What does New York Alliance for Environmental Concerns advocate for? Whom does Citizens for Fire Safety Institute represent?
Both, it turns out, work on behalf of businesses that produce or use chemicals. Lobbying always has an element of spin, but some organizations make it easy to misunderstand whom they speak for or what they stand for.
As the current state legislative session winds down, the New York World used its Lobbies at the Top database as a starting point to identify organizations that lobbied state officials in the past two years and whose names appear to disguise their objectives.
U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas coined a word for the phenomenon: “astroturf.” Facing a deluge of letters from the insurance industry, he is reported to have said: “A fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and Astroturf.”
A trademark for artificial turf grass has since been reborn as a label for any faux-populist lobbying. Groups that present a sympathetic face, and speak to loftier principles than a company’s bottom line, tend to get better hearings in the press and among image-conscious politicians.
Astroturf comes in big and small packages, from an influential trade group whose actions affect hundreds of thousands of rent-regulated tenants in New York State to a proxy for a single fireworks manufacturer.
1) New York Alliance for Environmental Concerns
The Public Face: Judging by its name and the majestic nature photos on its homepage, the New York Alliance for Environmental Concerns appears to be defending the environment. It describes itself as a coalition of groups in the “Green Industry” field, working to educate the public about environmental issues and the benefits of “environmental horticulture.”
“We are the environmentalists who have been caring for this green space for generations,” says the group’s website.
The Real Deal: The Alliance’s members are associations of landscapers, turfgrass producers and the lawn care industry, and their main goal is relaxing regulations on pesticides. Last year, it supported a new law that ends a requirement that lawn care companies provide written warning labels to homeowners detailing the chemical substances they apply; now disclosure comes only at the request of the property owner, in electronic form.
Another measure the group supports, approved this year and last year by the Senate Agriculture committee, would prevent local governments from creating their own regulations restricting fertilizers.
The Alliance did not return our telephone and email inquires.
2) Citizens for Fire Safety Institute
The Public Face: The Citizens for Fire Safety Institute presents itself as a coalition of fire safety professionals with roughly the same agenda as Smokey the Bear. Its site features dramatic video of firefighters battling blazes as a narrator intones “The Message – Safety First.”
The Real Deal: As the Chicago Tribune revealed last month, the Institute in fact has only three members: the three leading producers of chemical flame retardants, Chemtura Corp., Albemarle Corp. and ICL Industrial Products. Its goal is to block legislation seeking to ban flame retardants, bills that have emerged amid mounting evidence of their carcinogenic effects on children. As we reported, the group has lobbied heavily in New York to block a bill that would make this the first state in the nation to ban chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant that California recently designated as a carcinogen. The Institute paid $30,166 from January through April of this year for lobbying by the influential Albany firm Patricia Lynch Associates. As the legislative session draws to a close, the Tris ban remains stalled in the Senate Finance Committee.
Citizens for Fire Safety Institute did not return our calls and emails.
3) US Fireworks Safety Commission
The Public Face: The lobbying disclosure forms for the US Fireworks Safety Commission provide an address in Gas City, Indiana. No one answered the telephone there, and the answering machine had an automated recording; it said only to leave a message and made no reference to the US Fireworks Safety Commission. Our message left there was not returned.
The Real Deal: The Commission’s goal is for New York State to legalize certain fireworks produced by the company owned by its president, Terry Anderson. Anderson’s day job is president of TNT Fireworks, which describes itself as “America’s bestselling fireworks brand.” The Commission’s January 2012 letter of agreement with the lobbying firm The Vandevoort Group spells out that its services will be “an effort to have legislation enacted in New York that would allow the sale of certain fireworks manufactured and sold by the client.”
Specifically, TNT wants New York to legalize handheld sparklers, fountains, torches and other fireworks that spray from a fixed position. In 2011, a bill that would exempt such “sparkling devices” from the state’s ban on consumer fireworks passed both the Assembly and Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Cuomo.
The Commission isn’t giving up. This year, it lobbied the governor on “sales of sparkling devices.”
We called TNT Fireworks and asked to speak with Anderson, but after calling back to acknowledge our message a company representative did not respond to a return call.
4) New York Taxpayers for Economic Justice
The Public Face: The organization describes itself as a “coalition of men and women, from all walks of life” committed to defending free markets and the interests of taxpayers. It notes its main goal prominently on its website — preventing government takeover of the title insurance industry, which protects property buyers against defects in ownership rights — but says it represents a diverse membership and broad political principles.
The Real Deal: The 10 members of the group’s Executive Board are executives of large title insurance companies and advocacy groups for Long Island landholders. The group’s disclosure forms authorize its lobbyists to advocate on a single issue: title insurance legislation.
The group formed in 2010 to fight a bill, proposed by Assemblyman Mark Weprin, that would create a new authority to guarantee titles on real estate transactions — much the same service title insurance companies provide now. A similar program in Iowa saves home buyers hundreds of dollars in title insurance fees, but freezes private title insurers out of the business.
New York Taxpayers for Economic Justice did not report lobbying on specific bills in the current session. But the Land Title Association of New York State, an industry group whose membership overlaps closely with that of New York Taxpayers for Economic Justice, reported lobbying on the Weprin bill in each of the last two years. Sen. Eric Adams introduced a counterpart measure in the Senate, but both bills have been locked in committee since January.
Taxpayers for Economic Justice did not respond to our phone calls and emails.
5) Rent Stabilization Association
The Public Face: The Rent Stabilization Association’s slogan is “Fighting for Fairness in New York’s Housing Market.” It openly describes its membership, explaining on its website that it represents 25,000 property owners and agents and is the largest real estate industry trade group in the state. It emphasizes lobbying programs that “protect the real estate industry from anti-owner legislation and harmful regulation.”
The Real Deal: There’s one crucial detail missing in the Rent Stabilization Association’s description of itself: It has advocated successfully to reduce the number of apartments subject to rent stabilization, which caps the size of annual rent increases and provides for guaranteed renewals of leases in most instances. The group has also favored proposals to abolish regulation altogether. The Rent Stabilization Association spent $232,684 lobbying Albany on rent regulation and related issues in 2011, and an additional $169,100 in just the first four months of 2012. Among other things, the Association lobbied against a bill promoted by tenant advocates to broaden representation on the city’s Rent Guidelines Board and add City Council oversight of appointments, according to Sam Stein of the advocacy group Tenants and Neighbors. The Association did not respond to our phone and email inquiries.
This article was written by Sasha Chavkin at The New York World, an accountability journalism project covering city and state government, based at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow @thenyworld on Twitter and at thenewyorkworld.com.
Tags: Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, Lloyd Bentsen, New York Alliance for Environmental Concerns, New York Taxpayers for Economic Justice, Rent Stabilization Association, US Fireworks Safety Commission
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