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June 12, 2007

Times Union

Campaign cash littering a new bottle bill

State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno recently dismissed concerns about the influence of special interests on politics as an issue that "nobody gives two hoots about." In response, more than 1,500 New Yorkers visited the Web site (http://www.commoncause.org/IGiveAHoot) and sent him messages challenging that assumption.

Where was Bruno while these e-mails were flowing into his office? Far from his upstate legislative district in Manhattan, attending a fundraiser at which he and his fellow Republican senators were honored and showered with contributions by entities opposed to an updated returnable bottle law.

New York passed the bottle bill in 1982, after a hard push by environmental groups and their allies. The bill requires a 5-cent deposit on beer and soda bottles, which can then be redeemed when the bottle is returned for recycling. Environmentalists say this incentive leads to big increases in recycling, but the bill was strongly opposed by the beer, soda and bottling industries and food retailers, all of whom didn't want to charge customers an extra nickel, or to deal with the hassle of bottle returns.

Now, 25 years later, environmental groups are advocating for a "bigger, better bottle bill" -- a proposal that was first introduced in the Legislature in 2002. The law would be expanded to include noncarbonated beverages, including bottled water and iced tea, and it would enact a new requirement that bottlers turn over any unclaimed bottle deposit revenue to the state. Gov. Eliot Spitzer included it in his budget this year, but the Senate ultimately rejected the provision.

Opponents argue that expanding the bottle law would be onerous for small retailers and wholesalers, and that is effectively a new tax. Opponents rely on research by the bottling industry umbrella group "New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform" that says the average price of a bottle of juice, iced tea or water could increase by 15 cents, once the deposit and costs like additional sorting and transport are factored in.

While reasonable people can debate the merits on both sides, campaign cash is littering the fight merits. In fact, that fundraiser wasn't the first show of support for Senate Republicans by bottle bill opponents. Common Cause/New York research uncovered $2.7 million in campaign contributions by the bottling industry, beverage distributors, food retailers and others that oppose the new bill. Analysis also showed that the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, under the control of Senator Bruno, got the lion's share of this support. Bottle bill opponents used major loopholes in our state's campaign finance law to bolster their giving. Approximately $1.08 million of their $2.7 million in campaign contributions was donated using the soft money loophole, which allows for unregulated contributions of unlimited size to be funneled to political parties.

It seems that they're at it again. For last month's fundraiser, corporate invitees were asked to write checks of more than $5,000 to the Senate Republican Committee's soft-money housekeeping account. New York limits individual corporate contributions to a yearly maximum of $5,000, yet an invitation to the fundraiser helpfully reminded potential donors that they could give in excess of the $5,000 limit by giving to the housekeeping account. Not surprisingly, Bruno has opposed a package of campaign finance reforms put forward by Gov. Eliot Spitzer this session. He claims that any attempt to lower our state's outrageously high campaign contribution limits or to close some of the loopholes in our Swiss cheese law amounts to an attack on freedom of speech.

"This is America, this is the Empire State -- there is freedom, liberty, justice for all," the senator is quoted as saying. Bruno certainly got his geography right, but it's not so clear that New Yorkers staunchly defend the "right" to be able to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaign coffers of the Senate Republicans, as the bottling and beverage industries did.

Current state law allows individuals to make aggregate annual campaign contributions of up to $150,000. But that limit is more than three times higher than the average New Yorker's annual salary, meaning that most of us are not privileged enough to ever exercise this right. Of course, the vast majority of New Yorkers don't donate to campaigns anyway. In fact, when massive special-interest campaign spending leads to the stifling of popular legislation in Albany, it starts to seem as if Bruno is more concerned with the rights of a few elite campaign contributors and a cabal of incumbent politicians than with the right of the rest of us to have a state government that is untainted by special interest money.

New York needs comprehensive campaign finance reforms that would sharply restrict soft money donations; ban organizational giving by unions and corporations beef up enforcement by the Board of Elections; and, dramatically lower contribution limits. Bruno's cold response to the governor's campaign finance reform proposal shows that he is perfectly satisfied with the status quo.

He wants us to know that he'll fight for the right of a wealthy elite to lavish him with their millions. That's his version of "freedom for all" in the Empire State. If he wants a true up or down vote on the merits of a bigger, better bottle bill, he should start by agreeing to ban soft money so the perception that he is influenced disappears.

Rachel Leon is executive director of Common Cause New York.


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