While Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been celebrating the early progressive achievements of this year’s Democratic state Legislature, he also has proposed rule changes that would harm the grassroots groups that have played a large part in flipping the state Senate and have been advocating for progressive bills such as the Reproductive Health Act, voting reform and many others for years.
A misleadingly-named Good Government and Ethics Reform law proposed by Cuomo in his executive budget includes a provision in Part R that would reduce the threshold of money allowed to be spent on advocacy work from $5,000 to $500 before triggering the need to register as a lobbyist.
According to the Lobbying Reporting Manual of the New York state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, also known as JCOPE, registering as a lobbyist would require any group of activists that spend more than $500 on their work to pay almost half that amount in fees, file regular reports and complete mandatory ethics training.
As Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause NY, explained in an email, “the Lobby Law does not restrict lobbying to those who are formally paid or retained.” The Lobbying Act defines a lobbyist as: “every person or organization retained, employed or designated by any client to engage in lobbying.” And client doesn’t just mean a paying client, Lerner noted. The law says, “The term ‘client’ shall mean every person or organization who retains, employs or designates any person or organization to carry on lobbying activities.”
As an activist and organizer for the women's health and reproductive rights working group – also known as WHARR – of Get Organized BK, a grassroots advocacy group focused on women’s health and reproductive rights, I can attest that many of us have full-time jobs which are unrelated to our activism. Like a lot of grassroots groups, we have no paid staffers in our organization. We spend our money on postcards to send to elected officials, a website to host our fact sheets and meeting spaces to work and educate fellow constituents. We do this because we believe deeply that the threats to civil rights and reproductive justice that we are fighting against are imminent. This is not lobbying for corporate profit. This is civic duty.
However, under the new lobbying expenditure rule, if two of our activists go to Albany to meet with elected officials to represent WHARR‘s push for expanding reproductive health care access, those two activists are lobbyists and must register as such, if they spend more than $500 in a year.
According to members of the New York City Lobbying Commission and JCOPE, in the 2013 NYC Lobbying Commission Report, a $10,000 threshold would capture at least 98 percent of lobbying expenditures. In 2018, Uber filed $10 million in lobbying expenditures. Yet Cuomo is proposing that grassroots groups should have to bear the same reporting and administrative responsibilities as such huge corporate behemoths.
Grassroots activism has always been necessary in pushing forward a legislative agenda that truly embraces social justice. This is not to say that larger nonprofit organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the National Institute of Reproductive Health and the National Latina Institute of Reproductive Health have not paved the way for the work that we do and done much of the heavy lifting. But they, in turn, say that smaller groups that would be affected by this proposal play a vital role in passing progressive legislation. “Grassroots organizations like WHARR helped create a vital groundswell of support for the Reproductive Health Act during the 2017-18 session,” said Emily Kadar of the National Institute for Reproductive Health.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that this proposal of Cuomo’s specifically affects grassroots groups with miniscule operating budgets that have historically pushed him further to the left, held him accountable to his promises and embodied the power of the people. Grassroots energy has strengthened because so many of us have learned the hard way that when we are complacent, the status quo holds. When the people gain power, the powers benefitting from the status quo feel threatened – including our Democratic governor.