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New York Reform Group Urges Fix Of Super PAC Measure

Mike Groll

An ethics reform measure approved by the New York legislature at the end of the legislative session still hasn’t been signed by Governor Cuomo. And some good government groups say it shouldn’t.

During a year where both former leaders of the legislature were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for corruption, after they abused their sources of outside income, Governor Cuomo said he’d seek to strictly limit lawmakers’ ability to earn extra pay. Cuomo also proposed closing a campaign finance loophole involving limited liability companies, that factored heavily in the corruption trials.

The governor could not win agreement on either issue, but he did devise a measure to more force independent expenditure groups made legal under the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision to more fully disclose their donors and relationships with candidates. Cuomo spoke about it earlier in the year.

“You can’t share staff, you can’t share an office,” said Cuomo at Fordham University on June 8.

Most New York candidates do not rely on Super PACs for funding.

The final bill, passed in the middle of the night on a Friday in late June, also included requirements for small, not-for-profit groups to more fully disclose all of their donors. The threshold for groups having to disclose their donors to the state’s ethics panel was lowered from groups spending $50,000 a year to advocate for an issue, to groups spending over $15,000 each year. Any donor who gives more than $2,500 would need to be reported, compared to the previous limit of $5,000.

Government reform groups say that provision would have a chilling effect on the ability of small organizations to lobby state government. Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, says, “What we don’t have is a balancing between the public’s need to know, and First Amendment and privacy rights.”

Common Cause already makes public all of its donors on its website, and so would not be affected. But it might make it harder for the group, and other government reformers, to band together with smaller interest groups to try to change government and clean up corruption.

Reformers were harshly critical of Cuomo and the legislature during the 2016 session for failing to enact more fundamental changes that could curb what they say is a rampant pay-to-play culture. Lerner says the Super PAC bill is largely a “distraction.”

“This is such a huge missed opportunity and such a deflection,” said Lerner, who said polls show New Yorkers are very concerned about state government curbing corruption. 

“This bill is not designed to address the root of the problem,” said Lerner, who said the measure does not deal with the legislature or the governor. “It’s all about somebody else.”

Lerner could not comment on whether the measure was payback for the reform groups, who have been sharply critical of Cuomo and the legislature.

A spokesman for Governor Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, in a statement essentially accused Common Cause and others of being hypocrites. “Everyone is all for transparency, except when it comes to them,” Azzopardi wrote “I’m just surprised to learn that applies to self-appointed good government groups, too.”

Lerner says even the new Super PAC regulations do not go far enough. In New York City and some neighboring states, Super PACs are required to clearly disclose their funders in their television ads. New York State’s legislation does not require that. 

The bill has been sent to Governor Cuomo and he’s expected to act on it soon. Common Cause and others say Cuomo and the legislature should start over, and hold public hearings before writing a new measure.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.