Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

The Fight Over the Constitutional Convention Heats Up

Posted by NYPIRG on July 24, 2017 at 8:30 am
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New Yorkers have a big decision to make in three and a half months: A decision whether to overhaul their state constitution.  That document requires that every 20 years voters get an opportunity to decide whether they want to rewrite the state’s foundational document.  This November, voters will get that vote.

Having such a provision is unusual, but not rare in America.  Fourteen other states have similar mechanisms in place to periodically ask voters about convening a convention.

Not surprisingly, since it only occurs once every 20 years, the vast majority of New Yorkers don’t know about the vote.  In a recent poll, fully two thirds of New Yorkers were unaware of the upcoming vote to revamp New York’s state constitution.

The decision on whether to convene a convention will likely turn on two questions: (1) How New Yorkers feel about the state of their state; and (2) How concerned they are about provisions of the current constitution that could be put at risk if a convention is convened.  If voters are more unhappy with the direction of New York than they are worried about jeopardizing popular constitutional provisions that exist, then they’ll vote yes.

The process for convening a constitutional convention contains four basic steps:

  • New Yorkers vote on whether they want to convene a convention. That will happen this November.  If voters choose no, then the process ends.  If voters approve the convention, then…
  • New Yorkers choose delegates to the convention at the November 2018 election. The constitution says that voters will choose three delegates for each of the state’s 63 senate districts and then vote on 15 statewide fora total of 204 delegates.
  • Those delegates will convene the convention in the following Spring. The delegates can make whatever changes they want to the constitution, there are no restrictions.
  • Finally, the changes drafted by the delegates goes to the voters for final approval.

This vote is a contentious one, with organizations lining up to battle over the pros and cons.  Under New York law, politicians and interest groups that raise or spend campaign donations must periodically report their activities.  Last week, New Yorkers got a peek into the efforts to influence the upcoming question to be put to voters on whether they want to convene a state constitutional convention.

The campaign filings last week showed just how intense the upcoming debate will be.  A coalition of groups urging a “no” vote on the constitutional convention, which they call “New Yorkers Against Corruption,” disclosed that it had raised $635,000 so far.  Much of that was raised from unions: $50,000 from the teachers’ union and $250,000 from a health-care union.

The strange-bedfellow coalition includes Planned Parenthood, the United Federation of Teachers, the Rifle and Pistol Association, the Conservative Party, and many environmental organizations.  It’s not just advocacy groups weighing in:  In addition, the majority party leaders of the Senate and Assembly have urged opposition.  The Senate Democratic minority leader is opposed, and the governor has expressed concerns.

A competing odd couple coalition which calls itself the Committee for a Constitutional Convention, is urging a “yes” vote and has raised $67,000, mostly from individual donors giving small amounts.  In addition, a donor to many liberal causes, Bill Samuels, has spent more than $100,000 to support a “yes” vote.  Lastly, the leader of the Republican Assembly minority has urged support for the convention.

Supporters argue that Albany’s a mess – corrupt, operating in secret, costing too much and that the state’s basic document is old, anachronistic, and contains provisions that are now considered unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution.  Opponents argue that the current state constitution includes provisions that protect the Adirondack Park, require a sound, basic education for children, require that the poor are protected, and guarantee the pensions of public employees.

At New York’s last referendum for a constitutional convention, in 1997, the issue was voted down.  Voters were unwilling to accept the risks.

As the battle over convening a convention heats up, with corruption trails upcoming and with a wobbly administration in Washington, we’ll see if New Yorkers have changed their minds.

The World Gets a Huge, New Iceberg

Posted by NYPIRG on July 17, 2017 at 8:06 am
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Last week a gigantic portion of the Antarctica ice sheet broke off.  This isn’t the first time an enormous chunk collapsed into the sea, but it may be the biggest.  This gigantic iceberg is part of the “Larsen C” ice sheet and measures 6,000 kilometers in size, or roughly the size of the state of Delaware.

While there is no disagreement among climate scientists about whether humans are warming the Earth by burning fossil fuels, there is some disagreement on whether this particular collapse is the direct result of global warming.  The debate is over how such an event could be tied to climate change when Antarctica is experiencing its winter.  Some scientists have described it as a natural event, others that it is too early to tell. Still others say that the action can only be explained by climate change.

There have been other colossal icebergs that have broken off from the ice sheets of Antarctica and in those cases, it was directly attributable to climate changes.  While the reason for the most recent collapse may not yet be definitive, it is crystal clear that global warming is dramatically changing the landscape of the area around the South Pole.

It’s also a stark reminder about how rapidly the burning of fossil fuels is altering the whole planet.

As of early 2017, the Earth had warmed by roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, when weather records began being collected across the world.  That increase also reflects the increasing temperature of the ocean. The warming is greater over land, and greater still in the Arctic and parts of Antarctica.

The substantial warming that has already occurred explains why much of the world’s land ice is starting to melt and the oceans are rising at an accelerating pace. Scientists believe that probably all of the warming since 1950 was caused by human activities tied to the release of greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of coal, oil, and gas. If those emissions continue without change, scientists say that the resulting global warming could ultimately exceed 8 degrees Fahrenheit, which would result in devastating consequences for the world – both its people and its environment.

The melting ice caps are raising sea levels.  The ocean is rising at a rate of about a foot per century. That causes severe effects on coastlines, raising costs for wealthy countries and devastating low lying poorer nations, the nations who had the least to do with increasing the world’s temperature.  Those countries will see staggering human suffering, and the displacement of millions of their residents.

Experts have known for decades that the burning of coal, oil and gas – fossil fuels – would trap in the Earth’s heat and warm the globe.  Even the scientists at the oil companies have known this, but instead of acting, policymakers have allowed the problem to reach a boiling point.

It has been the concerted public relations and lobbying campaign of the fossil fuel industries that has sown doubt on the science of global warming among the American public and installed sympathetic elected officials.  Those efforts have succeeded in the election of a national government being controlled by those opposed to responding to the growing global catastrophe.

Most of the attacks on climate science have come from industry-backed organizations which do not like the policies that have been proposed to fight global warming. Instead of negotiating over those policies and trying to make them more subject to free-market principles, they have taken the approach of blocking them by trying to undermine the science.

As a result, the Earth has recently seen its levels of carbon dioxide remaining above 400 parts per million.  Based on scientific research, the last time carbon dioxide reached 400 ppm was millions of years ago.  Carbon dioxide levels were around 280 ppm prior to the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, when large amounts of greenhouse gases began to be released by the burning of fossil fuels.  Now it stands consistently over 400 ppm – a level that can lead to runaway global warming.

Yet, the President and the Congress have not only refused to act, but have chosen to undermine what little progress has been made to curtail the burning of fossil fuels.

The likely result will be additional misery for millions of people, mostly poor, across the globe.  History will not look kindly on the greedy interests, the opportunistic and unprincipled political hacks, and callous societies that allowed this to happen.  Hopefully, we can soon reverse the nation’s headlong push toward climate catastrophe.

The Voter Fraud Canard

Posted by NYPIRG on July 10, 2017 at 10:05 am
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With timing that was either irony or political tone deafness, just before Independence Day a panel created by the President of the United States issued a directive to all 50 states requesting that they submit a vast amount of information on American voters contained in state databases.

The rationale for this request is that the panel is looking to provide evidence for the President’s claim that there is widespread voter fraud in America.  Since virtually everyone who has looked at this issue has not found any voter fraud of significance, the panel is the President’s effort to find anything that it can to create a false impression of a problem.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have refused to fully cooperate with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Voter Integrity, either declining to release any of the requested data or by providing only limited information to the panel.  Governor Cuomo promptly pledged not to cooperate with the panel’s demands.

The panel requested “dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number if available, voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward, active/inactive status, cancelled status, information regarding any felony convictions, information regarding voter registration in another state, information regarding military status, and overseas citizen information.”

In May, President Trump created the panel to look into his claims – asserted without evidence – that millions of votes were cast fraudulently.  Now that panel wants virtually all the nation’s voter information.

The issue of voter fraud has been thoroughly researched.  There is scant evidence that voter fraud is a problem.  Probably the most definitive research in this area was done by a professor at Loyola Law School and an expert on voter fraud.  His research found 31 credible incidents out of more than 1 billion votes cast from 2000 to 2014.

The experts know this to be true, so do state elections officials, yet the Trump Administration presses on.  Why?

Those who peddle the rampant voter fraud lie have been using the claim to build the case for ever-stricter voting laws.  Since there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, they keep using the few anecdotes and deliberately overstating and misusing the evidence that is available as tools in their efforts to pass stricter voting laws.

It’s an example of propaganda, not policymaking.

It’s their hope that by repeating a falsehood, people will believe you, even when the facts demonstrate the opposite.  Americans have seen this technique coming out of Washington quite a bit recently: a health care plan that is claimed to be better than the status quo, even though it takes away health insurance from millions; or that evidence of climate change is not definitive, even when the world’s experts have concluded otherwise.

Now the President is using this approach when it comes to democracy.

Of course, we all want there to be zero examples of voter fraud, but in terms of a problem, voter fraud is way, way, way down on the list.

What is a big problem, is “institutionalized voter suppression.”  That problem is the result of laws designed to make it harder to vote – a constitutionally-protected right.  The President should be looking at that problem – the way eligible voters are too easily purged from voting lists; the denial of adequate resources to set up polling places in urban areas; the hyper-stringent identification requirements; the ridiculous rule that voting must occur on a Tuesday in November, not when it is most convenient to vote.

New York should not feel smug in this area:  The state is one of the worst offenders when it comes to these problems.  America needs to do a better job and New York must too.  Here are three things to be done:

  • Establish a system of automatic voter registration for citizens interacting with all government agencies.
  • Allow voters to register and vote on Election Day.
  • Eliminate the patronage-controlled New York Boards of Elections by establishing merit selection of permanent Board employees across the state.

Government officials need to be telling the truth about the problems of voting in America, not lying about the scale of insignificant problems in order to advance an un-American agenda.

Ignoring Infrastructure Can Come Back to Haunt Elected Officials

Posted by NYPIRG on July 3, 2017 at 7:37 am
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Infrastructure maintenance is the Rodney Dangerfield of budgeting:  It never gets the respect it deserves.  Failing to maintain water tunnels, roads, bridges and mass transit systems can lead to catastrophic outcomes – both in terms of the impact on people as well as the cost to taxpayers.  So, it’s important to keep them well maintained and repaired when necessary.  As President John F. Kennedy once remarked, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”

But too often public officials ignore that wisdom.

No one cuts ribbons to fix a sewer line, or to lay new asphalt.  They do cut ribbons to unveil a new bridge.  The publicity instinct of elected officials drives them to ribbon cuttings and leaves them far less interested in things like highway maintenance.  They often only pay attention when their constituents begin to rage against the failing systems.

When it comes to the New York City mass transit system, the problem is compounded by base politics.  Republican governors are rarely interested in investing the billions of dollars needed to upgrade the City’s subways and buses, after all, City voters are unlikely to support Republicans anyway.  Democratic governors, on the other hand, can be disinterested in helping since New York City voters are very likely going to support them no matter what.

But the problem is that the City’s mass transit system has to work, or the City cannot.  The City simply cannot handle more cars – the air is already polluted and the traffic is already too congested.  Since the City is the state’s economic hub and accounts for a significant portion of state revenues, the City’s problems are of concern to everyone in the state.

The subway system is used by some six million riders every day; when the subway system hiccups, New Yorkers can be stranded, businesses lose money, lives are disrupted.

As long as the system keeps limping along, governors and New York City mayors can ignore the need for big expenditures to maintain mass transit, since addressing them might mean raising taxes and fees.  And they can succeed in avoiding the needs, until the problems get so large that they must act.

Of course, waiting means that the costs are more staggering when they finally address the problems.  Executives just hope that they won’t be in office when the system needs fixing.  The mentality is keep kicking the problem down the road and hope the meltdown is on someone else’s watch.

Governor Cuomo is the latest to get caught being in office when the problems of the New York City system simply cannot be ignored.  In advance of the crisis, the governor promised additional resources of which little have yet materialized.  He promoted inexpensive improvements – like USB ports for buses – which are far cheaper than spending the money needed to make the buses move faster than a snail.

In recent weeks, the problems of the City’s transit system have become front page news.  Initially, the governor tried to deflect blame to the city, arguing that he does not control the system that months earlier he said that he did and that he famously shut down in a snow storm

He then tried to present himself as the true champion of reforms.  But after six and a half years in office, the public seems determined to hold the governor responsible – fairly or unfairly – for the sad state of affairs.

Last week, the governor issued emergency regulations to speed up the purchasing processes to help the City transit system get the materials it needs to obtain necessary upgrades.  Maybe this will help.

But all the spin in the world cannot change the basic political and policy problem – kicking the can on infrastructure needs, for New York City’s mass transit, or Albany’s roadways, or Syracuse’s water mains – can exact a huge price for elected officials and the public that relies on those services.  The sun is no longer shining, for this governor it’s past time to fix the roof.

Albany Makes Things Worse

Posted by NYPIRG on June 26, 2017 at 10:09 am
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As the scheduled 2017 legislative session wrapped up, commentators noted that Governor Cuomo and the legislative leadership failed to address the seemingly unending corruption scandals that have plagued both the legislative and executive branches.

And those commentators are correct, nothing happened despite the convictions of the two top legislative leaders, many rank-and-file lawmakers, and top associates of the governor himself.

But it’s worse than it appears.

While true that no significant reform was passed, at the behest of the governor, the public’s accountability of important economic development programs actually was made worse. Yup, worse.

Here’s the backstory: The Start-Up NY program was initiated by Governor Cuomo in 2013 to give tax breaks to new businesses that locate in tax-free areas near college campuses. The governor said the goal was to encourage the next Google or Facebook to launch in New York and to “supercharge” the economy. Specific disclosure requirements on Start-Up’s performance were part of the original law. Those reports showed that the job creating record of the Start-Up program had been underwhelming. That simple fact has led to criticisms of the governor and his economic development strategies.

What should be done? A close reading of the final 2017-18 state budget identified that the law had been changed in the secretive budget process – eliminating the reporting requirements for Start-Up! The solution to bad results is, apparently, to stop reporting them.

When confronted with this change, the Cuomo Administration said it was a mistake. But that claim turned out to be false.

The governor’s proposed budget had eliminated that reporting requirement. The state Assembly added it back in during budget talks, but it was eliminated again in the final budget.

Still, the Administration claimed that it was a mistake.

If true, then the period after the budget passed in early April and the wrap up of the session would have seen that mistake corrected – unless the Administration was deliberately misleading the public.

In an effort to correct that “mistake,” legislation was introduced in both the Assembly and Senate to add back the reporting requirement. But that bill was killed.

As a result, things have gotten worse; the public will get less information on the performance of spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on economic development. Reporting is now weakened in an area that has been identified by federal prosecutors as especially susceptible to corruption: the way in which it doles out economic benefits.

The Start-Up program is relatively small compared to the governor’s other economic development programs—which also are in great need of transparency and oversight.

Reformers had been pushing for corruption-fighting measures during the budget and continued after it was approved. Specifically, they were calling for reforms that would have restored the Comptroller’s independent oversight powers to review contracts before they are finalized, corralled unaccountable, state controlled not-for-profits, and created a “Database of Deals” to post information on spending of billions of dollars in state business subsidies.

None of these reforms were approved, not even the restoration of the Comptroller’s oversight powers. It is, after all, the constitutionally-mandated job of the separately elected Comptroller to monitor the books of state government. Yet the governor has spearheaded the effort to pull back those powers. During the period the governor has been diminishing the Comptroller’s oversight role, the scandals alleged by federal prosecutors occurred. A reasonable response would have been to restore those powers, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, in 2017 the governor – with the approval of the legislative leaders – weakened the public reporting requirements of Start Up. His staff then falsely told the public it was a mistake. And then the legislation to fix that mistake was killed.

New York has been rocked by recent “pay-to-play” scandals tied to the state’s economic development programs. The lack of transparency and accountability has led to federal prosecution of several high-ranking officials and prominent business leaders. Removing the requirements could encourage other unscrupulous officials to incite more scandals.

New Yorkers must demand an end to corruption and broader government transparency, not to allow it to get worse.