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Imagine

Imagine a world without campaign commercials—one where politicians didn’t kiss babies in bad lighting, call their opponents names, make promises we all know they don’t intend to keep—one where you don’t have to hear so and so “approve this message.” Feels nice doesn’t it?

OK, stop.

Now imagine a world where campaign commercials run all year long even though there is no impending election.

Sorry to tell you folks, but this is the reality we now live in.

There is an upside, though. Local media outlets will get a few more bucks than normal and these commercials won’t feature baby-kissing politicos with their placating slogans. No. These spots are generally free of politicians showing off their families and connections to the area. But in some ways they are twice as annoying and doubly depressing.

They are the kind with generally sad looking folks saying things like, “How can you do this to me?” and warning that budget cuts will send more and more people to the unemployment line. This year there will be another side to that—ads trumpeting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to cut the budget, and the need for fiscal responsibility in the state.

The budget season isn’t quite here yet, but as the kids like to say: “It’s on like Donkey Kong.”

Cuomo has pledged to wage a campaign against unions that will try to whittle down his approval ratings with commercials slamming his proposed budget cuts.

He illustrated the typical budget process during his State of the State speech by showing a PowerPoint presentation with himself and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos as the captains of three individual ships. A bomber, representing special interests, swooped into the picture and dropped bombs on Cuomo, ignoring the legislative leaders. Normally, unions attack the governor with harsh ad campaigns, and legislators who are loath to make spending cuts in general use the attacks as leverage to avoid any significant trimming.

With the state facing a $9 billion deficit, Cuomo wants this process to change.

You may have already seen the TV spots by the Committee to Save New York that talk about the state’s “broken” government and back Cuomo. The committee came under scrutiny this week because they had yet to register as a lobbying entity with the state ethics panel. As a group backed by business and real estate interests and intending to influence the outcome of legislation pending in the Legislature, it was pretty clear to most that they were a lobbying organization and should register. According to members of the group, including Kathryn Wylde, president of the business group Partnership for New York, the Committee to Save New York was created at Cuomo’s urging.

The committee initially argued they didn’t have to register as a lobbying organization until the budget was presented, but Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said that idea was “bogus.” Horner, who is registered as a lobbyist, said that it only made sense for the group to register, just as every other lobbying group has to.

Its important to make this very clear: The Committee to Save New York—a group sponsored by business and real estate interests—and unions like PEF, CSEA, SEIU1199, can all be labeled special interests. None of them is working exclusively for the singular good of the state, and none of them should be given a pass on the very loose ethics rules the state has.

But the battle lines are being drawn, and some media outlets would like voters to see things in a different light. The New York Post, a paper that has written “news stories” about the work it has done to support Mayor Bloomberg’s agenda, ran an unsigned editorial (at least I think it was an editorial) titled “Cynical ‘Moralists’” touting the good, honest work of the Committee to Save New York and slamming NYPIRG for raising concerns while painting them as the “Albany insiders.”

“So the committee’s enemies—backed by an ostensible voice of reform, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and other so-called good-government groups—are muttering about a supposed unholy secret alliance between the new governor and the business community,” read the piece. Horner calls it a “hatchet job.” NYPIRG and its backers, as he points out, do not stand to gain financially from their lobbying, as the Committee to Save New York does.

The Post piece goes on to say that much more is known about who is behind the committee than who funds NYPIRG. The Post is harping on the fact that NYPIRG doesn’t disclose its small donors, only large grants from organizations and funding from SUNY and CUNY. The Committee to Save New York, even when it registers as a lobbyist, will not have to reveal its major donors. Only the members who plan to act as lobbyists for the group will have to register.

“We know the group was created to some extent by Gov. Cuomo. You can’t say that about anyone else,” said Horner, and that is what makes them different.

You can expect the Post to champion the committee because of the supporters we know it has are interests that both the Post and its owner Rupert Murdoch support—real estate and business. They want to see taxes go down and a better environment for business in New York in general.

Other outlets will likely be kinder to unions that want to save benefits and jobs for their workers and funding for education, health care and services for the poor.

What is the most likely outcome of all of this? Cuomo will present a budget that slashes and saves that the Legislature will refuse to vote on. As Paterson did last year, Cuomo will likely push his budget into an emergency extender and legislators will have to decide whether to shut the state down and reject Cuomo’s cuts or to keep the state open for business and accept them. It will be an easy choice—approve the cuts, tell the constituents and organizations that they had no choice but to accept the budget, and blame Cuomo. In the end, the season of ads likely will have served only to keep Cuomo’s approval ratings manageable.

Yay modern Democracy!

—David King


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