Orange County lawmakers looking to drop Pay-to-Play limit – News – recordonline.com


GOSHEN – Orange County lawmakers may gut the 2013 law that has reduced the amount of campaign money County Executive Steve Neuhaus can accept from companies that hold or are seeking county contracts.

The county’s Pay-to-Play Law, which took effect just as Neuhaus took office in 2014, set a lower contribution limit than state law otherwise allowed for companies with business interests before the county, permitting each to make no more than $4,000 in donations to the county executive over a four-year term. Lawmakers voted 20-1 for the law, which was intended to curb the real or perceived influence of campaign donations on discretionary contract awards.

But a legislative committee will take up a proposal on Wednesday to drop the Pay-to-Play limit and revert to the state maximum that applies to any campaign donors, regardless of their business interests. That would enable county contractors to give Neuhaus nearly $11,000 over a four-year term, or more than double what the 2013 county law allows.

In place of a lower donation cap, the proposal before the Rules, Enactments and Intergovernmental Relations Committee would require county contractors to file annual disclosure forms listing the campaign contributions they made to any county candidates.

Just two months ago, lawmakers were set to consider strengthening the Pay-to-Play Law by closing a loophole that has enabled contractors organized as limited-liability companies to exceed the $4,000 donation limit. But the County Attorney’s office fought back by challenging the law itself, submitting an eight-page memo that argued that the $4,000 cap improperly pre-empted state law and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Some lawmakers are now making that same case.

Legislator Tom Faggione, a Deerpark Republican and chairman of the Rules Committee, said Tuesday that he “absolutely” supports the proposal because it would make the county law consistent with state law. He didn’t know of any legal challenges against the Pay-to-Play Law and saw no reason to wait for one.

“If we find that a law is inconsistent with the Constitution, then we have a responsibility to fix it,” he said.

Legislator Mike Anagnostakis, the Town of Newburgh Republican who initiated and successfully pushed for the Pay-to-Play Law, voiced outrage at its potential demise.

“The law to STOP pay-to-play is being repealed under the guise of now being unconstitutional – a claim that would shock the Supreme Court and the nearly 1,000 municipalities that have such laws on their books,” he said in an emailed statement. “To add insult to injury, they call this an amended pay-to-play law, when in reality this new law opens the door for pay-to-play corruption to come back to Orange County!”

The proposal to remove the Pay-to-Play limit is being made by Antoinette Reed, the Legislature’s attorney.

Reed, who helped craft the 2013 law, had disputed in December that the county can’t pre-empt the state’s contribution limits, but said Tuesday that she changed her mind after reading a 2014 state court ruling from Clinton County. That case concerned a county law that barred political candidates from working for the county Board of Elections.

“It makes it very clear that we can’t pre-empt election law,” Reed said.

Legislator Mike Paduch, the Democratic minority leader, said Tuesday that he supported closing the loophole for limited-liability companies in the Pay-to-Play Law, and opposes the push to drop the $4,000 limit altogether. But his caucus will be unable to stop the move if most Republicans side with Neuhaus, a Republican. After gaining three seats in November, Republicans now hold a 15-5 edge over Democrats on the Legislature.

Anagnostakis proposed the Pay-to-Play Law after the Times Herald-Record reported on county contractors pumping campaign money into the coffers of Neuhaus’ predecessor, Ed Diana. The Record found that six of Diana’s 10 biggest benefactors over the past seven years had county business. His most generous donor was the county’s insurance broker, Marshall & Sterling, which had given him more than $24,000.

The preamble to the 2013 law justified the new limit in part by stating that “large political contributions from those seeking or currently performing business with the County (“Pay-to-Play”) may raise concerns on the part of taxpayers and residents as to their trust in government contracts.”

Reed argued Tuesday that the periodic disclosure of campaign contributions on the state Board of Elections website or on the annual forms she proposed should satisfy those concerns.

“My view of it is, people want to see who’s contributing,” she said.

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