Money in Politics in New York, Feb. 22 Edition

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Albany Can Learn a Lesson from Ed Koch’s Legacy
After former New York City Mayor Ed Koch sadly passed away this month, Frederick Schwarz, chief counsel at the Brennan Center, explained in a New York Daily News op-ed how we can honor Koch’s legacy. In 1986, when Ed Koch was Mayor, some of his top political allies had been caught using their office for personal gain in a scandal that rocked the city. Koch seized the opportunity to reform New York City’s campaign finance system. Along with the City Council, he instituted a small donor matching program with low contribution limits. In 1989, in the first election that followed, all three mayoral candidates—Koch and David Dinkins, both Democrats, and Rudy Giuliani, a Republican—praised the new system and participated in it. Today, the benefits of the system are even clearer: the number of small donors to political candidates has grown, and elections field more competitive races. Although New Yorkers are now more confident in City Hall, they lack the same faith in Albany. In state elections, contribution limits are too high and big money donors reign supreme. New York State would do well to take a lesson from Ed Koch’s legacy and enact public financing.

New Disclosure Bills Proposed in New York Legislature 
Secret money spent by outside organizations has become increasingly common in American elections, including New York State and federal contests. In response, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has sponsored a bill that would increase the disclosure requirements imposed on outside spenders. And State Senator Rubén Díaz has proposed a bill that would mandate elected officials to post their campaign contributions on their websites, including the source and amount of each major donation. In the Huffington Post, Ian Vandewalker, counsel at the Brennan Center, argues that it is important for the public to know who is behind the political ads they are bombarded with every election cycle. Voters should be able to make an informed decision on Election Day.

George McDonald Challenges NYC Contribution Limits in Court 
A Republican candidate for mayor, George McDonald, has accepted 10 campaign contributions in excess of New York City’s $4,950 legal limit, including one for $40,000. His campaign has also obtained a $120,000 loan in violation of the City’s election laws. McDonald filed a lawsuit earlier this year to invalidate the City’s contribution limits, which he argues run afoul of state law. The case is ongoing, and McDonald and the New York City Campaign Finance Board are set to appear in court on March 12. McDonald would face a $57,050 fine from the New York City Campaign Finance Board if he doesn’t return the excess contributions. If his legal challenge prevails, McDonald will likely face no penalty.  The City is defending the contribution limits. Campaign Finance Board spokesman Matthew Sollars said it “reduces the influence of deep-pocketed special interests and keeps corporate money out of our elections.”

Corporations Donate $670,000 to New York State Candidates, Save $2.4 Billion in Taxes
December report from the US Public Interest Research Group showed that America loses nearly $150 billion to corporate tax havens each year. Regional assessment of the data by the Fair Elections Coalition for New York campaign demonstrates that offshore tax havens cost New York State $2.4 billion in annual tax revenues. Seventeen multinational corporations, including Bank of America, Citigroup, PepsiCo and Pfizer, sheltered billions of dollars in these accounts. At the same time, these 17 corporations also contributed over $670,000 to New York State politicians, including individual legislators, the Republican Senate Campaign Committee and the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee. As Karen Scharff of Citizen Action explains, “You can never tie a specific policy to a specific to campaign contribution. But you can tie the overwhelming preponderance of behavior.” At a time of dire fiscal shortages, and suggested cuts to education and healthcare, it is critical to reform the system which creates the perverse incentives for politicians to pass such inequitable tax policies. Citizen-funded elections are critically needed in New York State. The estimated cost of $25-$42 million is well worth it.

Money in Politics in New York: Feb. 15 Edition

JCOPE Releases Report on Lopez Scandal to Legislative Ethics Committee

The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics sent to legislators its long-awaited report on sexual harassment complaints against sitting Assemblyman Vito Lopez.  Last year, the Assembly secretly approved a $103,000 settlement to end sexual harassment allegations against Lopez by two female staffers. Gerald B. Lefcourt, a Manhattan attorney representing Lopez, confirmed that the report covers sexual harassment claims against Lopez and the $103,000 settlement using public money. The Legislative Ethics Commission will make the JCOPE report public within 45 days.

Money in Politics in New York: February 8 Edition

Publicly Financed Elections are Good Business
In an op-ed published Sunday in the Albany Times-Union, co-founder and CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, David Levine, explains why business owners are so enthusiastic about campaign finance reform. A poll commissioned by the ASBC indicates that business leaders are dissatisfied with the current role that money plays in American politics. Other surveys, such as this one by the Committee on Economic Development demonstrate support for reform is also strong in the business community; 72 percent are in favor of creating a public financing system that would match low-dollar contributions and give average citizens more incentives to contribute to campaigns. Secretive donations to political campaigns and organizations perpetuate perceptions of corruption, eroding the public’s trust in government institutions as is necessary for a functioning market and a participatory democracy. “Underneath the headlines, many business owners still believe that success should come from hard work, safe and quality products, and good customer service—not spending on elections.”

Lobbying Disclosure Reports Available on JCOPE Website
The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics has recently implemented the nation’s first system of disclosure of funding sourcesfor specified entities spending in excess of $50,000 per year on lobbying expenditures. The disclosure is a requirement of the Public Integrity Act of 2011, which seeks to end the practice of black box lobbying, whereby expensive lobbying gifts are provided to legislators by unrecognizable and hidden groups. The public will now be better served with information about who is funding the state’s large lobbying campaigns.

In Passing Campaign Finance Reform, Senator Klein Holds the Key
Senator Jeffrey Klein has been in the news quite often lately over the Independent Democratic Conference’s decision to create a ruling coalition with the Republicans in the New York State Senate. It turns out Klein’s coalition could be instrumental in determining the fate of campaign finance reform in the state. Governor Andrew Cuomo has already committed himself to reform; he proposed that the state adopt a system similar to that of New York City, where small donations are matched with public funds. Although Senator Klein has stated he supports campaign finance reform, he has not yet weighed in on any specific proposals.

Does New York’s Freedom of Information Law work for you?

This survey was sent to approximately 30 civic groups, journalists, think tankers and businesses. If you have co-workers or colleagues who regularly work with FOIL, please pass this survey onto them. And, most definitely, give us comments and suggestions either in the survey or via email at info [at] reinventalbany [dot] org.

Your responses will be private, but we will include totals, and the names of some of the organizations which responded in a report about FOIL that we intend to release in a month or so. The report will argue for government to post more information online, and make that information easier to find and use. We will be happy to share a draft with you as soon as it is available.

What is Government Doing in New York and Why?

One of the fun things about actually going to a football or basketball game is that you can watch what is happening away from the ball. What we know about government — and what government knows about itself — is often like watching a football game on TV when the camera stays very narrowly focused on only the ball, and the quarterback.  There’s still a lot of action, but we really don’t know what is going on. Likewise, we see the governor a great deal, we hear about new initiatives, but really, we don’t have a good picture of how different government policies and programs work together or against each other. We don’t know what spending produces the best public outcomes, and we often don’t really know why government does what it does.

The good news is that New York State and City government are increasingly analyzing internal data to improve, and better understand, what agencies are doing.  Using “business analytics” and “business intelligence” helps agencies deliver more for less.  But these processes are inherently limited, because they are internal, rarely shared with the public, and typically look at a narrow scope of activities. They are the like the camera watching the ball and quarterback — much better than no picture at all. But, New York can cheaply and easily do much better. Computer data crunching power and mapping has become much less expensive, and much faster.  And, now data science has emerged to offer a more holistic understanding of how complex data — and human activities — relate to each other. By opening up its data to the public, New Yorkers can get hundreds of millions of dollars of free analysis and insights from data scientists in academia and journalism who are eager to increase our understanding of how the world — and our government — work.