With just 10 days to go before the state's lobbying law expires, Gov. George E. Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver agreed Tuesday night to a series of restrictions and new disclosure provisions that they say will shed more light on the often-criticized special interest industry at the Capitol.
But the deal weakens several provisions of an already loophole-riddled bill proposed last week by Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, which, among its provisions, called for eliminating many gifts valued at more than $25 to lawmakers. Also, the deal announced by the strange alliance of Republican Pataki and Democrat Silver, who seldom have kind words for each other, cuts out Bruno, a fellow Republican and the governor's most important ally in the Legislature.
Without a three-way deal between Pataki, Bruno and Silver, it remains unclear whether the law will now simply lapse on Dec. 31 without any enforcement abilities by the state Temporary Commission on Lobbying. The deal by Pataki without Bruno also brings out into the open what legislators and lobbyists say has been increasingly sour relations between the two Republicans.
After taking a public beating by Republicans and Democrats alike after Bruno proposed his lobbying reform plan, Silver last week said he was holding out to offer "meaningful" reforms to the ever-growing lobbying industry. But the new plan makes no changes to rein in special-interest giving by lobbyists, such as even mild plans to ban fund-raisers during legislative sessions.
The new plan does not go as far as Bruno's in a significant area: state agencies. Currently, lobbyists do not have to disclose their activities outside of trying to influence the governor's office or the state Legislature. That means companies trying to affect the largest financial business of state government -- the awarding of contracts for everything from computer systems to prison food -- do so out of the public's view. Under the Pataki and Silver agreement, unlike Bruno's plan, lobbyists working to get big contracts approved by state agencies would not be covered by the law.
The bill also keeps at the law's current state level -- $75 -- the most a lobbyist can give to a lawmaker in gifts, such as free dinners and tickets to sporting events. The $75 can be given every day, and not, as some have called for, on an annual basis.
Government watchdog groups reacted with mixed reviews to the Pataki-Silver plan. Though he said there was nothing bad in the bill, Blair Horner, a lobbyist with the New York Public Interest Research Group, blasted it for not including gift bans and campaign-finance restrictions.
Going further than the Senate version, the Pataki-Silver plan does allow the state lobbying commission to conduct random audits of lobbyists, as opposed to waiting for complaints to investigate. It also would require lobbyists to identify by bill number the legislation they are working to influence and file more frequent disclosure statements. It would also, like Bruno's plan, require disclosure of lobbying activities before local governments in towns, cities and counties with more than 50,000 residents, though not until 2001. And it raises the penalties -- both civil and criminal -- for violating the gift and disclosure requirements.