Listening to news radio these days is an education in the way advocacy groups are transforming the lobbying process in New York. In just 45 minutes of listening to all-news WINS a few nights ago, I caught three separate commercials all warning that impending state budget cuts would devastate some portion of New York’s social fabric.
First came the nursing home operators, with a maudlin ad featuring an old woman worried that New York’s budget cuts will deprive her of her nurse—the only true friend she has left, now that her family has died off. Then the state’s two major teachers’ unions weighed in with a commercial on how the very same cuts would drive up property taxes and expand class sizes unless the governor acts to close corporate loopholes and tax the rich more. Minutes later, the hospitals and health-care unions chimed in with a scare-mongering ad claiming that the latest budget cuts could prompt closings of emergency wards and other vital services.
This is the way budget battles are waged these days, with advocacy groups pouring more and more dollars to ad campaigns that appeal directly to the voters rather than to legislators. Such advertising has become a powerful tool in New York State, where the battle lines over many issues are so clearly set out that old-fashioned lobbying—buttonholing elected officials in the hallways, contributing to their re-election campaigns, or hosting fundraising cocktail parties for them, all to win their votes—has lost some of its effectiveness. Now, instead, advocacy groups use attack ads that attempt to give politicians a preview of what they might face in their next reelection bid if they come down on the wrong side of an issue.
This technique got a big boost in 1999, when Governor Pataki appeared ready to push for reforms to restrain growth in New York’s Medicaid spending. To fight back, a coalition of health groups debuted a heavy-handed ad campaign warning of dire consequences if the governor went ahead with his plans. When business groups supporting the governor’s reforms declined a request from Pataki to counter the ads with their own campaign, the governor beat a hasty retreat and proposed devoting billions more in spending for Medicaid. No wonder other groups have seized on that strategy with enthusiasm.
The ads also make clear that public-sector unions and nonprofit groups are willing to spend almost unlimited sums on advocacy campaigns—including these new radio and television messages as well as conventional lobbying. A report last week by the state commission on lobbying disclosed that these groups are now among the biggest spenders on campaigns in Albany. Teachers lead the way: last year the United Federation of Teachers and the New York State United Teachers ranked first and second on lobbying expenditures, together spending $4.8 million. Other top spenders included the state’s two largest hospital associations—Greater NY Hospital Association and Healthcare Association of New York State, whose separate campaigns added up to nearly $1.7 million, and the Public Employees Federation. Only two private-sector businesses, Philip Morris Cos. and the Yankees Entertainment Sports Network, were among the top 10 spenders.
Moreover, these figures understate what some groups are actually spending on issues, because state law requires that only certain types of advertising must be reported as lobbying expenditures, while the dollars devoted to many other ads, including some of those currently attacking Governor Pataki’s budget, are not part of the totals.
So far, at least, it seems to matter little that these ads are filled with grossly exaggerated claims that never come true. The state’s health-care lobby, for instance, has been warning for more than a decade about the supposedly devastating effect of cutbacks in healthcare spending, yet their prophecies never materialize. In 1991, the head of the Greater NY Hospital Association irresponsibly predicted that because of Cuomo-era budget cuts, “people will die in the streets” and a “vast destruction” of the health care system would occur. Several years later he predicted that Pataki reforms would be like an “avalanche” falling on hospitals. Nothing of the sort happened, in either case.
Teachers’ union ads are just as fanciful. Three years ago, the union made the case for wage increases with commercials asserting that the city had a vast shortage of teachers, though the union had no figures to back up its claims (“The Vanishing Teacher and Other UFT Fictions,” Spring 2000) and data from suburban school districts belied their assertions.
Right now there is very little in the way of public discussion to balance this barrage of misinformation. Sooner or later New Yorkers may get wise that these advocacy groups are crying wolf once too often. But until then, their ads will continue to be a familiar—and powerful—part of local budget battles.