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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

The Governor Unveils His 2017 Priorities

Posted by NYPIRG on January 16, 2017 at 2:14 pm
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Last week, Governor Cuomo took to the road to unveil his State of the State addresses.  The State of the State is a constitutional requirement that the governor report to the legislature on issues of concerns and to offer his recommendations.  For nearly 100 years, the State of the State address was delivered in a written and verbal format in the State Capitol complex.

In a huge change, the governor did something that hadn’t been done before by ignoring the historical location of the State of the State and instead made speeches at six different locations – New York City, Buffalo, Long Island, Westchester, Syracuse and at the University of Albany.  At each location, the governor invoked consistent themes, but also different proposals that would appeal locally as well.

State of the State addresses, like the State of the Union address in Washington, allows the chief executive to set the stage for his or her policy agenda and to shape the public narrative surrounding the performance of his or her tenure.  In that way, despite being delivered at six different locations, the 2017 State of the State addresses were similar to those of years past.

In his addresses, the governor unveiled his policy initiatives for the 2017 legislative session.  He hoped, I’m sure, that his proposals would garner the broadest public support as a result of his “road show” approach.  Here are some of the key proposals offered by the governor:

  • He proposed that tuition be free for students attending the State University of New York if the student or the student’s family makes less than $125,000 annually. According to the governor, one million New York families will be eligible.
  • He announced a deal to close the Indian Point nuclear power plant by 2021.
  • He committed that by the year 2030, the state will generate 50 percent of its power from renewable energy sources, like solar and wind.
  • He proposed to spend $2 billion dollars on water quality and $300 million for environmental programs.
  • He even proposed a package of ethics and campaign finance reforms that included a voluntary campaign finance system that allowed for public financing, “pay to play” campaign restrictions on those receiving government contracts, and limits on lawmakers’ outside income.

These proposals, which sound great, are just rhetoric at the moment.  The governor will have to propose specific legislation the make these ideas a possible reality.  Once New Yorkers see the details, they will know which plans are worth supporting.  In addition, whether the governor chooses to spend time campaigning for his proposals will offer the best insight into whether he is serious about getting his proposals accomplished.

Often New York elected officials will expend a lot of energy offering lip service to solutions to problems without doing the hard work to get them enacted into law.

Last year, the governor fought hard to pass an increase in the minimum wage.  The governor not only advanced a proposal, he barnstormed across the state, meeting with New Yorkers and pitching his plan.

His plan to overhaul the state’s ethics laws is an opposite example. Despite the charges filed against two of his top aides and associates, and after the convictions of the top two legislative leaders on corruption charges, the governor did nothing to galvanize public support for his ethics plans.

Instead, he waited until a few weeks before the end of the legislative session to begin discussing his proposals and chose to negotiate secretly.  Once his plans were rejected, the governor threw up his hands and blamed inaction on the legislature.

And while the legislature does deserve criticism, the governor deserved criticism for his failure to use his immense institutional powers to move public opinion and change it into public action.

So, New Yorkers will soon know the actual details of the governor’s plans and will soon see which ones he really cares about.

Given the incredible, and sweeping scale, of corruption in the state, New Yorkers must hope that the governor makes his mark in changing the political culture of Albany, a culture described by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara as a “cauldron of corruption.”  The scandals that have engulfed Albany have come during the governor’s tenure.  He must make cleaning up New York more than a rhetorical priority, it must be a real one.

The governor’s actions will speak louder than his words.

The 2017 State of the State

Posted by NYPIRG on January 9, 2017 at 8:11 am
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New York State’s constitution requires that every governor submit a message to the legislature “at every session the condition of the state, and recommend such matters to it as he or she shall judge expedient.”  Since the early 20th Century, governors have delivered a State of the State speech in addition to delivering a written document.  Usually that speech was delivered in the New York State Assembly chamber.  The Assembly seats 150 and so jamming in the smaller Senate body plus staff and dignitaries was the appropriate venue.

At least until this Governor Cuomo became the state’s executive.  He began holding the State of the State addresses in the Empire Plaza complex, which connects to the Capitol.  The argument for the move was two-fold: the greater capacity made it more comfortable and seated more people and it allowed the governor an opportunity to use visuals to accompany his address.

This year, the governor is not delivering his State of the State address anywhere near the Capitol, instead he is taking his message on the road with speeches in New York City, Buffalo, White Plains, Long Island, Albany and Syracuse.

The governor’s rationale is that he wants to deliver his message directly to the “people,” – those who reserve a ticket and who have the time to attend during a workday.

But there is another reason – the increasingly hostile relationship between the governor and the legislature.  It was the governor who killed the legislative pay raise slated to go into effect on January 1.  If approved, it would have provided a raise for the legislature and the governor’s commissioners for the first time since 1999 – a long time to go without a raise.

The governor argued that he wanted ethics reforms as part of any pay raise deal, but did little to galvanize the public behind his demand.  Lawmakers on the other hand, feel like they’ve been duped and are extremely angry.  The governor decided, I would guess, not to give lawmakers an opportunity to publicly rebuke him at his State of the State and simply decided not to hold one at the Capitol.

Wherever the State of the State address is held, it is supposed to discuss the “condition of the state” and what the governor proposes to recommend.  Here are some key topics that he should be talking about:

Climate change.  There is absolutely no doubt (despite what the nation’s leaders argue) that the planet is heating up and that human activities are driving those changes.  It’s not a belief, it is fact.  States like New York will have to take the lead in developing new sources of energy that do not rely on the burning of fossil fuels and are safe.

In this area, the governor has a lot to talk about: he has blocked natural gas exploration; he has advanced measures to overhaul the state’s energy grid, and is in the process of harnessing wind power off the cost of Long Island.

Last week, it was reported that the governor has a deal to close down the Indian Point nuclear power plant – and outdated and unsafe facility operating too close to millions of downstate New Yorkers.

However, at the same time the governor is hiking utility rates by an estimated $7.6 billion to keep open three outdated, unsafe nuclear power plants on Lake Ontario.  The governor should use his State of the State address to defend why upstaters living close to those plants are less vulnerable than downstaters living near Indian Point.  And while he’s at it, how about a pitch to explain why ratepayers need to spend billions more in utility payments to prop up three plants built in the 1960s and which were headed for the scrap heap?

But the biggest issue has to be corruption in government.  During the governor’s tenure, the number of arrests, indictments and convictions has skyrocketed.  In the legislature, both legislative leaders are facing prison time and scores of others have been convicted as well.  Two of the governor’s top aides have been indicted and one close associate has pleaded guilty to corruption charges in a sweeping pay-to-play scandal.  The charges outline a scheme in which government contracts were allegedly used to enrich those individuals and to shake down contractors for campaign contributions to the governor’s re-election.

Trust in New York State government is at an all-time low and the governor must propose sweeping changes; changes which rely on independent oversight, not enforcers beholden to Albany’s political establishment.

Every State of the State has a lot to offer, but New Yorkers deserve the facts and real solutions, no matter where or how the speech is delivered.

The 2017 Legislative Session Begins, What Will Be the Rules?

Posted by NYPIRG on January 2, 2017 at 9:00 am
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This week, lawmakers return to Albany to kick off the 2017 legislative session.  For the vast majority of state legislators, it is the beginning of a new session, for the newly elected lawmakers, it is the beginning of a new career.

For New Yorkers, like the first day of school, it is the beginning of hope, in this case that the state’s problems will be addressed.

The first order of business for the state Senate and the state Assembly will be approval of the rules that each House will follow.  As in any other institution, it is the rules that can drive decisions.  In public bodies, the rules also ensure public accountability and overall fairness in how policymaking is conducted.

New York’s legislative process has been knocked for its concentration of power in each House’s leadership and the often brazen way in which that leadership controls the flow of legislation and runs roughshod over the rank-and-file.

The first opportunity legislators have to determine their ability to influence the process will be in their vote on the rules of each House.  While the Houses differ in their rules, they are more or less the same when it comes to the concentration of power.

The power granted to the leadership stems, at least to some extent, from of power of the governor.  New York’s constitution grants tremendous power to its executive, far more than most states.  As a result of the American form of democracy, which relies on a system of institutional checks and balances, the power of the executive is matched by the legislative branch which has organized itself around powerful leaders.

But as is often the case with power, it has expanded beyond that simple structural defense.  The leaders amass so much power that rank and file members are often left in the dark about important decisions, members of the minority party receive only scraps of resources, and – as has been revealed in recent corruption investigations – leaders distort their public power to amass personal wealth.

This will be the first full session since corruption scandals toppled the previous legislative leaders in both houses.  Lawmakers in both houses must establish rules that ensure fairness in deliberations, and a maximum of public accountability, while protecting the institution’s power to challenge the executive.

Here are some steps that should be taken:

  1. Legislators’ districts have roughly the same number of constituents and as a result there should be parity in available legislative resources too.
  2. Reduce the number of committees on which members can sit and require that Senators must attend committee meetings in order for their vote to be counted.
  3. Require that all bills that pass out of committee include reports that set forth the purpose of the bill, proposed changes to existing law, the bill’s procedural and voting history, and any individual members’ comments on the bill.
  4. Encourage greater participation by all legislators by providing the opportunity for a simple majority of members to bring any bill to the floor for consideration and a vote, regardless of leadership objections.

Democracy demands public participation in public policy decision-making. Backroom dealing and secrecy undermine public confidence and breed public cynicism and apathy. Central to all policymaking are rules by which legislatures decide what to do.

It’s long past time for lawmakers to rebuild the public’s trust.  Advanced rules that focus on fairness and openness are important ways to start the 2017 session.

Washington Readies a Repeal of Obamacare

Posted by NYPIRG on December 26, 2016 at 9:00 am
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After years of railing against the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, Congressional opponents and the President-elect are now poised to eliminate it. Since its passage six years ago, opponents have argued to “repeal and replace” the law, but that has turned out to be merely a slogan, devoid of substance.

Opponents have no agreement on their plan to replace the ACA.

As imperfect as it is, the ACA did make major strides toward the goal of universal health coverage.  Nearly 20 million Americans have health insurance because of the ACA, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That includes about 10 million people who gained coverage through the expansion of Medicaid and another 10 million who buy insurance on the Obamacare exchanges or are young adults covered through their parents’ insurance.  Here in New York, federal data show that the uninsured rate has fallen by 40 percent since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was enacted in 2010.  There are now over 3 million New Yorkers who obtain their coverage through programs provided under the ACA.

In addition, the number of people who have trouble paying their medical bills has plummeted in the last five years as more people have gained health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and gotten jobs as the economy has improved.

report from the National Center for Health Statistics showed that the number of people whose families are struggling to pay medical bills dropped by 13 million, or one-fifth of the total, in the last five years.  That’s good news; one of the biggest reasons why people go into bankruptcy is due to unpaid medical bills.  The more coverage there is, the less likely such bankruptcies will occur.

That’s not to say that the law has been a complete success.  There are still millions without health insurance, residing primarily in the South and the Southwest. Those people tend to be poor and live in Republican-leaning states, where opposition to the ACA has been highest.

Moreover, the ACA – which was based upon a law originally designed in the Massachusetts – has run into structural problems.  Some health insurance companies are pulling out due to their purported inability to make enough money to cover the law’s costs and others are sharply raising prices.   In New York City, for example, rates for a benchmark plan could go up by an average of 16 percent.  Thus, without changes, unless the marketplaces stabilize, the drop in the uninsured rate could have stalled or even reversed.

Fixes were needed, but now the Congress and the President-elect will radically change the program.

In addition, the new Congressional leadership reportedly will be seeking to overhaul the nation’s Medicare program – the health insurance for those over the age of 65.  And they are planning changes to the nation’s Medicaid program, which provides coverage for the poor.

Ironically, the Medicare changes under discussion could transform that program into something that looks more like the Affordable Care Act, a program that supplies a defined set of benefits and would offer subsidies for participants to purchase health care directly from insurance companies. There is also discussion to raise the Medicare eligibility age to rise to 67.

Any changes to Medicare and the health care law would be far-reaching, affecting some 55 million American seniors.

Despite the massive uncertainties and the potential enormous impacts, the Congress may send to President Trump a “repeal” bill in January that lays out at least a two-year timeline for changing the law.

While Washington cavalierly debates health coverage for tens of millions of Americans, the changes could have real impacts in New York.  If the feds cut back on its support for the Medicaid program, how will the state make up the difference?  If the ACA is fully repealed how will hospitals and other providers care for New Yorkers lacking health insurance?

After years of complaining about the federal law opponents now have a choice – replace the law with something better, or get rid of coverage for millions of Americans.

New York’s Electoral College Delegates Vote for President

Posted by NYPIRG on December 19, 2016 at 1:57 pm
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This week, delegates to the Electoral College will cast their votes for President of the United States.  This Monday, New York’s delegates will vote at the state Capitol in Albany.

Under the U.S. Constitution this is the election that really matters.  Delegates are chosen by the states and each state gets a total number of delegates that equals of the sum of its members of the House of Representatives plus its two members of the U.S. Senate.

Historically, those delegates have voted for President based on how the relevant state’s population voted – if candidate X won the popular vote in a state, then the delegates from that state voted for that candidate.  In all but two states (Maine and Nebraska), the system is based on “winner take all,” meaning that New York’s 29 delegates all vote for the winner of the Presidential vote of our state.

Given that smaller population states are entitled to Congressional representation of two U.S. Senators and at least one member of the House, the Electoral College system can give disproportionate power to those smaller states.  The result of this system is that in this election the state of Vermont cast about 320,000 votes, and thus each of its three electors represent roughly 107,000 voters.  However, New York cast approximately 7.5 million votes for 29 Electoral College delegates, thus representing roughly 260,000 voters per delegate – more than twice the per delegate population as Vermont.

Why the Electoral College?  The Electoral College was created for two reasons. The first purpose was to create a buffer between population and the selection of a President.  In the Federalist Papers, historians believe that the founders wanted the electors to be able to insure that only a qualified person becomes President. They believed that with the Electoral College no one candidate would be able to manipulate the citizenry. It would act as a check on an electorate that might be duped.

The second reason was that the federal government, and its chief executive, were created by the states.  Thus, the Electoral College was one of several compromises made to ensure that the smaller states would agree to the constitution.

The impact of the Electoral College is usually pro forma.  But this Presidential election is different; the expected winner of the Electoral College vote was the loser of the popular vote.  And a big loser to boot.

Mrs. Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes that her opponent Donald Trump.  Purely in terms of popular votes, Mrs. Clinton’s performance would put her in the top half of the winners of other Presidential elections.  Of course, the nation’s population has grown over time, but her margin of victory in the popular vote exceeded that of Presidents Carter in 1976 and Nixon in 1968, among others.

But she is the projected loser in the Electoral College delegate vote – and by a lot.  As a result, she will join the list of five candidates who won the popular vote, but did not become President.

This is also the second time in recent years that the winner of the popular vote did not become President (the other being the 2000 election).

As a result, there is a growing national discussion over the relevance of the Electoral College system.  As a practical matter, since virtually all of the delegates follow the popular vote within their states, why have an Electoral College?  Other than the constitution’s requirement, there really is no reason in the 21st Century to have one.

To change the system would require an amendment to the constitution, which is extremely difficult, but there are plans that should be considered.

One change could be that the power of the smaller states be maintained by merely continuing the current practice and apportion the states’ “votes” based on the rules of each state.  The constitution does not mandate a “winner take all system,” so states could change that if they wished – liked Maine and Nebraska already have done. Such a system may not change the outcome of this election, but it would eliminate the ceremony of the Electoral College process, one which made more sense in a “horse and buggy age,” not in our 21st Century society.

Another change could be to just rely on the popular vote total.  That would be a more fundamental change and one which would overrule the decisions of the founders, but one which is certainly defensible in a democracy.

Coupled with the power of big money to influencing elections, the patchwork system of voting rights which seems increasingly designed to deter people from voting, a debate over the future of the Electoral College is one that should start now.