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Paying to play in Albany

“There are two things that are important in politics”, Ohio Senator Mark Hanna said a century ago. “The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

Money has been called the “mother’s milk of politics.” The reality is that for most races without money, there can be no campaign. Money is needed to buy advertising, rent halls for rallies, pay campaign staff, print materials, pay pollsters and consultants, and fly or drive candidates from one event to the next.

But who foots the bills for most campaigns? Most of the money comes from the wealthy: lobbyists, government contractors, trade associations, unions, and others who have something other than “good government” on their minds when they write their checks. Usually, they’re not feeling charitable, usually they want those favors returned.

That system is at its most brazen during the state legislative session. Pre-pandemic, state elected officials would host campaign fundraisers during the legislative session, sometimes hold more than 200 fundraisers during the 60 days of session. And who would come to these events? Lobbyists and others seeking legislative favors. The 2022 session – in addition to opening up its legislative proceedings – also cranked up the money machine, seeing over 100 fundraisers held while lawmakers considered the pleas of lobbyists, including asks related to the state’s $220 billion budget.

The most successful example of campaign fundraising has to be the current governor. Governor Hochul, who had already collected roughly $34 million, has – according to reporting in The New York Times – set a target of raising a total of $50 to $70 million by Election Day. A mind-boggling amount of money in just one year of being governor.

Also according to the Times, many of her campaign contributions came from those with business before the government. The Times reported Hochul raised over $200,000 from the gambling industry, which is waiting for three new licenses to be issued by the state for casinos in and around New York City.

According to the Times, in her recent filings, the governor received an average donation of about $10,000. Since taking office, at least 10 percent of her cash has come from donors giving the maximum amount of $69,700.

Real estate interests are also donating heavily to the governor’s campaign.

It’s easy to understand why the governor wants a huge campaign warchest – it will pay for an expensive campaign and ensure that donors think twice about funding her opponents.

It does, however, raise the question: What do campaign donors want?

That question is not an academic one. New York has seen more than its share of campaign finance scandals. During the most recent Cuomo Administration, top aides were sentenced to prison for shaking down campaign contributors who were interested in state government contracts. Scandals have plagued former state Comptrollers too, leading one to resign.

It’s not just members of the executive branch. Members of the Legislature have themselves been caught up in corruption investigations in which they were doing the bidding of campaign contributors as part of their “pay-to-play” arrangements. Most recently, the former Lt. Governor was charged by federal prosecutors in a scheme to pay back a campaign contributor by directing state monies to his organization.

The typical pay-to-play scheme occurs when private actors “pay” public officials in exchange – sometimes explicitly – for help with various government processes, particularly in gaining favoritism when doing business with the government. Many states have enacted laws to deter “pay-to-play” schemes. The City of New York has laws that do so, too.

But New York State has not. 

New York’s pay-to-play problems have long been in plain view. Nearly four decades ago, a state commission commented “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.”

It was Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, speaker of the California Assembly from 1961 to 1968, who is credited with coining the phrase, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”

Every candidate for elected office in every state knows that Unruh’s observation is true, nowhere more so than in New York. As the election season heats up, ending Albany’s “pay-to-play” system should be a top pledge made by every candidate for state office.

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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