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Commission to Call for New Rules on Lobbying in the City

by Jane C. Timm, Aug 05, 2011
 
lobbyist
Photo by Noah S. Kunin

(Update: On Aug. 9, the city Lobbying Commission issues its preliminary draft report, which essentially included the proposed changed discussed below. The report is available here. For more on the report, see The Wonkster.)

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New York City's Lobbying Commission wants to redefine lobbying.

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"We're expanding the definition of when lobbying begins," said Herbert E. Berman, the commission's chairman. Current laws, he explained, define lobbying only as advocacy for bills that have been introduced, though much lobbying occurs before then, in the drafting of legislation for example.

This is one of several overarching changes to the city's lobbying laws that the commission is expected to proposed in a preliminary report that could be released for public review as soon as today. Once it is reviewed in a public hearing, the final recommendations will go to the mayor and City Council, who could then draft bills incorporating the proposals.

The commission, which was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council in January, hopes to increase transparency and disclosure on real lobbying activity, while lifting some of the burdens of lobbying reporting requirements from small organizations with limited advocacy efforts. In addition to Berman, a former council member who was chair of the council's Finance Committee, the commission also included Jamila Ponton Bragg, Lesley Horton, Margaret Morton and Lisa Vasquez.

The commission is the first group to examine the current lobbying laws since they were revamped in 2006. The 2006 law included a suggestion that an advisory board review the revisions after three years – not five. Council Speaker Christine Quinn has attributed the delay to a lengthy search for the right people. "We wanted to find a diverse group of commissioners," she said in January.

Lobbying Under the Radar

One problem with the existing laws, according to some experts, is that some advocacy efforts fall through the cracks.

"There's a lot of back and forth between lobbyists and lawmakers before the law is even written," said Alex Camarda, the director of public policy for a Citizens Union, a good government group. Citizens Union, whose sister organization publishes Gotham Gazette, is one of four non-government organizations that testified before the commission as they prepared their report.

The new definition of lobbying that the report will propose would also define any attempt to influence the mayor's executive orders or Community Board actions as lobbying. The current definitions are "too vague," Kenneth Fisher, counsel for the New York Advocacy Association, said.

Lobbying on a Shoestring

The commission also will recommend raising amount a group must spend to have their activity considered lobbying from $2,000 to $5,000. Any organization whose efforts to influence laws or rules cost more than that amount would be subject to the reporting and disclosure laws.

"There are a lot of organizations, particularly small non-profits and small business, that engage in activity that falls within the definition of lobbying," Fisher said. "But they don't really use a third-party lobbyist – it's usually their own staff members." Filing disclosure forms constitutes "a huge paperwork burden for these people," he added.

Fisher's group, which testified before the commission in March, advocated raising the threshold to $25,000. "We would have gone higher, but any improvement in that area would be OK," Fisher said.

Information In, Information Out

Common Cause, a government watchdog group that also testified before the commission, discouraged raising the financial threshold. They took the position that the technology groups must use to file that creates the burden, not the disclosure itself. If the city improved that technology, Common Cause maintained, it would not be a problem for smaller organizations to disclose their lobbying.

Advocates of reform agree that the current reporting process is onerous, lengthy and frustrating. Not only is it difficult and time-consuming for organizations to report their efforts, it is difficult for citizens and reporters looking to access the information on the city's database.

"No matter how much disclosure is required and written into the law, if you don’t have a database that works, it's not going to mean a heck of a lot," Camarda said.

Advocates cite integral problems with the database, They note, for example, that the system does not carry over from previous reports into the new filing and that organizations must manually enter often identical information onto the state and city databases separately.

Berman said the commission does not plan to call for any significant reform or combination of these databases. Instead, he said, to help alleviate some of the problems, the commission plans to recommend more education for lobbyists on how to enter their data.

He noted, though, that there would be some technical improvements -- particularly on the public's side. "We want to enhance the ability for the public to check things out," he said.

Enforcing the Rules

The commission's report will also suggest giving the City Clerk’s office that enforces lobbying rules discretion in setting the fines for those who do not report their lobbying efforts on time. "A lot of people testified that they couldn't file on one date or another, so we're creating a more discretionary [penalty] process," Berman said.

The commission may also create a one-time amnesty program for first-time filers who should have filed in the past. Berman wouldn’t confirm this, but noted it was under consideration.

Citizen Union, whose recommendations to the commission were the lengthiest, also proposed removing enforcement of the lobbying restrictions from the city clerk's because the clerk is appointed by the City Council and therefore has a perceived or actual conflict of interest.

But Berman dismissed such concerns as unfounded and said the commission would not recommend such a change. "I daresay there isn't any city agency that doesn’t [receive] its power from politics," Berman said. "They're doing an outstanding job. We see no reason or sympathy to changing."

Once the report is finalized and then goes to the Mayor and City Council, it will be up to them to put the recommendations into law. "Because it's been a collaborative process, we believe it's something the mayor and the council will act on promptly," Camarda said "We don’t think this is an exercise in creating a report that will go no where, we think this is something that will result in laws." Like its predecessor, this report will also recommend that another Lobbying Commission be formed in a year or so, Berman added. "There will be a lot of issues that will evolve from this year to the next. We think it's helpful to have another ongoing commission," he said.


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