By Lori Sonken
The New York State Legislature chimed in on the campaign finance reform debate earlier this month, joining 16 other states that are asking Congress to approve a constitutional amendment that would overturn several court opinions, including the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
“By removing barriers to unlimited expenditures and by declaring that corporate entities are entitled to First Amendment protections, the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for a massive amount of money to enter our political system, much of it from sources that are difficult to trace,” says Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-125th District).
The Citizens United decision lifted a previous ban on corporate and union expenditures for the election or defeat of candidates, or advertisements that refer to those candidates during pre-election periods. Previously such expenditures could not have gone directly to candidates—they would have had to be given to political action committees.
Lifton co-signed a letter from her Democratic colleagues in the Assembly asking Congress to support a constitutional amendment that would allow states to set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates to influence elections, effectively nullifying the Citizens United decision.
Four similar letters were signed by a majority of New York State legislators, including Democrats and Republicans, and sent to Congress this month.
“The Citizens United decision declared that artificial entities—unions, corporations and associations—have the same rights as the people with regard to election spending. This decision effectively toppled dozens of state and federal laws and decades of judicial precedent that allowed regulation of expenditures in political campaigns,” state senators Phil Boyle (R-4th District) and Kemp Hannon (R-6th District) stated in their recent letter to Congress.
New York is the first state in the country with Republican control of at least one chamber to call for the overturn of Citizens United, according to Jonah Minkoff-Zern, co-director of the Democracy is for People Campaign at the organization Public Citizen.
Republican state Senator Tom O’Mara, who represents New York’s 58th District that includes Tompkins County, did not sign a letter. He also did not respond to calls or emails from Tompkins Weekly.
California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia are the other states supporting a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.
“Citizens United is one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history and in just six years has already had a profoundly corrosive impact on our democracy. It decimates the right to free speech by allowing it to be eclipsed by paid speech, devaluing the right of individuals to participate in the political system,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stated in a press release.
Speaking at Fordham University on June 8, Cuomo called the Citizens United decision one of the most regressive and most politically damaging in Supreme Court history.
Before adjourning 10 days ago, the New York State Legislature approved a measure Cuomo supported that requires independent expenditure groups and political action committees to disclose financial support and in-kind donations, and mandates that political consultants identify their clients.
The measure places “further restrictions on individual expenditures from the Super PACs made possible by Citizens United, which should help to limit the undue influence of outside money in our political system,” says Lifton.
Another bill approved by the legislature bars elected officials and policymakers convicted of a felony from receiving a public pension. Because this measure requires a constitutional amendment, New York lawmakers must approve another bill on this matter next year, as will New York state voters, before the prohibition will take effect. The earliest this could happen is in 2018.
Lifton and others believe more must be done for the public “to have faith in the people who are elected to higher office.” Lifton supports legislation that would close the loophole allowing special interest groups to funnel millions of dollars into political campaigns—the so-called limited liability loophole.
Democratic candidate Leslie Danks Burke, who is challenging O’Mara to represent the 58th District in the state Senate, also supports eliminating the LLC loophole and banning legislators from earning outside income.
She points out that O’Mara is a partner in a law and lobbying firm with clients having interests that appear before the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, chaired by O’Mara.
Organizations such as the New York Public Interest Group and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law support measures to address corruption in Albany. Last year former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos both were convicted on corruption charges in separate cases.
The LLC loophole closure and other measures to address corruption will need to be re-introduced in the next legislative session next year before they can be considered by the New York State Legislature.
By Lori Sonken