For the first time, lobbyists working to influence legislation in New York State will have to publicly disclose where their money comes from. That's a triumph for transparency and an important first in the nation at a time when the power of money is feeding a corrosive cynicism about government.
The disclosure requirement was advocated for and signed into law in 2011 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. It shouldn't be overshadowed by controversy over the recent decision by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics to allow donations made to lobbying groups before July 1 to stay secret -- including those to the Committee to Save New York, a nonprofit organization friendly to Cuomo.
It would be wrong to apply the law's reporting requirement retroactively. Donors who contributed under one set of rules shouldn't be held accountable under another just recently written.
Still, it would be nice to know the identities of the Committee to Save New York's well-heeled contributors. The business group has raised $17 million and spent a whopping $12 million on ad campaigns and lobbying, largely in support of Cuomo's budget and tax agenda.
The group should voluntarily go to its donors, ask permission to disclose their names, and return the contributions of those who refuse. That would clear the air quite admirably.
But even if that never happens, from now on, 501(c)4 nonprofit groups such as the Committee to Save New York that meet two thresholds -- spending more than $50,000 a year lobbying, and at least 3 percent of their resources lobbying in New York -- will have to divulge the sources of their money. That includes disclosing the names of individual donors who contribute more than $5,000 a year.
The rules are crafted so that bundled donations, say from multiple members of one family or a company and its subsidiaries, will be aggregated and treated as if they came from a single source. That will make it difficult to shield the identity of big donors by splitting their contributions to avoid triggering the $5,000 threshold.
Lobbying is big business. Last year 6,099 lobbyists registered in the state, representing 3,535 clients, according to the ethics commission. They spent a cumulative $220 million.
When all that money and power meet, a little sunshine is a very good thing.