With organized labor pushing hard for the legislation, the city council voted today in favor of a bill narrowing restrictions on labor unions’ contributions to political candidates.
Passage of the bill marks the first time in the 17-year history of the city’s Campaign Finance Board that a rule has been changed through legislation, rather than through hearings by the board.
Today’s vote demonstrates that the council wasn’t willing to wait for hearings scheduled for this December by the CFB to ease regulations on how political contributions are applied toward the board’s donation limits (for city council candidates, it’s $2,750).
Unions argued that the board had unfairly ruled that related locals could not make separate donations to candidates. The board, in a rule advanced earlier this year but later withdrawn, stated that donations from unions controlled by a single decision-maker would not be counted separately, but together.
Opponents of the bill contend that the council is rushing reforms into law, without respect for the CFB’s procedures. “This one issue has been plucked out and pressed forward without the benefit of the board’s mandated review,” said Nicole Gordon, the board’s Executive Director. Gene Russianoff, an attorney with New York Public Interest Research Group, dismissed the bill’s criteria for determining if unions are affiliated as ” a road map to get around the law.” CFB Chairman Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr. testified that by passing the bill, the City Council will be “creating a loophole” for unions.
Prior to the bill’s passage by the full council in the afternoon, it was approved by a 6-1 margin by the council’s Governmental Operations Committee after a hearing this morning.
The one dissenting vote at the morning hearing came from Madeline T. Provenzano, a Democrat who represents the Bronx’s 13th District. “It’s a bad bill,” Provenzano said after the vote. “If we limit lobbyists, why should we allow unions to give away all the money they want?”
The bill’s supporters, including chair Bill Perkins, framed the issue in terms of voter’s rights. At the hearing, Perkins called the CFB’s current rules “unduly burdensome on campaigns” and urged his fellow committee members to vote in the bill’s favor. He went on to say that if the bill is not passed “the democratic process will be diminished, it will be hampered” and faulted the CFB for the “erroneous presumption that all affiliated unions represent a single source.”
Brian M. McLaughlin, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, testified at the hearing that passing the bill would mean giving “working people” a “voice in the political process.”
“This is about free speech,” Council Member Bill deBlasio, one of the bill’s sponsors, told the committee. DeBlasio is currently campaigning to become the next speaker of the council and is courting labor support.
The CFB’s role in policing the finances of political candidates seems not to have endeared them, or their policies, to the council. While exchanges with Schwarz were prefaced with respectful disclaimers, a three-person panel representing good government groups who oppose the legislation were hit with rhetorical questions about their own experience with the finance law. Council Member Michael E. McMahon had only two queries: He asked if anyone on the panel had run for office, or worked as a campaign treasurer. Russianoff, who was on the panel, later called McMahon’s questions a “cheap shot.” Council Member Peter F. Vallone, Jr. asked if any of the three would represent him pro bono if he ran afoul of campaign finance laws.