif, Sheldon Silver, state senate, Susan Lerner