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ALBANY SHOULD TOUGHEN LAX LOBBYING LAWS

Few, if any, New Yorkers can make dinner-table conversation out of the state's laws governing lobbying activities. By any standard, they are lamentably weak.

Unfortunately, too, with no particular public concern pushing for reform, state lawmakers feel free to leave them that way -- even though legislators get another chance to strengthen them when these laws expire next year.

Understand that lobbying is a big business in Albany. There are more than 2,000 registered lobbyists working for more than 1,250 clients. They want certain bills passed and others bottled up, and what's good for the general public is often not the issue.

Despite the fog of public indifference, three good government organizations -- Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the New York Public Interest Research Group -- have renewed their calls for reform. In general, their ideas are on the right track.

First, New York should ban or at least curb campaign contributions from lobbyists. Nearly half the states have some restrictions. Here it's a growing practice for state legislators to hold campaign fund-raising parties in Albany during the legislative session. The idea is for lobbyists to drop off checks as they go from party to party. The pols get much-needed campaign money, and the lobbyists hope the checks will bring the desired results when lawmakers vote. There were 201 of the events last session, up from 112 in 1995.

The practice makes campaign-finance reform an allied but broader issue. Until there are campaign-spending limits backed by public financing to make them constitutionally acceptable, the crass money chase will continue, and solidify the power of lobbyists' contributions.

New York also needs stronger laws restricting other gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists. The regulatory authority of the state's Temporary Lobby Commission, which compiles information, should be fortified to include random audits and the power to suspend lobbyists who violate those laws.

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