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Staggering sums spent on lobbying fuel Albany’s destructive pay-to-play mindset

Anyone who wants a window on the ethics problems that permeate New York government need look no further than Monday’s Buffalo News story on the money that courses through the lobbying industry in Albany.

In 2015, those wanting to influence laws and policies in the state ponied up $243 million, an increase of 63 percent over the $149 million spent 10 years ago. It’s not the only place that money greases the wheels in Albany, but it’s the sweet spot – legal, effective and extravagantly costly to everyone, especially taxpayers.

It’s pay to play, pure and simple. “If you want to get into the game, you have to get into the game, and you have to pay to get in the game.” So says Frederick Kowal to members of his union, United University Professions, which represents faculty and others in the state university system.

That is to say, you have to funnel money into the political system to have a hope of influencing public policy. And for United University Professions, the entry cost for the first six months of this year came to $625,000. Those dollars do more to influence elected officials than any constituent can hope to do.

And that’s just one interest group. One of the most head-spinning was the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice. Named for the late former governor, the fund pushed for the adoption of a higher minimum wage. It spent $2 million and its founders included Cuomo’s son, Andrew, the current governor of New York and primary political power behind the successful effort to increase the minimum wage.

There were many others, including the Healthcare Association of New York ($1 million), New York State United Teachers ($998,000) and DraftKings/FanDuel/Fantasy Sports for All, which put up $891,000 in the successful fight to legalize online fantasy sports.

All of these special interests wanted the Legislature and governor to support their issues, and understood they needed to put up fantastic sums of money to make it happen.

It is, of course, just one of the ways that money infects New York politics. Donation limits are notoriously high here, to the benefit of a few wealthy individuals, and the “LLC loophole” allows corporations to donate virtually unlimited sums of money to favored candidates. That makes fundraising easier for elected officeholders, but also puts them in debt to their donors.

That could make voters mad, but lawmakers have worked diligently to fix that problem, too. Gerrymandered districts and arcane ballot access rules have, over the years, worked to dissuade challengers from trying to unseat incumbents. Those practices have been reformed over the years, but constituents remain far down on the list of lawmakers’ concerns.

Money is inevitable in politics, but its uses and sources need to be disclosed and its influence needs to be circumscribed. That disclosure should apply to all outside income received by officeholders and policy makers.

Had such rules been in place, former Speaker Sheldon Silver might have been less likely to use his high office to enrich himself. Instead, he’s heading to prison. Frankly, nothing may have prevented former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos from intimidating businesses to provide an illegal income to his son, but laws can’t protect against all forms of greed and corruption.

There may be little for voters to do about the fact and costs of lobbying, but it is worth their while to understand how much money is going into the effort to influence how New Yorkers live their lives. It’s not a pretty sight.

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