Money in Politics in NY: July 27th Edition

1. Even with the legislature out of session, lobbyists and politicians are swinging clubs together at golf fundraisers. The Albany Times-Union reports that the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee recently held its annual fundraiser at the Wiltwyck Golf Club. The Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee and the Senate Republican Campaign Committee each have similar fundraisers planned over the next month. “The golf events aren’t about golf. Like any political fundraiser, it’s a chance to spend easy time with lawmakers and their closest aides, building relationships that will make more serious talk in the Capitol hallways go easier.” Sean Coffey, writing in The Buffalo News, notes that this shocking degree of camaraderie is due to the lax campaign finance laws in New York state. The simple truth is that in such an environment “voters can’t compete. Less than one-half of 1 percent of voters donate to political campaigns, making New York dead last among the states in citizen participation (and 48th in voter turnout).” That is why—as the Brennan Center and Sean Coffey have argued–New York State needs a public financing system modeled on New York City’s. This would encourage participation by everyday New Yorkers in the political process and reduce overreliance on donations from a few wealthy individuals and corporations.

2. This summer, politicians in Albany are busy amassing funds for their war chest. In the Senate the GOP campaigns have acquired a total of $ 20. 3 million while the Democrats have pulled together $ 3. 8 million. Many lawmakers have also begun bolstering their campaign accounts through investments. Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has earned $ 41, 571 in dividends and interest by investing a portion of his $ 2. 8 million campaign funds. Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos has invested $ 717, 319 out of his $ 2.1 million war chest.  An examination of Silver’s campaign finance records displays that his investments include companies with state contracts, lobbying relationships with legislators, and regulatory interests. The list also contains several firms that contributed handsomely to Silver’s campaign such as Verizon, JP Morgan Chase and GE. Skelos’s investments reveal bonds in local government, school district, hospital, library and public works projects. Although the investments are legal–they are operated by separate mutual funds–they nonetheless raise questions about conflicts of interests. Elected officials are required to disclose the purchase of investments, but they do not need to provide details about interest and dividends gains or losses.

Citizens Budget Commission Highlights Education Spending

A new interactive map published by the New York Citizens Budget Commission showcases the distribution of school aid in comparison to the districts’ financial and educational needs. This is an illuminating look into how New York doles out educational funds.

Money in Politics in NY: July 20 Edition

1. Last week, Governor Cuomo reestablished campaign finance reform as a priority for the next legislative session. A Newsday editorial calls on Governor Cuomo to stay the course. Meanwhile, reform advocates Sundeep Iyer and Michael J. Malbin write in a Journal News editorial that adopting a matching funds system statewide modeled on  New York City’s example can help lead to greater equality and diversity of political participation.   New York City’s public matching funds allow candidates to receive a 6-to-1 match for the first $ 175 a city resident contributes, turning a $ 100 contribution into $ 700 for the candidate. Iyer and Malbin’s research shows that the incentives public matching funds give to candidates to reach out to their own constituents—rather than focus exclusively on wealthy donors—are working. Nearly 90 percent of NYC census block groups were home to small donors who contributed to City Council candidates, while only 30 percent of NYC census block groups were home to small donors who gave to state Assembly candidates. In addition, small donors in NYC’s predominantly minority neighborhoods were far more likely to donate to City elections, where a public match was available, than to State elections. For instance, 24 times more small donors from Bedford-Stuyvesant, a poor and predominantly African-American neighborhood,  contributed to City Council races than to State Assembly ones.

2. Congressional Representative Michael Grimm was recently cleared of accusations that he illegally accepted cash contributions from non-US citizens by the independent watchdog, the Office of Congressional Ethics. However the FBI is still investigating whether he embezzled millions of dollars worth of donations from New York Rabbi, Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, and his congregation.

Money in Politics in NY: July 13th Edition

1. Campaign finance reform and public financing have gained renewed momentum in New York even as the legislature is out of session. According to the Albany Times Union and North Country Public Radio, among other reports, Governor Cuomo has pledged to redouble his commitment to making reform his next big achievement. He will begin touring the state to educate voters about public campaign financing in an effort to increase its public salience. The Governor is optimistic that the legislature will consider the issue; the Times Union suggests that it could be taken up after the November election, possibly as part of an arrangement during a special session to increase legislators’ salaries.

2. The unprecedented flow of money into campaigns this election season is striking, but the problem is being compounded by the lack of transparency throughout the process. Non-profits, including 501(c)(4) organizations deemed as “social welfare” groups, are funneling millions into political ads, despite legal strictures prohibiting them from aggressively engaging in politics. In an effort to promote transparency and integrity, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has vowed to investigate political spending by non-profits. A Newsday editorial praises Schneiderman for “issuing a subpoena for records from the National Chamber Foundation to determine whether it provided millions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business group, for political activities around 2004.”

Money in Politics in NY: July 6 Edition

1. The end of the legislative session may be two weeks past, but support for campaign finance reform shows no signs of fading.  An Albany Times Union editorial argues that the failure to pass reform legislative session casts a cloud over the entire legislative session and that it must be a top priority when the legislature reconvenes.  “[V]ictory laps and self-congratulatory speeches don’t get the unfinished business done — the business, that is, of reducing the dangerous influence of big money in politics and limiting the power of well-funded special interests.”

2. New York City’s public financing system facilitates fairer and more democratic elections.  Nonetheless, anti-reform groups have brought a constitutional challenge to the City’s election law, alleging that it violates the First Amendment.  The Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens Union, Common Cause New York, the League of Women Voters of New York City, and New York Public Interest Research Group submitted a friend-of-the-court brief this week, urging the federal district court hearing the case to uphold the law.  The laws’ defenders argue that the campaign finance scheme poses no constitutional problems and furthers the values of the First Amendment by encouraging democratic participation.  “The City’s public finance system stands tall as a bulwark against a nation awash in political spending dominated by corporations, unions and other moneyed interests,” said Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizens Union.