The Brennan Center regularly compiles the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Syed Zaidi and Katherine Munyan.
Moreland Commission Will Issue Subpoenas to Legislators, Political Parties
The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption said Tuesday that it will issue subpoenas to lawmakers mandating disclosure of their outside income. New York State legislators are allowed to hold positions outside of public office during part of the year. The commission’s request earlier this year that the information be voluntarily released was rebuffed by lawyers representing state legislators. “In addition to the investigation into the legislature, the Moreland Commission has moved to look across the board at all housekeeping accounts,” commission spokeswoman Michelle Duffy informed the press. “Housekeeping” accounts may only be used for party-building and administrative costs, and there is no limit on the amount that individuals may donate to them. Reform groups however, argue that housekeeping accounts frequently serve as a conduit to transfer funds to party-favored candidates, circumventing state contribution caps. For example, a Common Cause investigation demonstrated that the Senate Republican Party transferred $211,000 to the state Independence Party last year, which was ultimately spent on attack ads against Democrats. State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has emphasized the importance of independence for the commission and instructed his staff to help the commission accomplish “whatever the commissioners want. Period.”
Buffalo News: Corruption Commission Should Remain Independent
Following allegations that the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was being pressured by Governor Cuomo’s office to forgo certain investigations, the Buffalo News penned an editorial emphasizing the need for the commission to remain independent. The governor’s office has denied the claims of interference, stating that it has regular meetings with the commission but does not exercise inappropriate influence. Meanwhile, as of last week, legislators were still resisting the commission’s request for information regarding outside income. A subpoena drafted by the commission to examine contributions by the Real Estate Board of New York was never sent out, but commissioners have urged REBNY to turn over the information voluntarily or face a subpoena. Campaign finance reports of all state lawmakers, the editorial argues, should be scrutinized by the commission to examine and expound upon potential instances of corruption. The editorial was adamant in driving home this point: “Given the Legislature’s opposition to clean living, an independent investigation is the only way to go.” New recommendations can only be formulated after wrongdoings are examined and publicized.
Gambling Opponents Question Industry Contributions and Ballot Language Changes
Earlier this year, Albany legislators approved constitutional amendment language that would allow casino gambling in New York, sending the issue to the voters in a referendum to be decided this November. Currently New York permits gambling at five Native American-run casinos and electronic gambling at nine racetracks. The constitutional amendment, if it passes, would allow up to four new casinos in the Catskills, Southern Tier and Albany County regions. According to analysis by Common Cause New York, gambling and horse racing interests have spent $59 million on lobbying and political contributions in the state since 2005. And in just May and June of this year, the industry spent more than $1 million on lobbyists. Susan Lerner, executive director at Common Cause New York, said that “Albany is extra skilled in creating opportunities for the gambling industry to throw money at it.” Opponents of the measure have expressed concern about the language on the ballot, which was changed to describe supposed benefits such as “promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes.” Concerned citizens have argued that the language was deliberately changed to incline voters to approve the proposed constitutional amendment and question the likelihood of such positive results. A prior effort to legalize gambling in New York was defeated in 1997 by an unexpected coalition between faith leaders and Donald Trump, although that proposal never made it to the referendum stage.
McCutcheon Decision May Affect State Laws
Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC on the constitutionality of federal aggregate limits on campaign contributions to federal candidates and parties, which require individuals who have given a certain amount to stop giving altogether for the rest of the election cycle. States with similar limits on state candidate contributions are watching closely. Only nine states have aggregate limits on campaign donations. A case challenging Wisconsin’s limits is already pending in the federal courts. Wisconsin law sets an aggregate limit of $10,000 per year on individual donations to state-office candidates, political parties, and PACs. In U.S. District Court, Wisconsin resident—and Koch brothers associate—Fred Racine, Jr. is fighting to strike down those limits. Another case is pending challenging campaign finance laws in Hawaii, including donation caps, reporting rules, and a ban on government contractors donating to candidates. The 9th Circuit has already heard arguments in the case, but suggested it may delay ruling until the Supreme Court rules on McCutcheon.
Washington State Sues Food Lobbyists over Campaign Finance Law Violations
On Wednesday, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed suit against the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) over state campaign disclosure laws. According to Ferguson, the GMA, a Washington D.C.-based trade association, illegally collected and spent more than $7 million without disclosing its contributors. The GMA became involved in Washington State to oppose an upcoming ballot initiative, I-522, that would require the labeling of genetically modified food and has become one of the state’s costliest initiative campaigns ever. The attorney general’s office is requesting the court to mandate that GMA immediately comply with disclosure requirements. The GMA denies that it is in violation of state campaign finance laws.