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The public gets a glimpse of lobbying in New York

New Yorkers got important insights into who spends the most to influence state and local budgets, legislation and policies last week. The annual report of the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (COELIG), which oversees lobbying activities in the state, documented the spending of the wealthy and powerful as they sought to influence the laws you live with. 

According to COELIG, total reported lobbying spending in 2023 once again set a new record. Interest groups spent more than $360 million lobbying in New York or a nearly 9 percent increase from the previous year – which had also set a new record. 

Before we get into the numbers, here is what New York considers to be lobbying and what must be reported to COELIG. New York has one of the most expansive definitions of what constitutes lobbying in the nation. According to state law, if an interested party or lobby firm is expecting to spend – or get paid -- $5,000 or more to influence public policy, they must report. The definition of which policies are covered include attempts to influence certain state or local government (not all local governments, only those with population of 5,000 or more) decision-making, such as the passage or defeat of any budget item, legislation or resolution, and other government activities. If the activity is covered in state law, it’s lobbying; if it’s an activity that falls outside of that definition (such as attempting to influence the governor’s appointments), it’s not.

Who spent the most? Much of the lobbying was focused on policy areas in which New York has the most control: health care, education, and public investments. Each year COELIG releases that year’s “Top Ten” lobbying spenders. Usually the top ten includes lobbying on health care, education, public spending, and sometimes lobbying that is specific to that year cracks the top ten. 

2023 was no different. 1199SEIU Labor Management Initiatives, Inc. Healthcare Education Project once again was the year’s top spender. This “Project” represents the joint advocacy spending of the management of New York hospitals and the union that represents many hospital workers. The “Project” is largely one that represents the interests of the union, but often carries the water for management as well. The “Project” spent more than $8 million lobbying. The management side of the “Project” – hospital trade groups – also spends on its own lobbying. The Greater New York Hospital Association alone was ranked third, spending over $4.7 million on lobbying. Other health care related lobbying spending included in the top ten were the Tobacco-Kids Action Fund, which lobbies for tobacco control policies, and AARP, which lobbies on health issues such as prescription drug affordability, but on other policies as well. 

Among those rounding out the list of other top ten spenders was the world’s largest casino interest, Genting New York, which spent nearly $3 million; the charter school advocacy group, StudentsFirst New York Advocacy; the public investment firm Siebert Williams Shank & Co.; the New York State Trial Lawyers Association; and a union representing government workers, the Public Employees Federation. 

A newcomer to the top ten was “American Opportunity” – an entity almost entirely funded by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – which lobbied to advance the policies of Governor Hochul. American Opportunity was ranked second, with nearly $5 million spent on its lobbying. 

According to COELIG, over 6,200 lobbyists report their activities, and those lobbyists represent nearly 5,000 clients. The vast bulk of the spending is on lobbyists but there is considerable spending on advertising too. 

It’s important for the public to know which groups spend the most seeking to influence governments. It is an important indicator of the information flow to lawmakers. 

In American democracy – thanks in large part to the interpretations of the US Supreme Court – money “talks” both in terms of lobbying spending as well as well as the funding of electoral campaigns. Essentially, if you know what you’re doing you can spend an unlimited amount to influence lawmakers. 

And New York’s lax rules make it easy for those two types of spending to occur simultaneously by allowing campaign fundraisers to occur in Albany during the nights of the legislative session. Half the country puts restrictions on that type of activity. New York could beef up the laws by limiting the size of campaign donations that lobbyists make; it could curtail fundraising during the legislative session days; and it could require more information about who is making and delivering campaign donations. 

Until reforms are put in place, New Yorkers are left with the required reporting that is the basis for the COELIG annual report. What this year’s report shows is that those with the money are spending record amounts to get what they want out of New York government. The fact that they keep spending more each year shows that they believe the spending works. Money provides the “megaphone” for the wealthy and powerful special interests to get their message out. The way the system works, for the rest of us, our message registers as a whisper. 

This election year, a good question to ask candidates is what they will be doing if elected to amplify the public’s voice.

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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