March 4, 2003
Nickel's Worth in Albany
One thing you can say for the New York State Legislature's money trough: it's very convenient. One day last week, for example, there were at least nine separate fund-raisers within easy walking distance of the Capitol.
Two members of the Assembly — one a Democrat, the other a Republican — could be found taking in campaign contributions at events held in the same restaurant within the Capitol complex. Down the hill at a hotel, the Assembly Republicans were entertaining in one conference room, to the tune of $500 per visitor. Assembly Democrats — always conscious of their status as the majority party — were charging $1,000 to get into a similar affair. And a Senate Republican was also harvesting $350 per donor at a room nearby.
Whatever that money buys, it is certainly not the food. From the look of it, the same roast beef has been moving from spot to spot since Mario Cuomo's administration. No, the paying guests in their sleek navy blue suits are lobbyists, there to make certain that the Legislature doesn't tamper with some little curlicue in the law and cause problems for their clients.
The reality of the Albany social circuit goes a long way toward explaining why the Legislature frequently behaves in ways that would otherwise seem irrational. For instance, there is the system for handling returnable bottles and cans. As it stands now, every time you fail to redeem a beer or soda bottle, the bottler keeps the nickel deposit, or at least most of it. In 20 years since the program began, all those forgotten bottles have added up. The estimates of how much the companies have made start at $135 million a year. In a state desperately strapped for money, that should be helping to pay for recycling or even education.
Bills to redirect those deposits are introduced with some frequency, inspiring big drink companies to send lobbyists on the roast beef circuit. Watching them in action, it's easy to see
why so many Albany experts think that the bottle money will stay with the bottlers. Asked last week about sending the unredeemed nickels to the state, Joseph Bruno, the Senate majority leader, said, "We've been there, done that, and I don't anticipate that happening now."
(For the record, Mr. Bruno and other politicians explain that their views or assessments of the political reality have nothing whatsoever to do with the money they get from the bottling industry or the whispering from that industry's powerful lobbyists.)
Only a newborn would fail to notice how much clout has been hired to fight off any bill that would help the public at the expense of the powerful bottling industry. As one notable example, Patricia Lynch, a former aide of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and now one of the most plugged-in lobbyists in Albany, began representing Coca-Cola as of the first of this year. And a recent survey of campaign contributions by the New York Public Interest Research Group in Albany provides a glimpse of how carefully bottlers spread their money around. Pepsi-Cola bottlers, for example, have reported donating more than $50,000 to various Democrats and $103,000 to assorted Republicans since 2000. A beer wholesalers' group has handed out over $170,000 in the last three years, with contributions ranging from $150 to a few members of the Assembly to more than $36,000 for Gov. George Pataki.
This year, once again, legislators have introduced bills to recapture the nickel deposit from the bottlers, as well as to expand the system to noncarbonated drinks. Such steps would help with litter and help the bottom line of the state budget. The fact that they aren't given much chance of passage raises a question, not about unredeemable bottles but about the scant possibility of redeemable politicians.