ALBANY – The list of end-of-session priorities for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders reads like a song verse stuck in your head: campaign finance law changes, job creation incentives, minimum wage increase, special protections for women in the workplace, and state aid for children of illegal immigrants.
That’s the public Albany.
But behind the scenes, most of Albany’s special-interest groups pay little attention to such matters. Hospitals, unions, car dealers, energy firms, pharmaceutical conglomerates and others spend their time caring about the likes of complex civil liability laws, tort insurance, regulatory rules and other issues that the public pays little attention to but can be of great financial value to these special interests.
Doing their bidding are 6,383 registered lobbyists in Albany, retained for a record $191 million, according to a state ethics agency report.
Now that the state budget was completed last week, the next couple of months will be a busy period of delivery and nondelivery for those who make a living lobbying in Albany. Yet, keep in mind a long-standing tradition in Albany where one’s cards are kept covered until the very end: three-quarters of what gets passed in the final days of the session typically are not introduced or amended until after June 1.
“Lobbyists have told me they want to act like a snake in tall grass where they pop up at the last minute,” said Blair Horner, a lobbyist with the New York Public Interest Research Group, a watchdog group.
The special interests range from doctors who want relief from growing medical malpractice insurance premiums to bowling alley owners seeking protections from slip-and-fall claims by bowlers who neglect to take off their bowling shoes when they go outside and fall in the parking lot.
MGM and Caesar’s Entertainment, two of the biggest gambling companies in the world, want legalization of online poker games called Omaha Hold ’em and Texas Hold ’em. Optometrists, meanwhile, want a bill giving them the ability to prescribe oral medications to treat eye exams.
Then there are special interests that don’t necessarily want something passed. Their game is defense, which at the Capitol, is as important on a lobbyist’s resume as getting bills approved. Take the toy industry, which already is at work trying to halt bills to outlaw the use of certain chemicals and metals in toy products. One bill the industry is watching is a ban on cadmium, a metal lawmakers consider a safety concern in children’s jewelry products.
In all, 3,981 entities reported hiring lobbyists last year in Albany, according to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. Moreover, these lobbyists and their special-interest clients fill the reception halls, bars and golf courses for fundraisers that lawmakers and Cuomo will sponsor from now until Election Day.
It’s an election year
To be sure, Cuomo and lawmakers hold their own priorities.
“We have more work to do,” Cuomo said last week of his overall agenda.
But several priority issues – such as the illegal immigrant college education aid bill or statewide taxpayer-funded campaign finance system – already were killed during budget talks and deemed dead when the budget died.
“The public rhetoric in Albany is one of misdirection. Direct the public’s attention to issues that sound good while the real work is happening behind closed doors,” said Horner, of NYPIRG.
For his part, Cuomo, who insisted for months that amendments to the existing rules on teacher performance evaluations not be in the budget along with agreed-to changes to the Common Core curricula program, now says the teacher evaluation system is among the priorities he wants addressed before the end of the 2014 session. Precisely how, he has not said.
There are different pressures and different theories that pertain to Cuomo and rank-and-file lawmakers, all heading for re-election campaigns this fall. The common theory, espoused by one longtime legislative staffer, is that the next couple of months will be “quick, painless and they’re gone.”
That is in the best interest of the governor. He now has the all-but-nominated challenger of Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino sniping at him as the two prepare to square off in this fall’s gubernatorial election. So, Cuomo has the most to lose should combat erupt with lawmakers over some big-stakes issues in which he could come out the loser.
It is more likely they will tackle other issues of value to the special interests, and the lobbyists and their clients are busy laying the groundwork for their final pushes. Some will have a better seat at the table than others, watchdogs say.
“The Albany political elite are expecting to cash in on its investments in campaign contributions and hot-wired lobbyists. Election years are when they expect to get their return,” said Horner. “So while the public will be hearing a lot about campaign finance and the women’s equality agenda, which are important issues, the real work that’s done behind closed doors outside public view, unfortunately, too often comes at the expense of the public.”
“It’s an election year for the governor and Legislature. So they’re all going to be looking to ingratiate themselves to those who fund their campaigns, as well as what appears to be responding to the needs of the public,” he added.
Interests are many
The list of items for consideration is long; 3,166 bills have been introduced or amended just since Jan. 1.
To get a sense of the range of interests, just one group – the trial lawyers – recently listed these issues it has lobbied on in Albany this year: “liability issues (a)ffecting lawyers, tort insurance, false claim act, auto insurance, collateral service bill, labor issues, med mal, product liability, healthcare system and HMO, supplement need trust, workers comp, civil liability, arbitration venue judgments, lead pain legislation, vicarious liability, CPLR, immunity labor 240/241, OEA issues, negligence issues, judiciary issues, CPLR 50A/50BM, transportation issues, patient rights, victim rights, jury issues.”
On the flip side, there’s the New York State Funeral Directors Association, which said it has no issues left for 2014; it got what it wanted last year with a new law allowing electronic filing of death certificates.
The Medical Society of the State of New York, which represents physicians, will again go head-to-head with trial lawyers over medical malpractice. The two sides are at a stand-still on the major positions on that front, such as caps on pain and suffering awards. So the doctors’ group is pushing a bill that would prevent comments a doctor makes during a peer review session about an incident or potential medical mistake from being used in lawsuits.
Others will be busy.
The New York State Association of Realtors is making a dash to allow brokers to offer customers “rebates,” such as cash or gift tickets, as incentives to list their property. The group also wants to change eminent domain laws so a mortgage cannot be taken for homeowners whose properties are underwater.
The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, whose members include state prison officers, want passage of a law that increases penalties against inmates “to include intentionally expectorating upon an employee.” The union also wants “peace officer” status granted to more of its members in other agencies, giving them powers such as arrest and ability to carry a weapon.
One of Albany’s powerhouse groups, the Healthcare Association of New York State, representing hospitals, wants some rules affecting its members to be leveled with those of private practice, non-ambulatory providers that offer similar levels of some treatments as hospitals. The hospitals and nursing profession is battling over whether facilities should be required to have minimum nurse staffing ratios in their departments.
The Civil Service Employees Association, the largest state workers union, wants a bill to increase what a spokesman described as the transparency and results of local industrial development agencies and new accountability standards for contracting of state services to private firms.
“Those will be our primary concern because of the intense activities to try to privatize so much of public service without ensuring the public is being well-served by those actions,” spokesman Stephen Madarasz said.
At the New York State Motor Truck Association, Executive Director Kendra Adams said her group is looking to get banned clauses in transportation contracts making truckers financially liable for damaged goods no matter who is at fault. For instance, lettuce can go bad in a shipping company’s holding facility before being loaded onto a truck, she said, but the trucking firm is held liable when the lettuce is found to be spoiled at the supermarket.
The group also wants a measure to continue an existing program scheduled to expire this year that allows carriers of fuel, sand, gravel and salt to exceed road overweight truck rules. Without it, truckers can’t afford the retro-fits to comply, she said.
Upstate business groups, and others, want an extension of the state’s brownfields law, which gives incentives to developers who clean and build on abandoned and contaminated sites. The law, set to expire next year, has been heavily used in Erie County for redevelopment.
A new push is on by an assortment of players, including minority and women-owned business contractors, to change the state’s Scaffold law, which places liability on construction companies and property owners for gravity-related injuries, even if the worker who, for instance, falls off a ladder is at fault.