Money in Politics in New York: October 19 Edition

Corporate Contributions Follow the Party in Power

The Center for Working Families has issued a new report, The Big Switch, which details patterns of corporate contributions in New York State political campaigns. The Big Switch explains how corporate contributions flow to candidates who are in power, rather than candidates of a particular political party or ideology. When the Republicans controlled the New York State Senate in 2008, corporations gave $3.2 million to Republicans and $2.8 million to Democrats. When the Democrats gained control in 2009, however, money flowed to the newly appointed Democratic committee chairs, and the Democrats garnered $3.7 million in corporate contributions, compared to $2.5 million by Republicans. In 2011, as the Republicans regained control, the situation reversed again: Republicans received the majority, $3.2 million, from corporations while Democrats raised $1.4 million. According to Dave Palmer, executive director of the Center for Working Families, the analysis demonstrates that “corporate entities are giving not based on a particular candidate or a particular party, and … that [donors] are hoping to get a return on their investment.”


A Few New Yorkers Serve as an ATM for Politicians

As public concern grows over the unprecedented flow of outside money into politics, Common Cause has revealed that New York State is a rather popular source of funds for federal political campaigns. According to the report, New York State’s role as an ATM for politicians should be no source of pride; rather it illustrates the urgent need for campaign finance reform, both in Albany and Washington. A quarter of the nation’s donors that contributed over $1 million to Super PACs are New Yorkers. In addition 99 New Yorkers have given $25,000 or more to Super PACs for a sum of $30.7 million. And 74 of those 99 have also contributed at the state level for a total of $8.9 million to candidates and committees since 2009. “As long as politicians are accountable to the corporations, lobbyists, and wealthy individuals who finance their campaigns, they’re never going to be accountable to the people who elect them,” states Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.


Outside Money Floods New York State Senate Races

Advertisements funded by outside groups targeting candidates in New York State Senate races are becoming increasingly common. A handful of Senate races, particularly in Queens, Westchester County and Rochester, will be instrumental in determining the partisan leaning of the chamber. Outside groups are projected to funnel at least $2 million into just these three races by Election Day. The independent spending highlights New York State’s lax campaign finance and disclosure laws, which do not require all groups running ads to fully identify themselves. “The average voter would be hard-pressed to identify who is behind many of the advertisements and mailers financed by third-party groups,” reports The New York Times. The Times has investigated two entities engaged in these deceptive ads and mailers. First, it determined that VOTE/COPE Committee, which has attacked Republican Assemblyman Sean T. Hanna’s positions on hydraulic fracturing, women’s health and gun control, is actually the political arm of the teacher’s union, New York State United Teacher. VOTE/COPE Committee is targeting Hanna for his support of pension reform. The Times also reported that Common Sense, which has produced mailers critical of Democratic Assemblyman Goerge S. Latimer for his support of gay marriage, is based in Virginia, and is directed by Republican strategist Christopher LaCivita. LaCivita also advised the shadowy Swift Boat Veterans for Truth back in 2004. After the landmark ethics overhaul enacted last year, the State Board of Elections has developed rules for the disclosure of spending by outside groups, but those that don’t explicitly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate are exempt from this requirement. “You don’t need to hire a team of campaign-finance lawyers to figure out how to evade disclosure under the Board of Elections regulation,” said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s as simple as pie. And all you do is leave out the ‘vote for’ or ‘vote against.’”

Feds Launch Online Freedom of Information Site — Inspiration for New York.

Last week, the federal government launched FOIAonline, its new one-stop spot to access, track, and query Freedom of Information Act requests. The $1.7 million website and document processing tool allows visitors to request information and track requests from half a dozen federal agencies.  The new tool was developed jointly by the EPA, Department of Commerce and National Archives. Project managers estimate FOIAonline could save the federal government $40 million a year in FOIL processing costs when it is adopted by all federal agencies. FOIAonline can also allow viewers to see the FOIA requests made by others.

So, where is New York State’s “FOILonline” tool? New York has about 10,000 government agencies and entities subject to state Freedom of Information Law. Many still process FOIL requests by hand, none publish public records of how many FOIL requests they process, how long their response time is, and how much responding costs.

In our Executive Orders report (page 16), Reinvent Albany called on Governor Cuomo to put FOIL requests and responses online, and make use FOIL to drive the pro-active release of information. With their new FOIonline tool, the feds have taken an important step towards increasing government transparency and accountability, while saving  tax-payer funds. Back here in New York, where the state processes tens of thousand FOIL requests a year, and localities even more,  we’d like to see Governor Cuomo become the first governor to introduce an all online FOIL system like FOIAonline.  But better than the federal system, New York’s FOIL tool could include counties, cities, towns and other localities. New York’s Freedom of Information Law is a state mandate. New York’s online FOIL system would be the best kind of mandate relief — it would improve a public service, increase transparency, and save money. What’s not to like? Let’s do it New York.

Below is a FOIA request made by Reinvent Albany last week. FOIAonline shows the specifics of our request to EPA but not the Department of Commerce.

Money in Politics in New York, October 5 Edition

Public Financing Can Stem Corruption in Albany
As the public stands appalled by the shameful behavior of their representatives in Albany, Lawrence Norden, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, offers a solution to re-engage citizensin the political process in the Press and Sun Bulletin. Currently New York State’s sky-high contribution limits drown out the voice of regular voters. A recent analysis of state election funds from NYPIRG found that 127 donors gave $50,000 or more to statewide candidates and political parties over the past year, for a total of nearly $17 million. Under a Fair Elections system, candidates that abide by lower contribution limits and enhanced disclosure rules would receive public matching funds for every small donation they raise. New York City, as well as Maine and parts of Connecticut serve as thriving examples of effective public financing systems. “The cost to the public is miniscule, while the effects of a broken Albany cost taxpayers every day.” Although Governor Cuomo has publicly pledged his support for campaign finance reform, members of the New York legislature have yet to act. It is time we demand that Albany take action.

Brennan Center Hosts Panel Discussion on Campaign Finance Reform
This Tuesday, the Brennan Center hosted a panel of legal scholars, advocates and experts in the field of campaign finance reform. The panelists discussed the impact of small donor matching funds on civic participation and rejuvenating our democracy. The panelists included:

  •  Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Harvard Law School, director of the Edmund J. Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and author of Republic, Lost: Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It;
  •  Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, whom the New York Times described as “the country’s leading proponent of campaign finance reform,”and co-author of the new report Empowering Small Donors in Federal Elections, with the Brennan Center’s Adam Skaggs;
  • Richard Briffault, Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation at Columbia Law School and author of numerous publications on campaign finance reform and election law; and
  • Monica Youn, the inaugural Brennan Center Constitutional Fellow at the NYU School of Law and former director of the Brennan Center’s Money in Politics program.

Professor Lessig asserted that the “pattern of influence” of large donors in America amounts to “corruption relative to the Framer’s baseline.” He demonstrated that the Framers gave us a Republic with a branch that would be “dependent on the people alone” as Federalist52 states. “The problem is Congress has evolved … a dependence upon the funders. This is dependence too, but it is different and conflicting with dependence upon the people so long as the funders are not the people.”

Reformers Unite in Manhattan to Push for Public Financing
On Thursday Citizen Action, the Center for Working Families, Communications Workers of America, SEIU 1199, Sierra Club, NAACP and the Brennan Center, among others, gathered in Manhattan for a summit to discuss the next steps for fomenting the transition to a clean money system. Larry Norden, senior counsel at the Brennan Center lauded the benefits of campaign finance reform, presenting original research that indicates how small donor matching and public funding of elections has increased political participation and competition in New York City elections.