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THIS IS THE YEAR TO DEMAND A CURB ON LOBBYISTS' ROLE IN THE BUSINESS OF ALBANY

In Albany, the "you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours" relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists is so pervasive that at one recent fund-raiser, a state senator actually distributed backscratchers as party favors.

Unfortunately, the inside joke shared among lobbyists and lawmakers is on us. Unless you can afford to hire top lobbyists and make big campaign contributions to help incumbents stay incumbents, you cannot play in Albany.

While lawmakers at the State Capitol are supposedly fashioning a state budget and wrestling with the issues of the day, Albany's special-interest lobbyists are providing them with a captive audience for almost 200 fund-raising events held during the 1997 legislative session.

For lawmakers, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. The lobbyists are based in Albany and feel duty-bound to attend these events.

All too commonplace is the unseemly spectacle of lobbyists asking for legislative favors from lawmakers during the day and filling the very same lawmakers' campaign coffers at night.

A typical night on the town for lobbyists during the legislative session can mean attending up to 10 fund-raisers per evening. In addition to forking over their own money, lobbyists act as the go-betweens for their corporate clients and their political action committees (PACs). It is this relationship that needs to be closely regulated if New York State is to ever have a true, functioning democracy.

The current law regulating lobbyists in New York State is one of the weakest in the country. Lobbyists are required to follow minimal disclosure and registration guidelines, leaving the public in the dark as to how much money is actually spent influencing government decision-making. Moreover, limitations on gift-giving by lobbyists to lawmakers are notoriously flimsy, allowing virtually unrestricted wining and dining.

Citizens expect their elected officials to represent their best interests in Albany. When special-interest money flows like wine in New York's capital, how can we be sure the political playing field is level?

Just as we would not want lawyers to wine and dine the judge in a legal case, we must ensure that lobbyists cannot use money to influence lawmakers.

During this legislative session, lawmakers have the opportunity to strengthen New York's weak lobby law. For the past 20 years, the law has been "temporary" and is scheduled to expire Dec. 31.

After a 50-state survey that looked at how other states regulate lobbyists' activities, Common Cause/NY, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and the League of Women Voters of New York State began working on a bill that addresses many of these problems. The Integrity In Government Act (A.5503), introduced this year by Assembly Members Alexander "Pete" Grannis (D-Manhattan) and Sandra Galef (D-Westchester), incorporates the best of many laws already in place in other states.

The bill is co-sponsored by Assembly members from around the state and supported by over 80 civic groups statewide. If passed into law, here's what it would achieve:

A ban on lobbyists making political contributions while the State Legislature is in session.

A limit on the contributions at $250 per election cycle.

A tight ban on lobbyists and their clients from giving free meals, travel or other gifts to legislators and other public officials.

An end to public officials' acceptance of honoraria.

Permanent status for the 20-year-old "Temporary" State Lobby Commission.

Extension of the provisions of the state law regulating lobbyists to include local governments.

During the campaign season, a common theme for candidates is that, if elected, one of their primary goals will be to clean up the way legislators conduct business. However, once ensconced in the "culture" of Albany, lawmakers easily fall into the "you-scratch-my-back, I'll-scratch-yours" mentality of the capital. Often, this leads to failed promises of reform.

This year, legislators have the chance to stay true to their campaign speeches.

ANDREW GREENBLATT is Executive Director of Common Cause/NY. BLAIR HORNER is Legislative Director for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).
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