Archive for November 2022

New York Kicks Off Its New Voluntary System of Public Financing of Elections

Posted by NYPIRG on November 21, 2022 at 8:26 am

This past election New Yorkers were inundated by political ads paid for by Big Money.  Huge campaign contributions from lobbyists and those who have contracts – or are seeking them –with  the government, as well as unlimited spending by wealthy special interest patrons, dominated the political landscape.  Those groups spoke with the equivalent of a megaphone amplified through rock-arena speakers.  In contrast the voices of average New Yorkers were barely a whisper.

What happened is not unique to New York. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution has made it impossible to impose a limit on campaign spending.  The first Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Using its interpretation of the phrase “freedom of speech” in the mid-1970s the Court ruled, in the landmark case Buckley v. Valeo, that statutory limits on campaign contributions were not violations of the First Amendment freedom of expression, but that statutory limits on campaign spending were unconstitutional. 

The Court interpreted the First Amendment by deciding that restricting spending money to facilitate campaign messaging “reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.”

Of course, there is nothing in the Constitution that equates the two.  And it was that decision that laid the groundwork decades later for the now-infamous Citizens United decision, which said that political spending independent of candidate control could not be restricted.  As a result, in America it is essentially unconstitutional to restrict the wealthy and powerful from spending as much as they want to influence elections.

New Yorkers saw the impact in the elections earlier this month.  Campaign donors drive elections and only those who curry Big Money’s favor can mount serious candidacies.

Against that depressing backdrop, New York has taken a step toward making it easier for grassroots candidates to run for office without having to be beholden to the wealthy and powerful.

In 2020, as a result of a big push from former Governor Cuomo, New York established a voluntary system of public financing of elections.  That program started up the day after Election Day of this year.  All statewide candidates, including those running for governor, comptroller and attorney general, as well as the 213 legislative seats in Albany, are eligible to participate.

New York’s program allows private direct contributions of between $5 and $250 to be matched with public funds, depending on the size.  The smaller the contribution, the bigger the public match; up to $12 for every contribution of no more than $50 for example.  Thus, candidates would be able to run for office by raising small contributions through a system of clean public resources that amplified small donations, instead of depending on big checks from special interest groups, wealthy individuals, and lobbyists.

New York has experience with a voluntary public financing system.  For over 30 years, New York City has had a similar program – considered a model for the nation.

And now that type of system is moving to a statewide scale in the new election cycle.  The hope is that smaller donations will reduce the influence of big money in politics and enhance electoral challenges.

The 2020 legislation also significantly reduced the allowable campaign contribution amounts.  For example, Governor Hochul was able to receive contributions up to $69,700 this year.  Starting now, she can “only” receive $18,000.  While a big drop, it is still much higher than New York’s U.S. Senator Schumer can receive; which is no more than $5,800 from an individual, and far more than the national average contribution to a state’s candidates for governor, which is $6,126.  The 2020 reform did nothing to limit donations from lobbyists or those who are seeking government contracts.

In addition, the new law could not do anything about the flood of so-called “independent” spending by corporations or wealthy individuals.  And public financing is a voluntary system, with participation a choice to be made by the candidate. 

But it does offer those New Yorkers of average means, who are not part of a network that includes the wealthy, to make a serious run for state office.  And given the tight grip the well-connected have over our government, electoral competition may be the only way to offset that enormous influence.

More can be done – including the creation of an independent enforcement agency, limits on those seeking government contracts, and lobbyist donations – but New York’s public financing system brings some good news.  News that holds the promise that the voices of rank and file New Yorkers can rise above a whisper.

The 2022 Election in New York

Posted by NYPIRG on November 14, 2022 at 9:23 am

Americans made their way to the polls last week and collectively voted to keep the status quo, more or less.  The U.S. Senate will remain in Democratic Party control with a razor thin majority; control of the House is still up for grabs.  Whichever party ends up in the majority, that margin will also be small.

Here in New York the election results left the status quo in place.  U.S. Senate Majority Leader Schumer, Governor Hochul, Attorney General James, Comptroller DiNapoli – all Democrats – were elected to statewide offices in this deep blue state.  Voters also maintained the status quo in the state Senate and state Assembly, with large Democratic Party majorities in each house.

But looking at those results from 30,000 feet ignores troubling signs for Democrats.  The big win forecast for incumbent Governor Hochul ended up much closer than most expected.  The Democrat Legislative majorities in both houses lost seats.  In the outcome that could have the biggest impact, seats that the Democrats controlled in the Congress flipped to Republicans.  Those “flips” may make the difference in who controls the House.

So, what happened?  Let’s look at three areas: campaign financing, turnout, and redistricting.

First, the basics.  Voter enrollment in New York gives a big edge to Democrats.  By a roughly 2 to 1 margin, Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York.  In fact, there are more New Yorkers not enrolled in a political party than there are Republicans.  Republicans have not won a statewide election in 20 years. 

Yet, Republican Lee Zeldin came within 5 points of beating Democrat incumbent Kathy Hochul. The candidates relied on two different campaign fundraising strategies.

The Hochul campaign used the power of incumbency to raise an enormous amount of money in a short period of time.  Lobbyists and those seeking government business are always looking for a leg up, donating to an incumbent – particularly one in a blue state – seems like a safe bet.  The governor knows that and used it to spectacular advantage.

Hochul raised $50 million in one year, a record for the largest haul in the shortest time in New York history.  She used a ton of it to fend off primary challengers and ran up a big polling advantage over her Republican opponent, Lee Zeldin, a Congressmember from the Republican-voting eastern end of Long Island.  Zeldin is a conservative, who supports gun rights, opposes abortion, and voted to overturn the 2020 Presidential election.  He seemed to be mismatched with the New York electorate. 

Like Republicans nationwide, Zeldin organized his campaign around public safety and inflation.  He was disciplined and hard hitting.  And his campaign benefited from another campaign financing practice – one that allows unlimited spending by an individual or an interest group if they do not formally coordinate with the candidate.  These so-called “independent expenditures” helped keep Zeldin in the game through the summer and into the fall.  Largely funded by one man – billionaire Ron Lauder, who spent at least $11 million on behalf of the Zeldin candidacy – this support helped to offset the governor’s fundraising advantage. 

The Lauder barrage hammered Hochul on crime and coupled with Zeldin’s disciplined message narrowed the polling gap as Election Day drew closer, which in turn encouraged more Republican donors to help Zeldin.

How the Hochul campaign spent her war chest to fend off Zeldin will become clearer when disclosures are made public next month, but it took a concerted effort by big Democratic names – President Biden, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and other luminaries – to boost turnout and help the governor win her election.

Which leads to the second election factor: turnout.  How could a conservative Republican candidate lose by such a narrow margin in a deep blue state?  A review of the election results does show one big change in the 2022 election: lower voter turnout in New York City. 

New York City voters cast more than 400,000 fewer votes in 2022 than in 2018 – the last gubernatorial election.  Of course, all those votes would not have gone to Hochul, but New York City has a 5-to-1 Democrat enrollment advantage, so a turnout in 2022 as there was in 2018 could have doubled the governor’s margin of victory, turning a squeaker into a solid win.

And then there is redistricting – the once-a-decade process for adjusting state legislative and congressional district lines based on the census.  All races have their own unique and local rationales, but it’s fair to say that the district lines drawn for the Congress and state Senate in New York State helped upend Democrat candidates.  Democrats had tried to draw their own lines, but New York’s courts ruled them unconstitutional and drew unbiased lines instead.  Those new lines put some Democrats in a bind.  For example, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney was running for re-election in which only about 25% of the voting population was from his old district.  In a big win for the G.O.P., Maloney lost.

Where Democrats had the hardest time was in the suburban areas of New York – those on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley.  How Democrats respond to this growing electoral threat is anyone’s guess, but shrinking majorities are something that should raise their concern.  Political alignments are rarely permanent.

When it came to electoral expectations Republicans, on the other hand, did far better in New York than anywhere else in the country and will consider New York in the “W” column despite coming up short in the statewide races. 

The lessons the governor and the Legislative majorities take from last Tuesday’s results could well dictate the outcome in November 2024.

The World Grapples With Climate Crisis, the Fossil Fuel Industries Fight to Stop Those Efforts

Posted by NYPIRG on November 7, 2022 at 8:48 am

As the nation focused on the midterm elections, the world’s attention has been on Egypt, the location of the COP27 – the meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) – the 27th United Nations Climate Change conference. The conference started November 6th and will continue until November 18th. COP27 is this year’s annual gathering of nations to advance the world’s attempts to minimize the ongoing – and worsening – climate crisis. At these events, countries review and revise their pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions – largely those produced by the burning of oil, coal, and gas.
According to the U.N., since last year’s meetings in Scotland only 26 of the 193 countries have followed through on last year’s promises. Such actions are desperately needed: This year was Europe’s hottest summer in 500 years, a third of Pakistan flooded, the Philippines were hammered by huge storms, and the whole of Cuba is under daily blackouts.

Countries that failed last year to put forward strengthened targets were expected to do so before COP27. Financial and other support for protecting the world’s vulnerable countries is supposed to be near the top of the climate crisis-fighting agenda. Yet, developing countries are not getting the promised assistance, including an annual $100 billion meant to be delivered from 2020 to 2025.

Wealthy nations need to give as much as ten times current levels of funding to help developing countries adapt to climate change or face widespread suffering and displacement as well as increased conflict, according to the U.N.

The war in Ukraine has begun to derail pledges already made. For example, Germany had vowed to completely cease using coal to produce energy by 2030, but it recently stepped up coal production in response to dwindling supplies of gas from Russia.

Undoubtedly, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has scrambled climate plans. However, the ongoing climate crisis does not take a pause because of human conflicts. Ironically, the Russian aggression is being funded by the purchase of Russian fossil fuels – which is contributing to the climate crisis.

In addition to being a big factor in providing financing to the Russian war machine, the roiling energy market has resulted in price gouging by energy interests, fattening the profits of Big Oil and other fossil fuel industries.

For example, the United States’ biggest oil companies – ExxonMobil and Chevron – reported a fourth consecutive quarter of robust profits from high oil and natural gas prices and strong chemical and refining earnings. ExxonMobil’s profit of nearly $20 billion from operations topped the previous quarter’s $17.9 billion. The oil company’s latest quarterly profit was nearly triple what it made in the same period last year. The cumulative takings for the seven biggest private sector oil drillers during the first nine months of 2022 could hit $173 billion. Saudi oil giant Aramco, reported a mind-blowing $42 billion profit in the third quarter alone, making profits so far in 2022 of $130.3 billion, compared to $77.6 billion in 2021.

Those profits not only make executives richer and shareholders happy, they also help fund the industry’s public relations, lobbying, and campaign financing activities.

A report issued last week documented how that spending is playing out in New York. The report (issued by the advocacy group Lil Sis) found that the industry is helping to finance a campaign to undermine the implementation of the state’s climate goals. A few years ago, New York enacted some of the most aggressive programs to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The law, however, delegated setting up the program that would implement those goals to the Climate Action Council (CAC).

Last week’s report identified that the oil industry and its allies have begun an aggressive lobbying effort to block implementation of the CAC’s plans. According to the report their efforts, “have already succeeded in eliminating a proposal from the state budget to ban fossil gas hookups in newly constructed buildings – which was recommended by the Climate Action Council in its draft scoping plan – and are now promoting misinformation to further weaken New York’s agenda as the Climate Action Council holds hearings across the state on its proposed plan.”

Fake coalitions, front groups, and big spending by corporate polluters is, sadly, nothing new. But the swollen profits of Big Oil can add staggering sums to that advocacy. And unlike corporate-shilling advocacy of the past, this one may have globally catastrophic consequences.

We are, after all, talking about an existential threat to the world. Big Oil’s efforts to undermine steps to protect the environment and human health may further enrich the companies and their unprincipled mouthpieces, but for the billions who will be left with incredible misery and early deaths, it is too high a price.

The global conference in Egypt can help keep climate fighting momentum alive, but we all need lawmakers willing to take on the greed of the oil industry and the dishonesty of their public relations mouthpieces. Otherwise, we will all pay dearly and for many decades to come.