New York has one of the most porous campaign-finance laws in the nation and one of the robust lobbying industries: Compensation for lobbyists reached a record high in 2013, a whopping $191 million.
ALBANY - Voters elect state officials to represent them and their communities at the state Capitol.
But to many local governments and advocacy groups, that's simply not enough.
They shelled out $8 million last year, mainly taxpayer money, to hire some of the top lobbyists in Albany to represent their interests, a review by NYPIRG at the request of Gannett's Albany Bureau found.
Even state colleges and public authorities -- which are creations of state government -- felt the need to hire lobbyists to essentially lobby other state agencies and the state Legislature. In some cases, the lobbyists represent the municipalities and companies that lobby the same governments.
Critics contended it's another example of the pay-to-play system in state politics. They said campaign-finance reforms could improve the system. New York has one of the most porous campaign-finance laws in the nation and one of the robust lobbying industries: Compensation for lobbyists reached a record high in 2013, a whopping $191 million.
"It speaks volumes about the culture in Albany," said Bill Mahoney, research director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. "Government can't even talk to itself with out hiring private lobbyists to help grease the wheels."
Binghamton University, the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority and Westchester County Medical Center all hired lobbyists last year.
So too did the cities of Yonkers, New Rochelle, White Plains and Buffalo, as well as the counties of Monroe and Rockland.
The state's Off-Track Betting corporations, which were formed in the 1970s as public-benefit agencies, all have lobbyists.
Other authorities do too, such as the Monroe County Water Authority, the New York Bridge Authority and Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
"They keep us informed about bills that come up, things we should know about," said John Bellucci, spokesman for the Bridge Authority, which owns bridges in the Hudson Valley and spent $41,000 on lobbying last year. "And they do it for far less than what an individual (on the payroll) would cost."
Places like Binghamton University list their own in-house staff, including President Harvey Stenger, as doing lobbying work, and those expenses are included in the $8 million total. They listed nearly $400,000 in lobbying expenses last year, among the most in the state.
Included in their expenses is the hiring of an Albany firm, Ostroff Associates, last year for nearly $54,000 to do its New York lobbying.
The RGRTA spent nearly $100,000 a piece last year on two lobbyists: Patricia Lynch Associates, run by a former top aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Robert Scott Gaddy, a close confidante of Assemblyman David Gantt, D-Rochester.
The RGRTA and other public agencies defended the spending, saying they need the support that lobbyists can provide.
"We feel it's important to have a voice and ear in Albany regarding policy and funding issues," RGRTA spokeswoman Carole Dowling said.
At a time when local budgets are increasingly crunched, some officials have cut ties with their lobbyists. Rochester ended its lobbying contract a few years ago, but added a $70,000 contract with Capitol Hill Management Service in Albany this year when new Mayor Lovely Warren took office.
Gaddy, a top Warren backer, has had close ties to the firm, and Gaddy was also brought on this year as the lobbyist for the city schools, with a $40,000 a-year contract.
In New Rochelle, Mayor Noam Bramson said the city only last year decided to hire a lobbyist, the firm of State & Broadway, for about $42,000 a year. He said the city was figuring out ways to cut spending, but viewed hiring a lobbyist as a net positive.
The lobbyist this year, for example, was able to help the city with a bill that was approved that adjusts the cost of fire hydrant fees. The city also got approval to add red-light cameras, one of only three new programs in the state.
Bramson said it's a worthwhile investment "to have eyes and ears on the ground, along with expertise that can assist us in matters that concern state policy or federal policy."
He and other local leaders said they work closely with their elected state delegations, but a lobbyist can aid their presence at the Capitol.
Darren Dopp, a spokesman for Patricia Lynch Associates, said the firm increasingly provides help to local governments dealing with complex state policies and legislation.
"There are new mandates – like the property tax freeze – that pose tremendous challenges for local governments," Dopp said. "Government is more complicated than ever, and local officials—many of whom are part-time – really do need help."
Local governments and schools pay dues to state associations to help them learn about state policies and advocate on their behalf around the state.
But some of those associations also hire outside lobbyists.
The state Association of Towns, for example, spends about $90,000 a year to hire former U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty of the Albany area to lobby for the group.
Gerry Geist, the group's executive director, said the association focuses on education and training of municipal officials. McNulty provides them details on policies or bills that could impact towns.
"We felt that we needed someone to explain to us in a more detailed fashion what pieces of legislation could impact us," Giest said.
Public colleges are funded in part by state aid. But hiring lobbyists is a regular occurrence among them. Monroe Community College spent nearly $53,000 last year on a lobbyist; Buffalo State spent about $57,000.
Buffalo State said it uses money from its foundation to pay for its lobbyist, so it comes solely from private donations. MCC said using a lobbyist is part of its outreach.
"Monroe Community College contracts with public policy advocates to help us tell our story to public officials when policy issues may impact our College and our students," said MCC spokeswoman Cynthia Cooper.
There are also some anomalies in the lobbying business, NYPIRG's review found.
For example, Patricia Lynch Associates got paid about $76,000 last year to be the lobbyist for the city of Yonkers. Yet the same firm was hired by Yonkers Raceway for about $83,000 last year to lobby the city and the state
There's a similar scenario in Monroe County. The county uses Park Strategies as its lobbyist, paying nearly $64,000 to the firm run by former Sen. Al D'Amato. Yet Park Strategies represents at least three firms, including Clark Patterson, an engineering firm, that list Monroe County as one of its lobbying targets.
The local governments brushed off the myriad interests, and the firms said they would avoid any conflict.
"Obtaining a New York state legislative lobbyist is an effective tool in moving our city's agenda forward," said Yonkers spokeswoman Christina Gilmartin.
NYPIRG's Mahoney said a stronger campaign-finance system would be a start to limiting the money in politics, such as banning lobbyists from making campaign contributions.
Often, lobbying firms are the bigger campaign contributions to state lawmakers' campaigns. That gives them outsized influence at the Capitol and makes them more valuable to municipalities, authorities and colleges that need help, Mahoney contended.
Assemblyman Bill Nojay, R-Pittsford, Monroe County, said the lobbying activity at the Capitol is another example of its troubled system. Nojay, the former RGRTA chairman, said an authority simply wouldn't have any sway in Albany without a lobbyist in tow.
"They just are not necessarily going to get the same attention as if they've got somebody with them who has very good relationship with the elected official," he said. "That's just an unfortunate reality of Albany politics."