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By Jonathan Camhi

May 03, 2012

An important part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2010 campaign platform was his promise to “clean up Albany.” The Governor’s campaign ads said that his experience as the state’s Attorney General would help him fight corruption that was blocking much-needed reform, and he laid out a 20-point plan to increase transparency and accountability in the capital.

Since being elected the Governor has continued to publicly condemn money coming from wealthy individuals and corporations willing to pay for influence in Albany. Yesterday the Governor said that he wants to overhaul the state’s campaign finance laws and has criticized Super PACs that can spend unlimited money in political campaigns.

"The power of money in the Capitol is unbelievable," Cuomo told Susan Arbetter on her Capitol Press Room radio show.

And the Governor counts among his legislative accomplishments his ethics reform bill passed last August that was supposed to increase public transparency in Albany.

The Governor has achieved a number of other legislative goals with the help of an organization called the Committee to Save New York. These goals include passing two on-time budgets, his Tier VI pension reform, a property tax cap and infrastructure investment projects. These proposals were all part of the Governor’s campaign promise to balance the state budget with no new taxes by cutting state spending.

The Committee to Save New York has supported the Governor’s efforts to cut budget spending and reform state pensions by running television and radio ad campaigns across the state extolling the Governor’s proposals. Experts say that the large amount of money the committee spends on these campaigns has helped the Governor pass his fiscal and economic agenda. The committee itself says that it has had a tremendous impact on state politics.

“The results speak for themselves,” said Michael McKeon, the committee’s spokesperson.

These initiatives, McKeon said, will help keep taxes low to spur private sector growth and job creation across New York. Kathryn Wylde, one of the committee’s co-chairs, has called its agenda “constructively anti-tax.”

The committee has spent heavily in advocating for its agenda. A report by the New York Public Interest Research Group said that the Committee to Save New York spent more money on lobbying in the state than any other organization last year. In total the group spent close to $12 million on its lobbying efforts.

But behind the television campaigns the Committee to Save New York has generated a great deal of criticism from good government advocacy groups and political opponents who say the committee exists to promote corporate interests by backing the Governor’s spending cuts and anti-tax initiatives.

Critics say that the committee operates just like the Super PAC’s that the Governor condemns, spending large amounts of money to campaign on behalf of his agenda. Some reports say that the governor created the committee himself to campaign for his agenda, although the committee denies those reports and says it doesn’t coordinate with the Governor’s office. The committee has also been accused of lacking transparency as it has yet to disclose its donor list and has delayed in filing its lobbying reports required by state authorities.

Committee’s Backers

Where exactly the committee’s money is coming from is a mystery, as the group has not released a donor list. But critics point out that the committee has links to some of the wealthiest individuals and corporations in New York.

“They come across as altruistic, but the policies they defend are to protect their bottom line,” said Kevin Connor of the Public Accountability Initiative, a public interest advocacy group.

The committee’s most important members, Connor said, are the Partnership for New York City, the Real Estate Board of New York and the Business Council of New York State. The board members of the committee and its partnered organizations include Wall Street CEO’s like Vikram Pandit of Citigroup, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, and real estate moguls like Rob Speyer of Tishman Speyer.

Connor authored a report, called “The Committee to Scam New York,” that claims that these business leaders support the committee’s anti-tax agenda in order to line their own pockets. In the report Connor said that the committee formed in response to the economic crisis and financial meltdown that cut the state’s revenue. Business leaders, fearing that the state would raise taxes in order to make up for lost revenue, wanted to promote the Governor’s budget that focused on spending cuts instead of raising taxes.

“This is an interesting example of the ‘one percent’ organizing for its own interests,” Connor said.

If the committee has had one legislative failure it is the extension of New York State’s “millionaire’s tax,” a tax surcharge on individuals making over $200,000. The group opposed the extension of the surcharge in this year’s budget, a stance that the Governor originally shared but had to reverse in face of political pressure last year. The extension of the surcharge is estimated to raise $1.6 billion in revenue for the state this fiscal year.

Connor estimated that the extension of the surcharge would cost individuals linked of the committee a great deal of money. He reviewed the compensation of 10 board members of the Partnership for New York City, including Rupert Murdoch and a number of Wall Street executives, and said that these board members would have to pay a total of $3.6 million more in state taxes because of the surcharge.

Corporations linked to the committee have also saved a great deal of money in the form of state, federal and local subsidies, Connor said. Since 1988, he said, 39 corporations linked to the committee have received more than $2 billion in public subsidies in the form of tax breaks, infrastructure projects and grants. Most of these subsidies are billed as job creation initiatives, but Connor cited a 2010 study by New York Jobs with Justice that found that the state had spent $135 million in subsidies on businesses that failed to create or cut jobs.

Links to Governor’s Office

The New York Times reported that the committee was formed at the end of 2010 at the request of Cuomo to counter public unions by organizing business groups behind his budgetary policies.

Connor said that some of the committee’s founding members were also some of the biggest contributors to Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign. For instance, one of the committee’s co-chairs and founders, Rob Speyer, is also co-CEO of real estate firm Tishman Speyer, the biggest donor to Cuomo’s campaign. Connor estimated that individuals and corporations linked to the committee gave a total of $1.8 million to the governor’s campaign.

To read the full article, visit the Gotham Gazette