This week is the scheduled last week of the 2019 legislative session. The session can be viewed as historic: Complete Democratic Party control of the state government has resulted in a slew of legislation passing, many of which had festered due to partisan gridlock – like narrowing the Limited Liability Company loophole that allowed real estate developers to make much bigger campaign contributions than other businesses –– and others that could dramatically alter state policies – like permanent extension of rent control.
As lawmakers head for their scheduled exit, there are a number of issues that are still outstanding. Issues like legalizing the use of marijuana, authorizing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in the United States, reducing the use of fossil fuels, authorizing an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution, and legalizing online sports betting, among other issues.
Historically, such a smorgasbord of issues can get wrapped up into one giant piece of legislation, known in the halls of the state Capitol as the “big ugly.” Like the horse trading that is part of the grand finale of budget negotiations, lumping seemingly unrelated bills together into one giant bill is a frequent way in which Albany finalizes legislative deals.
The “big ugly” strategy works well in a capital in which the governor and the legislative leaders control the flow of legislation. It is far more efficient to aggregate legislation and negotiate it all simultaneously, than to do each piece discreetly. That approach also helps legislators to take “tough” votes – lawmakers can say that they had concerns about a particular issue, say marijuana legalization – but had to vote for a final agreement because of other, more popular, issues.
From the public’s perspective, it’s ugly. Often issues get thrown into the mix that have not been publicly discussed – even among legislators. As Newsday reported, former Gov. David Paterson said that horse trading sometimes resulted in passing bills that conflicted with established laws “but it’s so late in the session nobody knows.”
As of now, we do not know how – or when – the session will actually end, but if history is any guide, this week will be busy. Looking at previous session, lawmakers usually pass more bills in the month of June than they do the previous five months.
While the package of end-of-session bills is unknown, what is known is that – like in all previous sessions – lawmakers and the governor have used the legislative session to rake in campaign contributions from lobbyists and their clients. It appears that during this legislative session, the governor and state lawmakers held about 180 campaign fundraisers, usually within walking distance of the Capitol.
If an elected official is holding a campaign fundraiser in the capital, do you think they are expecting constituents to be there? These events are designed to hit up Albany’s lobbying corps for campaign contributions. And lobbyists are the same people asking for legislative favors.
In Albany, it’s perfectly legal to consider legislative favors during the day and then accept campaign contributions from those same people at night.
It’s legal here, but it doesn’t have to be.
Six states (Alaska, California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Tennessee) place unique campaign financing restrictions on lobbyists as a group, twelve other states (Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Wisconsin) limit lobbyists’ campaign giving during the legislative session.
The courts have weighed in on these types of restrictions. In a case dealing with Tennessee’s restriction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit stated, “Any payment made by a lobbyist to a public official, whether a campaign contribution or simply a gift, calls into question the propriety of the relationship.”
When the governor and state lawmakers wrap up this session, ultimately the public will have to decide if it was productive. But from elected officials’ perspective, the campaign contributions haul from lobbyists and their clients made it successful.
It is long past time for a change – one that limits this brazen practice and one that offers an alternative, a voluntary system of public financing.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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