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This Bill’s for Sale

The increasing amount of cash spent to influence legislation in New York state prompts calls for lobbying reform

Whereas privilege-seekers of yore were known to frequent the lobbies and hallways outside of the Capitol’s legislative chambers to curry favor with legislators—hence the term “lobbying”—their modern-day counterparts are increasingly recognized for the amount of money they spend influencing elected officials. And in New York, the figure continues to rise.

The New York Temporary State Commission on Lobbying released its annual report last week, stating that lobby groups spent approximately $92 million in 2002 to influence legislators’ bill-related decisions. The amount spent last year was double the amount spent just five years ago on lobbying activities, which can range from purchasing airtime for advertisements to organizing public rallies to taking legislators out for private dinners.

The largest single spender in 2002 was United Federation of Teachers, which spent approximately $2.8 million. The union represents 125,000 teachers and educational workers throughout the state of New York. The second largest spender was also a teacher’s union, New York State United Teachers, which reported just under $2 million in lobbying activities last year. The New York Yankees, however, purchased the largest single lobbying contract.

According to the commission’s report, Yankee Entertainment & Sports Network paid the lobbying group Global Strategy $693,517 to influence legislators’ decisions regarding the team’s cable television contract. Another group related to the Bronx Bombers, Yankee Partnership (NY), also kicked down $184,153, the report said.

While the total amount spent on lobbying may seem significant by itself, one of the Lobbying Commission’s legislative recommendations is to expand the definition of what classifies as lobbying—a reform supported by a number of public interest groups.

“The only lobbying that is currently required to be reported by law is lobbying on legislative activity, bill legislation,” said David Grandeau, executive director of the Lobbying Commision. “The expanded definition would require agency lobbying or procurement lobbying to be reported. [For example,] when you buy $10 million worth of computers for a state office, there is no bill that anyone is lobbying on, but there is lobbying at the agency level as to who will get the contract.”

Rachel Leon, executive director of the legislative watchdog group Common Cause/NY, said the need to expand the definition of lobbying is great.

“There is a lot of money at stake,” Leon said. “It is not just public trust we’re talking about, but it is actually the public treasury. We’re talking about potentially billions of dollars being given out in state contracts, and there is no sunlight on that process; it’s not considered lobbying. And as we’ve seen with the Correctional Services scandal, it’s not like everything is hunky dory and we don’t need a change.”

Leon referred to the case of former Assemblywoman Gloria Davis, who admitted to taking bribes from Correctional Services Corp., a Florida-based prison operator, while the group sought to win contracts in New York state. Davis’ admission brought CSC’s lobbying practices under scrutiny by state prosecutors and election officials, and a decision is still pending.

Another of the Lobbying Commission’s recommendations is to drop the state’s ban on individual legislators accepting personal gifts worth more than $75. Grandeau said the commission would like to get rid of the “arbitrary monetary cap” on gifts, and have all gifts disclosed.

“Right now there is a gift ban of $75, and I can’t tell the difference between a $70 gift and an $80 gift, and I don’t know anyone that can,” Grandeau said. “With that thought in mind, let’s just let legislators accept all gifts and require them to be reported. Then let the public and the media draw their own conclusions.”

Though Leon agreed that the state’s rules regarding legislators accepting personal gifts are in need of reform, her group endorses a more extreme change to the law: barring all legislators from accepting personal gifts from lobbyists.

“I just don’t think there should be any reason that lobbyists should be giving legislators gifts,” Leon said. “Most citizens don’t give gifts to legislators; [lobbyists and legislators] should be talking about issues. This is about access and lobbyists having this chummy relationship with legislators that most New Yorkers don’t have.”

But Leon said that one of the reasons her group endorsed many of the Lobbying Commission’s recommended reforms stems from acknowledging the importance of the practice.

“There is nothing wrong per se with lobbying; we are lobbyists and we hope that more citizens are lobbyists,” Leon said. “It just seems that you have to pay to play in the sense that if you want your issues represented in Albany you really need to have a hired gun, and that is not what democracy should be about. Democracy should be about citizens being able to lobby their elected officials, and it is not as if they can’t now, but are their voices being heard as loud as the $92 million players?”

—Travis Durfee

Proud to be Americans: troop supporters in Clifton Park. Photo by John Whipple.

With Us or Against Us

A rally supporting U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq brings out hostility toward antiwar protesters—and concerns about a corporate giant’s role in promoting the event

An event titled “Rally for the Troops”—part of a growing nationwide movement to publicly support the U.S. military campaign in Iraq and combat the nation’s antiwar demonstrations—drew thousands to the Clifton Commons Sports Complex on Saturday, due in part to sponsorship by a local Clear Channel radio station.

Though police officers didn’t offer a specific head count, Sgt. Scott McCart of the New York State Police said there were “a lot more people there than anyone expected.” McCart said he was told by one of the town supervisors that the crowd numbered close to 10,000 at its peak.

Don Neddo organized the event, as he has a number of smaller rallies throughout the Capital Region over the past few months. The Halfmoon resident said he was fed up with the media’s coverage of demonstrations being held to protest war in Iraq.

“The troops think that everything is anti-American in this country, anti-troop,” Neddo said. “They’re not getting the message, but they will now.”

Neddo said he was pleased with the rally’s crowd, which was much greater than the turnout at similar rallies he’d held throughout the Capital Region in the last month. For that, Neddo, a veteran whose grandson is currently stationed in the Middle East, can thank Scott Allen Miller, a local radio personality. Miller promoted the rally on his afternoon talk program on Clear Channel-owned AM station WGY.

In fact, on-air personalities at Clear Channel stations have been endorsing rallies supporting the troops and the war effort throughout the nation, raising the eyebrows of many media critics.

“You look at the difference between antiwar rallies, where you have to buy your publicity, your advertising, and it costs you an enormous amount of money,” said Peter Hart, media analyst for the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. “Then the other side, the pro-war rallies, have this built-in support at the radio stations. There is such an obvious case of political speech being available in vastly different amounts.”

But a statement issued by Clear Channel said the company is not endorsing the rallies; its talk-radio personalities are.

“Talk radio IS advocacy,” read the statement. “Successful talk radio hosts all have strong opinions which they freely express. . . . Far from being mouthpieces for the companies that own the programs . . . the hosts often create problems for them among groups who take exception to their points of view and try to silence them through boycotts and protests.”

But the company’s statement did not address a possible a conflict of interest—Clear Channel broadcasts daily reports on the war in Iraq via the company’s embedded reporter during the syndicated talk shows endorsing pro-troop, pro-war rallies. A company spokesman did not return calls for comment.

Regardless of how the messages were broadcast prior to the event, at the rally they were loud and clear. “America, love it or get out” and “Support our troops and President Bush” read some of the signs hoisted above the heads and shoulders of the mob that often broke into chants of “USA! USA!” and choruses of “God Bless America” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The event featured a number of speakers ranging from veterans praising the country’s servicemen for their bravery to people reading letters from family members in the field. Many people sold yellow ribbons and bits and pieces of Americana to raise money and send care packages to the troops, which include food and prepaid phone cards.

“It’s about time that [the troops] had something like this around here,” said Watervliet resident Laura Sehl, whose son Paul Marziani is a combat engineer in the Army’s 3rd infantry division currently stationed in Umm Qasr, Iraq. “You see all the peace activists that are out there, and [the troops], they need our support to raise their morale, to know that we are behind them one hundred percent.”

But the atmosphere wasn’t supportive to all of the rally’s attendees. Roughly a half-dozen antiwar demonstrators showed up carrying signs supporting the troops, but opposing the war. “An eye for an eye leaves the world blind” and “Support our troops, bring them home” read the placards of the antiwar protesters who—lined up like ducks in a shooting gallery—bore a continuous spray of insults and verbal abuse.

“You bunch of elitists. You think you know everything,” one of the rally’s attendees shouted at the antiwar demonstrators, though his comments were among the tamer ones. A few parents walking past the wall of police guarding the war protesters shouted epithets and told their young children that the demonstrators were “losers.”

“If they think so much of Saddam, why in the hell don’t they move the hell out of this country and go to there?” said Neddo. “They don’t belong in this country, they’re traitors. They either support this country, support that good old red, white and blue flag, or get the hell out of here.”

Neddo said he was planning on taking “Rallies for the Troops” across the state, with events planned in Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. He hopes to garner enough support to hold a rally in New York City matching the antiwar demonstrations that have drawn hundreds of thousands.

“The people are finally coming alive and getting sick of it, and they’ve had enough,” Neddo said. “Enough is enough, you know what I mean.”

The next Rally for the Troops will be held Saturday, May 10, at the Capitol building from 1 to 3 PM.

—Travis Durfee

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