Press-Republican

May 3, 2012

Cuomo targets Super PACS in campaign reform

MICHAEL GORMLEY
Associated Press

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo railed Wednesday against so-called "super PACs" and their use of millions of dollars to influence voters without disclosing donors, while the biggest group acting that way in New York was created to back him.

"Court rulings that have brought unprecedented amounts of money into the political system, these quote-unquote super PACs, that can raise money, no disclosure of who the donors are and can raise millions and millions of dollars," Cuomo said on public radio's "Capitol Connection."

"The power of money in this Capitol is unbelievable," Cuomo said, in defending the need for campaign finance reforms.

Current proposals include voluntary public financing of campaigns and lower donation limits for candidates, which Cuomo noted could make super PAC money even more important.

The lobbying group supporting Cuomo since he took office last year, the Committee to Save New York, was created by a business group official and includes CEOs and chambers of commerce. It has spent $10 million to blanket New York with TV ads promoting Cuomo and his policies as he continues to ride high poll numbers.

"The $10 million — the most spent by a lobbying group in New York state — must have had a positive effect on the public's view of the governor and his policies, on his stratospheric poll numbers," said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. "The issue is how much impact, which is almost impossible to determine."

The committee differs in important ways from super PACs in terms of disclosure. It has reported its spending as required of lobbying groups and is subject to disclosing donors as early as July under an ethics bill pushed by Cuomo. And while it supported key Cuomo policies including a cap on the growth in property taxes, spending cuts and public pension reform, it broke with the governor on ethics reform, by opposing gay marriage, and on some other issues.

"Forget the editorial comment and the ideology; by law if a group discloses their donors they are not a super PAC, period," said Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto.

Committee spokesman Michael McKeon said the group is a coalition that supports measures to improve the economy and create jobs, not to support or oppose candidates like super PACs.

"Comparing us to a super PAC is comparing apples to oranges and represents a complete misunderstanding of the law," McKeon said.

But the committee, like super PACs, can raise unlimited amounts of money that benefit Cuomo, all without costing his campaign a dime and providing an immediate advantage over opponents. Cuomo's campaign already had $14.3 million on hand in January and is growing, with events such as a $5,000-a-head fundraiser Wednesday in Buffalo.

"They may not be a super PAC, but in reality, they are not different," said Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "In some cases it's just a matter of semantics."

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision greatly eased political spending restrictions on corporations and unions, giving rise to the super PACs that are reshaping presidential and congressional campaigns. Super PACs raise millions of dollars anonymously for TV ads typically aired to attack presidential and congressional candidates.

The groups must legally remain independent from the candidates they support, but many are staffed with former campaign aides with intimate knowledge of the campaigns' strategies.

The committee's website (www.letsfixalbany.org ) shows the nine TV ads and three radio ads that have been running at various times since Cuomo was elected. The committee had no immediate comment.

"There is no doubt nationally that money in politics is by far the most difficult problem. New York is now the caboose," said Bill Samuels, founder of the New Roosevelt good-government group and think tank.

"Forget the nuance," Samuels said of Cuomo's distinction between the committee and super PACs. "This state's citizens are ready to support creative campaign finance. All we are lacking is some leadership."

The committee registered as a lobbying group under pressure after press reports and its report to the state Charities Bureau to justify the tax-exempt status of its donations and works was late.

Further disclosure is up to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics created by Cuomo and run by the chairwoman and executive director he appointed. JCOPE is charged with creating a form in July to report donors.

The state Board of Elections regulations, also created in the 2011 ethics law, have been criticized by the New York Public Interest Research Group as failing "to make the spending by these committees truly transparent."

The Committee to Save New York was created in part to counter other lobbying groups and registered super PACs, often providing a nonprofit face for government worker labor unions fighting state spending cuts. Those groups have in the past waged multimillion-dollar TV and radio ad campaigns that turned public sentiment away from governors and their initiatives.