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Tripping Over Lobbyists at City Hall

Tripping Over Lobbyists at City Hall

New York Times 1/12/2006

By Joyce Purnick

NOW that the term limits question has returned because the City Council wants four more years, the focus is on method and whether the public should get to vote in another referendum or the Council should vote itself an extension.

A good subject for debate. Here’s another — over substance, not method, and a nettlesome matter of unintended consequences. When term limits went into effect 12 years ago, critics made dire predictions that Council staff members would take over the city’s legislature while lawmakers, relegated to the revolving door of term limits, would be turned into bystanders.

That didn’t happen. But something else did. The influence of players in another segment of the permanent government grew so great that they are riding high today: lobbyists.

Their number and power have grown so noticeably that when Councilwoman Christine C. Quinn became speaker eight days ago, the Council chamber couldn’t hold all the lobbyists who turned up.

“It’s problematic, something we need to be vigilant about, to make sure that the familiarity does not cross over the line,” Ms. Quinn said in an interview.

Unions and cultural and civic organizations that never turned to lobbyists before hire them routinely now, convinced they need help dealing with the Council.

Lobbyists are nothing new in city government, but consider the recent numbers. In 2000, 148 lobbyists registered with the city and earned just over $14.5 million from clients, the city clerk’s lobbying report shows. In 2004, 225 lobbyists registered with the city and earned $22.6 million.

In 2000, lobbyists represented 728 clients, most of them large institutions, including unions, universities, theaters, churches, museums and real estate development companies. In 2004, lobbyists represented 1,195 clients, and they ranged from the familiar, larger institutions to small cultural and nonprofit groups, even small charities.

Some say it’s because of more competition for fewer city dollars. But there’s clearly something else going on. “It’s increasingly necessary because the people keep changing,” said Peter H. Kostmayer, president of Citizens for NYC, a nonprofit organization that makes grants to community organizations for several programs. “We need a sherpa to show us around. Before, you got to know people, they stayed in the same roles. Now you get to know people and they change.”

Mr. Kostmayer hired James F. Capalino, a lobbyist and former Koch administration official who made sure Mr. Kostmayer attended the Quinn installation, and arranged for him to meet with lawmakers about one of his organization’s initiatives — helping New Yorkers determine their eligibility for earned income tax credits.

The Council turnover, said Mr. Kostmayer, a former congressman from Pennsylvania, means that “you have to go in year after year to explain your program.”

THERE is another reason for the lobbyist explosion. In four years, 37 members of the Council will leave because of term limits, and 37 new members will come in.

Lobbyists know more about city government than most newcomers do. “Say it’s budget time. Millions for education has no meaning outside of the context of what did we do last year, what’s happened with that money?” said Eric Lane, a Hofstra University law professor and adviser to Ms. Quinn’s predecessor, Gifford Miller. “If you have all new people, who are new people going to ask?”

They ask lobbyists, some of whom are fine folks who do fine work educating lawmakers. Some are not fine folks. But all have something in common. They serve their clients, not the public. And some play two roles — as political consultants to council members and as lobbyists for clients with business before the Council.

Proponents of modifying the term limits law note that lobbyists were not as prevalent 12 years ago and predict that they would lose some of their cachet if the limits were extended (from two four-year terms to three four-year terms).

“When legislators serve long-term, you don’t need to rely on lobbyists in the same way because you’ve developed expertise,” said Councilman Bill de Blasio, who championed a term extension during his unsuccessful race for speaker.

The argument is plausible but hasn’t gotten much attention. One can hope it will. Otherwise, with so many lobbyists in and around City Hall these days, New York shouldn’t be surprised if it finds itself some day with a local version of the Jack Abramoff problem, and who needs that?

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