Common Cause NY Releases Report: Lifting the Veil

For Immediate Release:

Contact: Susan Lerner

June 9, 2011


Lifting The Veil: Common Cause NY Analysis of Spending Increase and Anonymity in Grassroots Advocacy Groups

Identifies disturbing trends in spending increase by anonymous grassroots advocacy groups and grades organizations on the level of disclosure in their advertising

Explosion in grassroots advertising lobbying by third party front groups

More than 8-fold increase – from $2.2 million in 2008 to $18.8 million in 2010

Spending this year already on track to match the 2010 numbers

Increasing number of coalitions with misleading names, anonymous donors

The arrival of the Committee to Save NY has shifted the balance of power in Albany

Recommendations to ensure transparency in public policy discussions

“If the business community, labor groups, or any other powerful interest believes their preferred policies can ‘Save New York’ or ensure a ‘Strong Economy for All’ they should have no need to hide their real names behind political catchphrases.” – Susan Lerner, Executive Director, Common Cause NY

A new analysis by Common Cause NY, Lifting the Veil, identifies worrisome and expanding trends in grassroots lobbying in New York State. Common Cause NY examines New York State lobbying data to show how the increasing use of third-party coalitions and grassroots campaign-style tactics has played a growing role in shaping political outcomes and furthering the power and influence of special interests at the expense of the public.

In any given year, in any given state, the battle over the budget is invariably a highly contested political debate as competing interests converge on the capital and vie to influence elected officials and public opinion. Traditionally, powerful, moneyed interests engage professional lobbyists to meet with politicians on their behalf, while citizens’ groups and good government organizations engage in rallies, petition drives and the like.

Lifting The Veil finds that, in recent years, the competition for influence in Albany has intensified. New York has seen an exponential rise in statewide spending on lobbying; from $66 million in 2000 to more than $210 million in 2010. While traditional direct lobbying continues to dominate – with more than 30 registered lobbyists for each state legislator – there has also been an increasing shift in lobbying tactics. The rise of grassroots, election-style campaigning by powerful interest groups to support or oppose legislation, particularly around the state budget, has resulted in the exponential increase in reported advertising expenditures. While lobbying clients reported spending slightly more than $6 million in advertising expenditures in 2009, that figure jumped almost 500% to just under $30 million in 2010. Without doubt, this shift has resulted in greater public awareness of these advocacy efforts.

In the late 1990’s interest groups like 1199/SEIU healthcare workers union, the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA), and New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) began running coordinated campaigns using advertising, canvassing, phone banking, rallies, and other grassroots techniques to fight Governor George Pataki’s proposed budget cuts.

Since then, these efforts have grown in sophistication and cost with increasing amounts of campaigning taking place through third party coalitions with names like Alliance for Quality Education and New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness.

Until recently, union-affiliated groups used this kind of grassroots lobbying most frequently in New York. The organized business community remained primarily focused on traditional direct lobbying where they’ve long held a fiscal advantage over unions.

In 2006, the upstate business community began to experiment with grassroots lobbying for an anti-tax campaign, Unshackle Upstate. Grassroots budget battles reached new heights in 2009 and 2010 when the state’s liquor stores and supermarkets clashed over selling wine in grocery stores, and the American Beverage Association and the Alliance for a Healthier NY faced off over Governor Paterson’s proposed “soda tax” and spent over $20 million. 2010 also saw the teachers’ unions engage in a grassroots lobbying battle with “Education Reform Now,” a nonprofit backed by charter school advocates, over the issue of teacher seniority with over $9 million spent on competing advertisements.

And in 2011, upstate and downstate business organizations united behind The Committee to Save New York, supporting newly elected Governor Andrew Cuomo’s objective to reduce New York’s deficit “without raising taxes or borrowing.” Spending over $7.4 million in January-April 2011 on advertising, canvassing, voter direct mailing and social media, The Committee to Save NY marks the full engagement of business interests in the new tactics of election-style grassroots campaigning on legislative issues.

Since votes are the ultimate currency in politics, a strong push from public opinion is one of the few forces capable of pushing a contentious budget or other piece of legislation through the maze of special interests in Albany. New York’s largest business and labor groups are now set to engage in an escalating battle to influence public opinion on fiscal policy, and special interests are increasingly turning to grassroots campaigning to fight for or against any legislative proposal that might affect their bottom line.

These campaign-style battles are being waged through an increasing number of “veiled actors” — third-party coalitions with misleading names that ask voters to “Save New York” or fight for “Fiscal Fairness” without revealing the powerful interest groups behind these messages.

If the business community, labor groups, or any other powerful interest believes their preferred policies can “Save New York” or ensure a “Strong Economy for All” they should have no need to hide their real names behind political catchphrases. Unless steps are taken to require proper disclosures and transparency of third-party coalition campaigns, New Yorkers will find themselves ever more confused, misled, and excluded from meaningful political participation.

Just as lobbying practices have evolved, so must the laws dealing with lobbying change to keep pace with the increasing use of election-style practices designed to influence public opinion in order to move public policy. In the final section of this report, we make specific recommendations for statutory changes to address this changing lobbying landscape and allow the public to fully evaluate the advertising and campaign claims made by the special interests which seek to shape public opinion in order to influence public policy.


While over-all lobbying expenditures by individual corporations and business entities is consistently greater, cumulatively, than total spending by unions and related interests, from 2005 to 2010, organized labor as represented by the state’s largest unions and union-backed groups, outspent the state’s major business groups by almost eight-fold.

In 2011 the balance between union and business group spending abruptly shifted, with business-backed groups outspending union-backed groups thanks to the arrival of the Committee to Save New York.

Powerful interests are increasingly using third party coalitions to engage in election-style grassroots campaigns. Such spending increased in 3 years from just over $2.2 million in 2008 to $18.6M in 2010.

Since New York’s lobbying laws lack clear regulations for third-party coalitions, reporting of funders in lobbying reports is inconsistent, with unions reporting for the most part and many business interests failing to do so.

Since New York’s lobbying laws lack clear regulations for third-party coalitions, powerful interests are free to spend millions of dollars on grassroots campaigns to influence public opinion and legislative outcomes while hiding behind these groups.


Advertisers should voluntarily provide information on all messages and any related websites in order to allow members of the public to understand who is trying to “artificially stimulate” communication with officials on legislation or matters of public policy. If advertisers don’t voluntarily adopt such measures, then they should be required to do so by statute and regulation

Grassroots lobbying campaigns should be expressly defined and regulated by the state Lobbying Act. Different organizations and coalitions interpret their obligation to register as lobbyists for their grassroots lobbying efforts differently, even though the courts have made it clear that grassroots lobbying is covered by laws regulating lobbying.

Disclose the identities of those who own or fund lobbying clients, including any non-profit entities to limit increase in “veiled political actors”: organizations, subsidiaries, or coalitions with names unrelated to their objectives that are used as vehicles for hiring lobbyists or conducting grassroots lobbying campaigns. All major entities involved in multi-layered lobbying structures should be disclosed, including non-profits.

Identify the leading funders for any large grassroots lobbying campaign on the ads or publicly distributed materials themselves.

Require uniform reporting

Provide lobbying data in a format that allows it to be easily analyzed.