Good Gov Groups Condemn Proposed NY “Ethics Reform” Bill

Below, and linked, is a March 30, 2014 statement from good government groups sharply criticizing the proposed “ethics reforms” in the state budget deal agreed upon by the governor and legislative leaders.  The flawed legislation is likely to pass the legislature today. News coverage here.

The Brennan Center for Justice
Citizen Action of New York
Citizens Union
Common Cause/ NY
League of Women Voters of New York State
New York Public Interest Research Group


We write to collectively urge your opposition to Part H, Subpart D, Title II of S.6355-D/A.8555-D, which creates a voluntary system of public financing solely for the position of state Comptroller and only for this upcoming election. As you are aware, the version of the budget that was rushed to print shortly before midnight on Friday creates a public financing system that is limited to candidates for State Comptroller. We are hopeful and will continue to work for the inclusion of an expanded system of public funding for all offices in the budget in the next few days. However, in its current form, we urge your opposition to this provision.

An immediate problem is the proposal’s attempt to have the Board of Elections instantaneously set up a matching fund system during the already started 2014 election cycle. Comptroller DiNapoli’s past proposals created a “campaign finance board” consisting of seven members appointed by a variety of offices and gave that newly formed agency sufficient time to consider and issue regulations and develop the necessary procedures for shepherding and safeguarding the public money under its charge. Governor Cuomo’s proposal, while creating an “enforcement counsel,” relies on the New York State Board of Elections to administer its newly formed matching fund program. They are required to make matching fund payments “as soon as it is practicable,” they “shall render advisory opinions,” and they are required to issue various regulations necessary to establish the matching funds program.

The Board is ill-suited to take on such as task, much less set up an entirely new administrative system for an election cycle which has already begun. Most recently, the preliminary findings of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption have illustrated a disturbing degree of dysfunction at the Board. The public will rightly have little faith that such an ineffective body, which the Moreland Commission revealed is beset by gridlock, patronage, and bureaucratic inefficiency, can properly administer and safeguard public moneys. From a candidate’s point of view, placing the Board of Elections in charge of this process, as Governor Cuomo’s budget proposes to do, is most likely to result in a sequence of frustrating delays for any candidate who chooses to participate. If this program is designed to be a “test run” for a broader public financing system, it seems to be destined to fail. Recent history indicates how woefully unprepared the Board is to take on additional responsibilities, much less instantaneously set up an entirely new matching fund system. The Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011, passed in June of that year, required the Board to establish criteria for the disclosure of independent expenditures by January 1, 2012. Their regulations covering this one issue were not finalized until October 24, 2012 – well into the heart of election season and nearly ten months late. The end result was a product so woefully inadequate that this year’s budget revisits the topic of independent expenditure disclosure.

An additional weakness in Governor Cuomo’s latest proposal is the omission of any limits on political parties. State Comptroller Bill #19 (A8367) of 2011-12 controlled for this problem by providing that candidates who opted in could not receive transfers from political parties of more than $250,000. This bill contains no similar restrictions. Thus, a candidate could both receive public funds for their campaign can continue to rely on the corrupting influence of large donations from special interests that currently plagues the system. Additionally, the plan does nothing to address New York’s notorious sky-high contribution limits for non-participating candidates or any of the other loopholes found in the state’s current system.

All of our groups believe that such a limited public financing system fails to address Albany’s culture of corruption that has been centered in recent years in the legislature. When the State Comptroller’s well- considered proposal was voted on in the past, it was possible to view it as a good first step towards the ultimate goal of providing matching funds for all state office elections. Over the past thirteen months, however, the unending series of controversies and scandals that has rocked Albany and the preliminary findings of the Moreland Commission illustrate the urgent need for comprehensive and systematic changes. The Securities and Exchange Commission has also acted to restrict dramatically contributions from those doing business with pension funds and contributions bundled by those doing business with the funds. More immediately, however, the significant flaws in Part H, subpart D, Title II of S.6355- D/A.8555-D (related to the public matching system for comptroller) show that it is not adequate even as a pilot program, let alone a sufficient response to corruption in Albany. Thus, if the legislature approves this inadequate and flawed public matching program, we will urge the State Comptroller and his potential opponent(s) to refuse to participate.

Proposed Federal FOIA Reforms Are Good Model for New York

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 1.58.17 PMThe U.S. Congress has been producing a steady flow of new bills that seek to expand transparency and open the government, and that offer some good ideas for states and cities. Earlier this month, the Transparency in Government Act was introduced in Congress by Representative Mike Quigley (D) Illinois. The people at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) have highlighted some of their favorite elements, which are listed below. We would like to see all of these provisions adopted by New York State and New York City.

  • Better tracking of lobbying by broadening the definition of lobbyist, improving the tracking of lobbying activity (in part through the use of unique entity identifiers), and more frequent disclosures by lobbyists of political contributions; improved access to information on lobbying on behalf of foreign entities; and public access to statements by grantees and contractors certifying that they have not used money awarded by the federal government to lobby (the SF-LLLs).
  • Enhancing transparency for contracts, grants, and loans through improved data quality, better disclosure (including electronic) and improved compliance.
  • Improving transparency of non-profit organizations by requiring non-profit tax forms (990s) to be available online in a central location (replacing the current ad hoc disclosure system).
  • Improving the Freedom of Information Act by publishing completed requests online in a searchable database and requiring notice of efforts to carve out exemptions to FOIA.

Here is CREW’s full blog post on the Transparency in Government Act. Interestingly, these proposed improvements to the federal Freedom of Information Act take the lessons learned from FOIA Online and Oakland’s centralized online FOIL system (which we have written about here and here, respectively) and apply them to all federal agencies.

It’s worth noting that federal agencies are already required to report on how they handle FOIA requests – something New York City and State agencies are not. Given the fact that most state agencies in New York are out of compliance with basic FOIL requirements, and that there is a similarly widespread failure to comply with FOIL in New York City, we would strongly welcome this kind of reform in New York.

Money in Politics in NY: Mar. 25 Edition

James and Stewart-Cousins: Public Financing Will Benefit Women

In a Sunday op-ed in the Journal News, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and New York State Senator and Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins described the benefits that public financing of elections would bring for women in New York. One observed effect is more women in elected office. The national average for the percentage of elected women lawmakers in state legislative bodies is 24.2 percent. But in five states with public financing, it is much higher: for instance, 35.6 percent in Arizona and 29.4 percent in Connecticut. In New York State, this figure is even lower than the national average at 21.2 percent—in spite of the fact that women make-up more than half of the state’s population. When legislators reflect the population they serve, it strengthens our democracy. And if more women are elected to public office, they can push for attention to issues that affect women and families. Senator Stewart-Cousins took to the radio waves to share her message on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom as well. The president of the think tank Demos, Heather McGhee, agreed in an op-ed in the Albany Times Union, outlining how public financing can lead to greater diversity in our government. In the Journal News, James and Stewart-Cousins concluded, “The governor and the Legislature must move this proposal past the finish line. New York deserve[s] nothing less.” Read more…

The Willie Sutton Guide to “High Value Data.”

It should be fairly straightforward to figure out what government data sets the public is really interested in. The public is telling government with every website visit, search, and download; with every online transaction, phone call, and text to 311; and with every FOIL request. Unfortunately, government often isn’t listening. (How many New York State and City agencies have good web analytics? How many have any web analytics?)

Willie_SuttonBut there’s another way of identifying high value data that isn’t usually discussed – just take a look at what data your government is charging a fee for. Bingo, if people are willing to pay for data, it’s by definition “high value data.” New York City’s Open Data initiative scored a big success when it got the Department of City Planning to publish PLUTO and tax-lot data, and when the Department of Finance did the same with ACRIS property records. Previously, the data was either available for a fee or via online forms which allowed one search at a time. Now, both data sets can be downloaded in a machine-readable format. Neither the city nor the state keep a central directory of all data sets that they charge a fee for, but odds are good that they both still do.

But what about the foregone revenue? Shouldn’t taxpayers get a return from all of that expensive data? Yes! Of course we should. But there is a very strong case to be made that this data generates a far higher overall return for tax-payers when it can be used freely by a large universe of developers, data scientists, and researchers than by a small number who pay a fee which doesn’t generate much revenue. PLUTO, for instance, grossed roughly $250k/year for the Department of City Planning when it was for sale. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money went into creating the PLUTO database and keeping it updated, and there is no realistic way to recoup that cost. So, the debate is how to get the biggest bang for the buck from the heavily subsidized data, not to recover a small portion of its cost. We believe it is a false economy to nickel and dime the public with fees to use data our taxes already paid for.

Back to the matter at hand; Willie Sutton was a real bank robber and Greenpoint, Brooklyn native who probably never said that he “robbed banks because that’s where the money is.” But whether or not Willie said it, you can take that advice, follow the money, and figure out where the “high value data” is locked up.


Money in Politics in NY: Mar. 21 Edition

New York Times: NY Elected Officials Must Pass Reform before April 1
New York Times editorial last Thursday pressed Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders to pass public financing reform in the 2014-15 state budget by April 1. Arguing that reform would increase the slate of candidates that run for office, the Times stated that this prospect is “the reason many in Albany have tried to stop public financing.” Although Republicans in the Senate have voiced their staunch opposition to reform and pushed an exaggerated cost estimate, it is important to note that millions are spent each year on tax breaks for special interests—the cost of public financing is minute by comparison. In the end, the editorial concluded that despite the plethora of issues in the budget, Governor Cuomo can “earn the most credit at home and nationally if he finally makes campaign finance reform and public financing a workable reality.” Read more…