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Reform group urges fix of super PAC measure

Governor Andrew Cuomo

An ethics reform measure approved by the New York State Legislature at the end of the legislative session still hasn’t been signed by Gov. Andrew 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, Cuomo said he would 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 require independent expenditure groups — also called super political action committees — to more fully disclose their donors and relationships with candidates. The groups were made legal under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Cuomo spoke about it earlier in the year.

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

Most New York candidates do not rely on super PACs to help finance their campaigns, so the new regulations would not have much of an effect on their funding abilities.

The final super PAC regulation bill, passed in the middle of the night on a Friday in late June, also included requirements for small nonprofit groups to more fully disclose 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 more than $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.

“What we don’t have is a balancing between the public’s need to know, and First Amendment and privacy rights,” said Susan Lerner with Common Cause.

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 said 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 noted 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.

In a statement, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi 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 said 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 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 DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.