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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

New York’s Corruption-Palooza Near Its End

Posted by NYPIRG on July 16, 2018 at 12:20 pm
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Another week, another conviction.  The political establishment took another hit last week with the corruption conviction of former New York State economic development czar Alain Kaloyeros and key private developers of a major state-sponsored project.  Kaloyeros was Governor Cuomo’s right-hand man when it came to the state’s investments in hi-tech economic development projects, and in the case of the corruption conviction, the governor’s signature project was the so-called “Buffalo Billion.”

The “Buffalo Billion” is a commitment the governor made early in his tenure to generate investments of $1 billion in solar, medicine, and other hi-tech endeavors to jumpstart and anchor the economy in Buffalo, NY.  The plan was overseen by Kaloyeros who had been the state’s foremost advocate for putting public money in hi-tech public-private partnership investments across New York.

The U.S. Attorney’s case against Kaloyeros and a handful of private developers in Buffalo and Syracuse was that he rigged the state’s contracting process so state investments would go to benefit specific developers – all of whom had been large campaign donors to the governor.

The governor was not charged or directly implicated in this scheme.

The conviction follows one earlier this year when a top former aide to the governor, Joseph Percoco, was also convicted for violating the same federal law.  In the Percoco case, he was convicted of trying to rig government actions to benefit himself.  The proceedings also showed how he used his position to benefit campaign contributors as well.

It is clear is that the Cuomo Administration’s emphasis on secrecy and quick results raised the risk of corruption, a risk that unfortunately played out in both of these cases.

And while the courts have acted and the juries have done their work, both the governor and the Legislature have not.  Despite the staggering scandals that have rocked both branches of government, little meaningful changes have been approved to reduce the risk of corruption.

There have been no hearings, no public debate; there’s been little other than the sound of policy “crickets” when it comes to ethics reforms.

Instead, the leaders have argued that the convictions themselves show the system is working.  An assertion that is absurd.

Yes, federal prosecutors – with the help of dogged reporting by investigating journalists – successfully brought cases against corrupt public officials, but what happened to the state’s system of ethics enforcement?  Clearly, the schemes were hatched because the officials involved assumed that no one was watching, that in fact the system would not catch them.

And if it weren’t for federal prosecutors, they would have been right.

Albany is broken.  Corruption risks remain.  There are solutions that would help:

  1. Enhance the authority of the independently-elected state Comptroller to monitor spending. Early in the Cuomo term, the Comptroller’s powers were cut back, which may have sent a powerful signal that executive branch employees would be able to do as they please with little chance of getting caught.
  2. Make state contracting public. New York should approve creation of a “database of deals” that ensures better transparency and public oversight of the value of government spending.  In addition, all government-created corporations must be subject to the same openness requirements as state government.
  3. End “pay to play” campaign practices. Governor Cuomo promised in 2010 that he would dramatically restrict the ability of those seeking government contracts to shower elected officials with campaign contributions.  The state’s “pay-to-play” atmosphere was central to the narrative in the recent corruption trials.  Yet the governor has done little to achieve his stated goal.

These steps, and others – like closing the Limited Liability Company loophole, restricting the outside income of public officials and establishing an independent ethics watchdog agency – are critical to reducing corruption risk and restoring the public’s trust in its state government.

There is still time before the election this November to act.  Governor Cuomo should convene a special session of the Legislature to hammer out a deal to clean up Albany.  Unless actions are taken, voters should demand answers, answers as to why the state’s top elected officials presided over unprecedented corruption scandals and did nothing.  It’s time to take down the Corruption-Palooza sign down from the state Capitol.

Harmful Algae Blooms Put Water Supplies at Risk

Posted by NYPIRG on July 9, 2018 at 9:20 am
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Summers are getting hotter as the planet heats up.  The combination of hotter summers and strong storms are not only inconvenient; they also can cause serious health problems too.

One example is the growing presence of harmful algae blooms in lake water.  Harmful algae blooms are more frequent and occurring earlier across New York and the nation.  They can pose a threat to recreation and can taint drinking water supplies.

Harmful algal blooms aren’t your typical green surface ooze that you may see on the top of lake waters.  While ugly to look at when at the surface, a bloom can also be dangerous, so much so that the state has a blanket policy to stay out of the water should there be evidence of one.

While every algal bloom isn’t toxic — some algal species can produce both toxic and nontoxic blooms — toxic blooms can cause problems for swimmers and other recreational users in the form of rashes or allergic reactions.  People who swim in a bloom may experience different side effects including nausea, vomiting, headaches, respiratory problems, skin rash and other reactions.  There have also been reports nationwide of dogs and livestock dying shortly after swimming or wading in a bloom.

When the blooms are found in drinking water supplies, it can result in that system being unusable for human consumption.  Last year, for example, Onondaga County’s Skaneateles Lake had multiple toxic blooms during the summer months.  The toxins threatened the drinking water of not only local town and village residents, but also those in the city of Syracuse and surrounding areas.

The blooms are a blue-green slimy substance.  They often crop up in late summer and early fall, (although they have started to show up in New York’s surface waters) when waters are warm and calm. They also need nutrients to bloom, so often they’ll be observed after heavy storms.

The nutrients they primarily rely on are phosphorus and nitrogen and the algal blooms have increased due to a rise in nutrient runoff from sources such as soil erosion from fertilized agricultural areas and lawns, erosion from river banks, river beds, land clearing (deforestation), and sewage effluent.  All of these are the major sources of phosphorus and nitrogen entering water ways.  These nutrients coupled with warm, calm water is the recipe for an algal bloom.

The state is charged with monitoring the types of runoff that can lead to algal blooms.  In the past year, the Cuomo Administration has offered financial support to a limited number of sites, but the spread of these blooms far exceeds currently available resources.

Unfortunately, the recent heat wave helped trigger some algae blooms that showed up in lakes and reservoirs across New York State.

According to the Department of Conservation, as of last week some 39 surface water areas had some evidence of algal blooms.  In Albany, for example, Washington Park Pond has some confirmed algae blooms.  Areas in which the New York City reservoir system is located (most notably in Putnam and Westchester counties) have had reports of algae blooms.

If you want to check out the lakes in which algae blooms are a concern, you can go to the DEC website, which has a harmful algal bloom notifications webpage that it updates weekly.  (Go to www.dec.ny.gov to see information on algal blooms.)

In August 2017, there were 66 lakes identified as being at risk of algae blooms, including the drinking water supplies for some towns in upstate.  For example, Auburn had to have its drinking water treated for contamination from algae blooms.

While we all must do everything possible to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and aggressively embrace energy efficiency programs and alternative energy sources, due to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, the planet will continue to heat up.  There is not much that New York can do to reduce the damage that has already been done and is fueling the current rising heat of the planet.  But when it comes to protecting surface waters and drinking water supplies, the state has to do a lot more to reduce the runoff from agriculture, landscaping and wastewater sources.  We must be proactive about protecting our drinking water supplies and recreational waters.

Failing to do so will drastically compound the looming catastrophe of what global warming is doing to the atmosphere.

A Democratic Party Political Earthquake in Queens

Posted by NYPIRG on July 2, 2018 at 11:26 am
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Congressional primaries occurred across New York State last week and the big news – national news – was the defeat of Congressman Joseph Crowley, the long-time incumbent, Queens Democratic leader, and fourth-highest ranking member of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives.  Crowley was considered a strong contender to lead the House Democrats if current-leader Nancy Pelosi retired.

But in a stunning upset, Crowley decisively lost to never-having-run-for-office-candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a political organizer who was tending bar until little over a year ago.

To call this a seismic political event is not hyperbole.

Why and how did this happen?

A look at the district’s changing demographics is one good indicator.  Crowley became a member of Congress in 1998 after the then-incumbent – and Queens Democratic Party boss – Thomas Manton filed for and circulated petitions for re-election, then withdrew on the last day it was legally possible to do so.  Manton had secretly arranged for his chosen successor, then-state Assemblyman Joseph Crowley, to replace him on the ballot.  It was so secret that reportedly Crowley wasn’t aware of this until Manton phoned him to tell him his name would be on the general election ballot.

That’s how a political party machine works.  It rewards those who have been good party members.  In this case, then-party boss Manton rigged the process so that Crowley would succeed him — cutting voters out by doing an end run around a primary.  And in New York City, outside of the borough of Staten Island, being on the Democratic line is a virtual guarantee that one will win.

And Crowley won the 1998 general election and has moved up the rungs of the House since then.

While he remained the Representative, party boss, and became increasingly powerful in the Congress, his district was changing.  The political boundaries changed twice and the demographic makeup of his constituents changed dramatically.  For example, when Crowley first became a member of Congress, his district was over 80 percent White, with about 8.5 percent Hispanic.  In 2002 after his first redistricting, his district was nearly 30 percent White and nearly 40 percent Hispanic.  In the latest redistricting, his district was 25 percent White and almost 50 percent Hispanic.

Crowley, a man of Irish descent, had less and less in common with his constituents given the changing racial and ethnic makeup of his district.  Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign hammered away that the district needed to be represented by “one of us” and her ads focused on the fact that Crowley’s family really lived in Washington and his children went to D.C. schools.  She also tapped into the “party boss” discomfort that many felt about the way political power was wielded in the borough.

Her message worked.  In many ways a classic case of a Representative losing touch with his constituents.

But it’s also a story of how few voters participate in consequential elections.  Democrats dominate the enrollment of the district, with nearly 236,000 members, compared to Republicans’ 36,000.  But Ocasio-Cortez won by garnering only 15,000 votes, roughly 6.5 percent of the eligible voters.  And her win in the primary makes it very likely that she will win in November.

Those observations shouldn’t diminish her victory – she won fair and square against great odds and was outspent 10-1.  But it does underscore just how poorly New York’s voting system works, or doesn’t.

New York State is considered one of the worst when it comes to voter participation.  The state’s poorly administered elections, registration obstacles, and rigged district lines undermine voter interest.  Usually, those barriers to participation coupled with the huge advantages of holding office keep incumbents in power.  In this case, it came back to bite them.

Here’s hoping that this result is a wake-up call to both political parties and their incumbents.  Voting is a right, not a process in which citizens have to prove themselves worthy by surmounting obstacles.  Using voting rules as an incumbent’s political weapon was never acceptable.  It’s long past time for New York to follow the best systems successfully being used in other states and allow early voting, election day voter registration, automatic registration when one becomes 18, more robust funding of polling places, and an elimination of the political parties’ control over elections.

 

The 2018 Legislative Session: More Fizzle Than Sizzle

Posted by NYPIRG on June 26, 2018 at 9:10 am
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Now that the 2018 legislative session is in the rear view mirror, what should New Yorkers think?

Back in March, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature were able to hammer out a budget agreement on time and which addressed a state deficit of billions of dollars. That agreement more or less kept the status quo in place.  For example, proposals by the governor to cut financial aid programs for low-income college students were rejected.  The most notable achievement was the governor’s success in establishing an alternative tax system that would offset some of the negative consequences of the federal tax law changes—though questions about whether it will pass muster with the IRS and be accepted by businesses in New York are still unanswered.

Close on the heels of finalizing the budget, the governor also forced a reunification of the two Democratic factions in the state Senate.

Yet once the budget was complete, the governor set the legislative bar low by announcing that he expected little to get accomplished during the remainder of the session.  And his prophecy was right.

When lawmakers wrapped up the session last week, the finale ended with a fizzle, not a sizzle.  Typically, at the end of the session hundreds of bills are approved and that was once again the case.  But there is usually an agreement put together by legislative leaders and the governor that includes some big ticket initiatives – particularly in election years like 2018 – but this year there was no such agreement.

Largely that was the result of gridlock in the Senate.  The razor thin one seat Republican majority evaporated when one Senate Republican reported for military duty and was unavailable for the last weeks of the session.

And while some may cheer when little is accomplished in Albany, most New Yorkers expect our representatives to go to the state Capitol to solve problems – to the greatest extent possible.  When the session fizzles that work doesn’t get done.

As a result, some localities may see tax revenues drop off and the City of New York’s program to have cameras identify car speeders near schools will be unplugged.  In short, unless lawmakers return – and there are noises that they may do that – important work will be left undone.

One of the most obvious failures is that nothing was accomplished to reduce the risk of political corruption in New York.  Ironically, during the last week of session, two high profile corruption trials began: one the retrial of the former Senate Majority Leader and the second around the governor’s signature economic development project, the so-called “Buffalo Billion.”

But if you were walking the halls of the Capitol in the waning days of the session, you wouldn’t have known it.  There were no high-level negotiations.  Governor Cuomo, who organized a bus tour to push his gun control plan, was silent on what should be done to combat the incredible corruption crime wave that has gripped New York.

Each house of the Legislature passed reform bills, but ones that did not match the other house’s bills, thus ensuring the flawed status quo.

The inaction in Albany is in stunning contrast to the revelations coming out of the corruption trials.  The Buffalo Billion case, and a trial from earlier this year, shows the myriad ways Cuomo administration officials have circumvented laws requiring that records be preserved, and communications handed over for public scrutiny. The trials have documented that, outside of federal prosecutors issuing subpoenas for those records, there’s almost no recourse when state officials destroy or refuse to release records to the citizens who pay their salaries.

As one defense attorney stated this week, “You will learn that there is a New York state law called FOIL, Freedom of Information Law.”  Evading it, he said, “was almost sport in New York state government.”

“Sport” in state government is ignoring New York laws that ensure public accountability!  This “sport” contributes to the secrecy that shrouds too much of governmental decision-making.  It is this secrecy that has raised the risk of corruption.  And corruption is what New Yorkers have seen.

Unfortunately, what New Yorkers have not seen is action to address the too frequent scandals and corruption in their state government.  If lawmakers return, responding to the corruption crisis must be at the top of the “must do” list.  Otherwise, voters will get their chance to react on Election Day this November.

The President Wants to Put More Americans’ Health at Risk

Posted by NYPIRG on June 18, 2018 at 10:01 am
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Not satisfied with taking away health insurance coverage for over 3 million Americans, last week the Trump Administration said it wanted to take away coverage from more.  While Americans have been distracted by the scandals, investigations, and policy flip flops, the Administration and its allies in the Congress have never been deterred from one deadly mission – to strip away health insurance coverage from millions of Americans.

Most recently, the Administration announced that it will not defend the Affordable Care Act against the latest legal challenge to its constitutionality.  As a result, new challenges to the law may succeed before the courts in a way they had not in past.

It’s clear that the Administration will do all it can to further strip away health insurance coverage from more millions of Americans.

Health insurance is the protection that most of us have from debilitating disease and financial ruin.  For example, cancer.  For cancer patients and their families, the cost of fighting cancer may mean choices that could lead to huge debts under the best of circumstances.  While some individuals diagnosed with cancer have meaningful and adequate health insurance to cover most of the cost of treatment, the uninsured and an increasing number of privately insured individuals face the prospect of crippling out-of-pocket costs. Financial barriers that delay treatment for cancer can mean the difference between life and death.

More generally, even those with coverage face uncertainties; roughly 20 percent of people under age 65 with health insurance nonetheless reported having problems paying their medical bills over the last year. By comparison, more than half of people without insurance said the same.

For years, a huge problem in America was the rapid increase in the numbers of people without health care coverage.  In the 1960s, the nation developed Medicare, health insurance for those over the age of 65 and Medicaid, health insurance for the poor.

In the 1990s, the President and the Congress expanded coverage to help cover all those under the age of 18.  Yet, despite the fact that near-universal coverage existed for those under the age of 18, those over the age of 65, and the poor, the number of Americans without coverage continued to swell, peaking at about 50 million ten years ago.

For the rest of the advanced nations of the world, it was inconceivable that such a situation existed.  Western Europe, Canada, Japan and others have health care coverage for all of their citizens.  As a result, despite spending far more on health care than any other nation on Earth, the United States had more uninsured, incredibly uneven health care quality, and a mediocre life expectancy compared with other developed, wealthy nations.

Former President Obama and the Congress agreed to legislation than attempted to address that problem.  The solution that they came up with had a modest impact on the spiraling cost of health care, but did cut in half the number of Americans that lacked health insurance.

You could argue their solution – one which essentially expanded the number of Medicaid-eligible Americans and offered subsidies to help others who were required purchase health insurance – was inadequate to the task, but no one could argue that they did not try.

For years, Republicans argued that they could do it better.  They argued that if they were granted control of the White House and the Congress, they would repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something better.  We now know that their pledge was pure fiction.  They had no plan to replace the ACA with anything.  All they wanted to do was repeal.

It is also now clear that President Trump, who as a candidate consistently said that he would fix the health insurance system and make it better, wasn’t telling the truth.  In a stunningly callous series of decisions, the President did all he could to deny health insurance for 3 million primarily low and moderate income Americans.   And now he is trying to do that to more.

To strip away people’s health insurance coverage with no alternative is indefensible and will cost many more Americans dearly.  Without coverage, sick people delay care, which can lead to even more devastating health consequences.  And those serious illnesses can cost those individuals and their families their financial security as well.