Blair Horner: Albany’s Recession-Proof Lobbying Industry

Apr 11, 2016

Despite the gloom over many upstate New York businesses, there has been one very bright light – its lobbying industry. For decades, New York’s lobbying industry has had an almost unbroken streak of growth – with almost each year setting a new spending record.

2015 was no exception.  Last week the state agency responsible for regulating lobbying released its annual report, which found that in calendar year 2015 a record $243.1 million in lobbying spending occurred, a $17.1 million increase as compared to 2014.

How was all of that money spent?  The agency, known as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, analyzed the data and found that spending on lobbyists made up the bulk of that spending – $206.7 million of the $243 million, 85% of the total.

The remaining 15% of the spending – nearly $20 million – was spent on advertising, events and other grassroots activities.

Lobbying over education spending was at the top.  Entities representing pro-charter schools or tax credits for the costs of private schools battled the teachers unions.  Roughly 11%, or $26 million, of all lobbying spending was the result of the fight over school spending.  The teachers unions were dramatically outspent in that fight.

JCOPE also reported that in 2015, New York had over 6,000 individual lobbyists representing over 4,000 clients. Of that group, nearly one quarter were involved in lobbying state or municipal governments in an effort to obtain public contracts.

The numbers provided by JCOPE is only part of the story.  New York’s lobbying industry is a big donor to elected officials’ political campaigns.  Campaign contributions are not reported to JCOPE, thus it is hard to know how much money was spent by all of the groups that spend money on lobbying.  But we do know that elected officials are well aware of the importance of lobbyists’ campaign dollars.

In 2015, there were over 170 campaign fundraisers held during the legislative session.  In a typical session, lawmakers are in Albany 60 days and 40 nights, during that time they are able to cram in campaign fundraisers within walking distance of the Capitol – often within the government complex itself. Who do the state’s elected officials think will show up during weekday campaign fundraisers held in Albany?  You guessed it – lobbyists.  They same people who are plying the halls of the Capitol during the day are forking campaign contributions to electeds at night – one of the most brazen aspects of Albany’s “pay-to-play” culture.

Why do businesses and other interest groups spend so much money on lobbying and campaign contributions?  Because they think it works.  They believe they get what they want.  New York’s titans of American capitalism do not spend millions of dollars unless they think they get something in return.

And when it’s been happening for decades – and that spending keeps going up – they must be getting what they want.

The most recent scandals in New York – notably the convictions of the top legislative leaders – add another dimension to this pay-to-play culture.  Not only are these industries spending big on lobbying and campaign contributions, they are also sources of personal money to corrupt officials.  In the convictions of the former Assembly Speaker and former Senate Majority Leader, groups with business before the government provided millions of dollars in outside income to enrich the two men.

Sadly, Albany’s unsavory pay to play culture is not unique in America.  But other states have done something to limit the power of interest groups.  Dozens of states place limits on the campaign fundraising of lobbyists; the federal campaign financing system and many states and localities require that campaign donors disclose their employers – thus making it easier to track the contributions of powerful interest groups; and voluntary systems of public financing allow candidates to rely on clean public resources instead of contributions of those with business before government.  Ironically, one of the best public financing systems has existed for decades in the City of New York.

There is no shortage of examples for reform.  What is in extremely short supply in Albany is the interest in taking on Albany’s political culture.  Governor Cuomo has repeatedly said that he will make ethics his top priority for this session.  Let’s hope he means it, and that he plans to tame Albany’s fat cats.  

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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