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Capitol lobbying heats up as budget deadline nears

Karen DeWitt

It’s a busy time at the state Capitol, with just over one month to go until the state budget is due. Groups are bringing advocates by the hundreds to try to get their favored items placed into the spending plan. Meanwhile, there are lingering recriminations over the failed Amazon deal.   

Among the groups vying for attention at a crowded state Capitol, are advocates for public campaign financing.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has put into his budget a plan that would use state funds to match small donor contributions in a seven to one ratio. If donor gave $10, the candidate would get $70.

Jessica Wisneski, with the government reform group Citizen Action, said a report released this week by NYU’s Brennan Center illustrates why the change is needed.

"In New York State, the top 100 donors gave more to candidates than all of the estimated 137,000 small donors combined," said Wisneski, who said small donations represented only 5% of total contributions in the 2018 election cycle.

"That is a shame," she said.

The Assembly sponsor of a public campaign finance bill, Linda Rosenthal said it’s a way to allow people who aren’t already wealthy run for office, and could lessen the influence of big money donors on issues like housing.

"Landlords and big real estate have had legislatures in their pockets, because they have contributed to legislature’s pockets, to their campaigns," Rosenthal said. "And they have had the run of show here."

Advocates are hopeful of passage. The Senate is controlled by Democrats for the first time in a decade, and several Senators won their campaigns without large donations from individuals or corporations.

But some advocates say they don’t want their item to be part of the budget. They say with one party now ruling state government the items can be considered separately instead.

Criminal justice reform advocates are seeking an end to cash bail, faster court processing, and a change in discovery laws to give defendants earlier access to any evidence, or lack of evidence a prosecutor may have against them. 

Nick Encalada-Malinowski , with VOCAL- NY, said in the past, policy items needed to be horse traded between the governor, Democrats in the Assembly and Republicans in the Senate. He said with Democrats leading all three offices, there’s room for more thoughtful consideration of important legislation outside of the budget.

"The details are very important. Every ‘and,’ every ‘or,’ makes a huge difference to people who are going to be left incarcerated in New York State," Encalada- Malinowski said. "We don’t want these bills to be in the budget where they can be traded against issues that are unrelated to them like property taxes or legislative salaries."

Malinowski said the measures should advance the "old fashioned" way, with the legislature considering and approving a measure for a governor to sign or veto.

Even though the governor and Senate are members of the same party, there have been some disagreements that might make budget negotiations more difficult. Cuomo and Senate Democrats are feuding over the failure of the  Amazon project in Long Island City, Queens. Amazon ended a deal to receive $3 billion worth of public funded subsidies in exchange for creating an estimated 25,000 jobs. 

Senate Republicans, whose numbers are down to just 23 members out of a 63 member chamber, seized an opportunity to drive a further wedge between the Democrats. Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan said when the GOP was in power, they were better at leading and minimizing public arguments.

"What’s being played out right now, it is all their entire fault," Flanagan said. "They blew at least 25,000 jobs."

Flanagan said Republicans may not control the chamber, but they will use their influence to try to get a state property tax cap made permanent, a measure backed by Cuomo and some Senate Democrats, including the Senate Majority Leader. He said he would also like to see a permanent state spending cap.

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.