New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo is trying to do something revolutionary in New York State: let voters know what’s going on. His newly launched website, Project Sunlight, quotes James Madison—“People who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives”—before giving a guided tour of Albany and its all-too-secretive inhabitants. It’s a promising start, but only a start.
Project Sunlight is the handiwork of Blair Horner, Cuomo’s advisor for public integrity, who long pushed good-government initiatives at the New York Public Interest Research Group before joining the AG’s office. The website features a brief video, “The Basics of New York State Government,” that would be better named “The Way Things Ought to Be.” In this videoland version of Albany, the governor and the state’s two legislative leaders don’t negotiate important bills behind closed doors and then present them as done deals to houses whose members vote in lockstep with leadership. Instead, each bill “is sent to a committee specializing in the subject matter,” such as labor or housing, where it’s subject to “hearings and proceedings,” and then, after getting through committee, is “debated by the full membership.”
Things haven’t worked like that in the capitol for a long time, perhaps ever, and Project Sunlight helps explain why. Through the power of its clearly presented data, the website shows how special-interest lobbyists, campaign contributors, and beneficiaries of pork-barrel spending dominate state government. Using the site’s search function, a visitor can type in, for example, “United Federation of Teachers,” and learn that the organization spent over $300,000 lobbying state government in the first six months of 2007. Or the visitor can browse lobbyists by industry—starting, say, with “health care” —and find out with a few mouse clicks and some simple arithmetic that the state’s biggest health-care union, Local 1199, has six separate lobbying accounts and spent a whopping $13 million during the same period. One can also sort bills by sponsoring legislator and find out which bills clients like 1199 lobbied to pass.
There’s more. The site enables constituents to look up each assemblyman or state senator and see how many “member items”—pork-barrel projects in his district—he pushed through during the most recent legislative session, and it identifies the beneficiaries of this taxpayer largesse, ranging from the Chinese-American Planning Council ($250,000) to Queers for Economic Justice ($2,000). The site also provides information on the sources of campaign contributions for statewide officials, from assemblymen and state senators to the governor himself.
Project Sunlight is a work in progress, as Horner concedes, and it could be even more useful with some additional features. For example, while it’s helpful to browse lobbyists by industry, the site should also provide the total dollar amount that each industry spends so that we can learn whether the health-care industry, which benefits immensely from state Medicaid spending, has more financial clout than, say, the banking industry. A top-ten list of the year’s biggest lobbying clients, ranked by dollars spent, would be instructive, too. Turning from industries to individuals, the site could tally up each legislator’s member items by dollar amount, rather than just by number, to make clear who’s who in the financial pecking order. And the site could provide an annual list of the top ten legislators in terms of pork-barrel spending—cross-referenced with each legislator’s tenure in office, whether he is in the majority party in his house, and whether he has faced any contested elections recently. Such information would offer insight into how each house’s leadership allocates member items based on political considerations.
Project Sunlight might also tally the campaign contributions received per elected official, and create a separate list for each donor—searchable by employer or industry—so that voters could see how broadly each donor distributes money. And why not add a section on the state’s more than 600 public authorities—created over the past half-century to run everything from mass transit to dubious “economic development” schemes, while keeping $43 billion–plus in taxpayer-guaranteed debt off the state’s official books? Government appointees control the authorities, which have long been repositories for patronage jobs and lucrative contracts.
While Horner refines Project Sunlight, state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli should start building a similar website, focused on the state budget, on which taxpayers could monitor state spending. New York’s taxpayers could then learn how much, as a percentage of the budget, the state spends on items like education or public-employee pensions each year, versus how much it spends, for example, on maintaining its bridges. New Yorkers could also learn how they stack up against residents of other states on tax rates and per-capita spending. DiNapoli could follow the example of Texas, which recently launched a website to explain the budget to regular folks.
If DiNapoli and Cuomo ever got together to coordinate the two websites, we could then learn not only how much the state’s top lobbyists spend, but how much they cost the taxpayers when the spending succeeds in getting legislation passed—as it so often does. Of course, Albany may not want to go that far in sharing information—but one can hope.