As voters in New York State brace for what analysts have described as the tightest guberna- torial campaign in the state in years, community bankers are keeping an iron-fisted grip on their money -- even as they lobby hard for changes in state laws.
Instead of throwing money at the high-profile gubernatorial candidates -- Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo and Republican challenger state Sen. George Pataki -- big and small banks are going to key lawmakers who sit on banking committees, according to a survey by American Banker of campaign finance reports filed with the New York State Board of Elections.
"Why would you invest in a legislator who's not a decisionmaker on your issue?" said Andrew Greenblatt, executive director of New York State Common Cause. "You'd have to be a poor CEO not to realize that campaign contributions at least buy you access and that access can be very valuable."
Contributions by both individual and political action committees are higher this election than in past years, especially in the gubernatorial race, which Mr. Greenblatt said is the most expensive in state history. But bankers said their contributions have actually remained flat over the past 12 years.
"At this time not to [contribute] would be to have your voice muffled in the political process." said Michael Smith, executive vice president of the state Bankers Association. "I'm not going to say it's the only way to have your voice heard, but it's certainly part of the process."
One big issue that has thrifts opening the purse strings concerns their participation in a $100 million state loan fund currently limited to commercial banks.
Since January, the thrifts and their political action committees have given $32,250 to the four state legislative party committees, while large commercial banks and their PACs contributed $54,475. Credit unions and other financial services companies gave another $29,700.
The gubernatorial race has received much less attention.
Mr. Cuomo received only about $19,400 from all banks, thrifts, and banking PACs from January to July. That includes $5,000 from the state Bankers Association, $1,000 from the Independent Bankers Association of New York State, and $8,000 from the Community Bankers Association of New York State. Most of the treasure chest used by all three organizations comes from individual community bank donations.
That's a tiny portion of the governor's current war chest, which had more than $3.6 million as of July 11.
But Mr. Cuomo is faring far better than Mr. Pataid, a state banking committee member who is seen by many observers as a strong challenger to the threeterm governor.
Only two community banks have given $200 each to Mr. Pataki since January, while the Independent Bankers gave him $1,500, the Bankers Association gave $3.000, and the Community Bankers gave $3,000. The state senator has raised almost $2 million since January, including $330,384 from businesses and $173,600 from PACs.
Of the 31 states with campaign contribution limits, New York has the highest ceilings, Mr. Greenblatt said.
Corporations are restricted to $5.000 a year for all political campaigns. but businesses frequently contribute through subsidiaries.
Suprisingly it's the once-troubled thrift industry that is doling out the funds.
Thrift donors included Fulton Savings Bank, Hushing Savings Bank, and North Side Savings Bank, as well as the Community Bankers Association of New York State, which gave $23,900 on behalf of its 117 members. mostly thrifts.
This year, in addition to advocating regulatory and tax relief. New York's thrifts have been working towards a change in state law forbidding them from accepting government deposits. The thrifts want to participate in what's known as the Excelsior Linked Deposits Program, a $100 million fund that commercial banks can dip into for cheap funds to loan to small businesgs. But lawmakers were divided over whether the funds are public deposits and barred thrifts from participating.
Legislation to allow thrifts to join was stalled in a state Assembly committee when the legislature adjourned for the year. The bill must be passed again when lawmakers return to Albany in January and bankers are hoping some of the green stuff will help them out.
"It's really just the opportunity to at least present your case if the circumstance comes up," said Thomas M. O'Brien, pesident and chief executive of $1.5billion-asset North Side Savings Bank in New York City. "Banking's always in the crossharis of public debate and it does give us some visibility and the opportunity to make our case and state your feelings."
"It goes deeper than dollars," added William H. Rincker, president and chief executive of Binghamton Savings Bank, another contributor. "It's caused an embarrassing situation for us in which a customer cannot understand why his bank cannot make use of a state program."
He added, "We need to pre- sent our position. We need to have an opportunity for our lobbyist to explain the position... All I want to do is be treated fairly. I don't want to influence anyone unfairly."
Thrifts are targeting state legislative leaders and members of the state banking committees, particularly the chairpersons, Sen. Hugh T. Farley and Assembly woman Aurelia Greene, each of whom collected more than $2,000.
Members of the Democratic controlled Assembly committee raked in $5,875 from the Bankers Association, $3,375 from the Independent Bankers, and $4,760 from the Community Bankers. Ms. Greene collected $450 from the Bankers Association, $1,450 from the Independent Bankers, and $500 from the Community Bankers.
The Republican-controlled Senate committee got $4,650 from the Bankers Assoication, $3,350 from the the Independent Bankers, and $3,920 from the Community Bankers.
"Some commercial banks are going to present their picture. We have to present our picture." said Ted Antos, chairman of the Community Bankers Association and chairman of Fulton Savings Bank.
"They're contributing, we're contlributing. It's a defensive measure to put our viewpoint out there and back it up with some contributions."
One-fifth of the Bankers Association gifts went to banking committee members in both houses. while half of the Independent Bankers' donations and 42% of its money went to banking committee members.
About 22% of the Community Bankers' gifts and 19% of its money were designated for committee members.
Bankers "have the most to gain, more than almost any other industry," said Mr. Greenblatt. "These campaign contributions are investments and bankers invest wisely."