Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pay to Play to Get Your Way in the Legislature

"Pay to Play"—the Unholy Game of Persuading Legislators to Do Something You Want

Why do so many advocacy groups in mental health almost never get what they want in the annual give and take in the state Legislature this time of year?

It's because they use the wrong tactics, they mistakenly think they get access to the leaders but they don't. NAMI's faithful troop the halls of the state Legislative Office Building in Albany every session but seldom come back with more than promises.

Why is this? What really happens is that the lawmakers follow their party leaders on bills and budget items and if you don't reach the leaders—the big shots who run the Legislature—you can forget it.

We're facing a system known as “pay to play”. Rank and file lawmakers routinely follow the orders of their leaders. It's a very tight system. Even supportive legislators and their staff don't stand up against the leadership on the key spending bills or priorities that are set for them by others. We have the experience to show that it takes more than numbers—it takes money—to convince these lemmings to vote our way, not against us.

That means you must form a political action committee (or PAC) to raise the money you need for this high stakes game. There are about 700 PACs in NY State. There's at least one mental health PAC that functions in the Capital District organized by Bill DeVita of RSS and others that shows the wisdom of this. Bill's group conducts fund raising parties at his house each year and raises the requisite several thousand dollars, so as to represent dozens of like minded agencies and individuals, all clamoring for action on the mental health stage.

It used to be Joe Bruno, until last year “his holiness,” the undisputed power in the state Senate, who held the keys to passing a bill or not. Joe singlehandedly blocked bills the advocates wanted very much like the SHU bill and Kendra's Law,and even Timothy's Law for equal mental health insurance benefits. The word is that Joe charged the PACs and other lobbyists indecent amounts to attend his fund raisers and win the right to press the flesh for a few minutes. Individual NAMI members and their top staff in Albany just didn't get in to see Joe and it hurt.

Nowadays you pay to see the current leaders, who are Shelly Silver, the long time Assembly speaker and Peter Rivera, Assembly mental health chairperson--who's holding a fund raiser in mid-March in Albany. In the Senate you want to see Malcolm Smith, the new majority leader. You need a PAC to raise enough money to get into these events, which will cost you a few thousand dollars perhaps and you might not be invited to some of them without a well-heeled PAC in your corner, I've been told.

A personal chat with Peter Rivera at his upcoming fund raiser, for instance, might mean the difference as to whether the mental health worker's COLA gets restored this year. Or it helps convince him the SSI cuts are detrimental to many and unwise. He's going to be a good listener when he knows how much it means to you in dollars and cents.

It's a stacked and unfair system the leaders employ that mainly benefits the rich and powerful and shuns the little guys like NAMI and its unorganized allies in statewide mental health advocacy. Individual members have no way to put up the money needed to see the Messrs. Silver, Rivera and Smith.

That's not all of it. You don't need a PAC to contact the policy advisers in the governor's office or money movers in Budget or the state department heads in Health and Mental Health, Insurance and the like. You can talk to key legislative staff, good people to know. But you need friends and established relationships here, we've found.

Better yet, restless warriors, raise the money for a PAC. Without it, we in NAMI don't belong, we don't “pay to play”. That's the way the game is played, it puts some money in the lawmakers' pockets. It's lousy and it shouldn't be there but it works for the high and mighty, and that's what makes the system go 'round, as they say. (Roy Neville)