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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Lobbying Spending In NY Hits A Record

After the frenzied fight over New York’s $175 billion budget, it’s not surprising to learn that special interests spent astronomically to influence policy in New York.  Last week, the public got to see just how much gets spent to influence government in New York. 

In its annual report, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) revealed that a record-breaking $262 million was spent on lobbying in New York last year, an eight percent increase from the year before.  The number of lobbyists registered in New York also jumped by nearly 1,000 from the year before.  The number of registered lobbyists now exceeds 7,700.

The industries that ranked in the top ten included perennial top spenders – lawyers, unions and health care interests.  The healthcare industry was the most active, representing 19% of the registered lobbyists in the state.  The real estate and construction industries combined to account for just under 16% of registered lobbyists, according to the report.

But it was ride-hailing giant Uber that roared to the top, spending nearly $6 million. 

When New York first started requiring lobbyists to report their spending in 1978, a paltry $6 million was spent.  If lobbying spending had merely increased at the rate of inflation, the number would have risen to $22 million in 2018, or roughly one-tenth of what it is today.

During that time – due largely to lobbying corruption scandals – New York’s law became more comprehensive and thus more spending is required to be reported than back in the day.  However, the gigantic increase in spending is overwhelmingly the result of interest groups’ efforts to influence policymaking.

And it must be working, otherwise why would they keep spending more and more?

Spending on lobbyists and related public relations campaigns are just one side of the influence-peddling coin; the other side includes campaign contributions from those same interests. 

Over the past 30 years, campaign spending on legislative races has also increased dramatically. And those with business before the government are most likely to give. 

As one state-created Commission observed, “When running for public office requires enormous expenditures of privately raised funds, challenges to incumbents are all but limited to the most wealthy and well-connected.  Moreover, huge campaign costs pressure candidates to maintain political views that do not offend big money.”

After funding the races of successful candidates for office, these special interests then hire well-heeled lobbyists and underwrite public relations campaigns to cash in – usually at the expense of the public’s best interests.

Albany’s political culture has merged both lobbying and campaign financing.  So far during the legislative session, Governor Cuomo and legislators have held over 125 campaign fundraisers – the vast majority of them occurring just steps from the Capitol in Albany.  Those fundraisers are designed to hit up lobbyists and their clients for campaign contributions.  What could be more brazen: lobbyists meeting lawmakers in their offices asking for favors during the day and then handing over campaign contributions to those same lawmakers at nighttime fundraising events?

So what should be done?  It’s very difficult to restrict political speech.  The U.S. Supreme Court has made it impossible to limit lobby spending and extraordinarily difficult to limit campaign spending.

Policies are allowed, however, that work to separate the two to protect the integrity of government decision making.

Half the country, for example, places restrictions on the campaign fundraising role of lobbyists.  Most do it by limiting campaign fundraising during the legislative session and some take it one step further by limiting contributions from lobbyists, the special-interest clients who pay them, and any connected political action committees.  Similar legislation is being discussed in New York.

Let’s hope that Albany limits lobbyists’ campaign donations.  The effectiveness of lobbyists should be measured by the depth of their knowledge, not the thickness of their wallets.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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