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End of Session Reform Scorecard

Posted by NYPIRG on May 30, 2016 at 12:43 pm
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With only nine scheduled working days until the end of the 2016 legislative session, it’s a good time to review where New York is at after what is arguably the most scandal-ridden session in state history.

Despite the corruption convictions of the legislature’s top leaders, other legislators, and the growing federal investigations of top allies of the governor, little has been accomplished to clean up Albany.  Last week, however, there were noises that may inspire hope.

The governor released a package of proposals targeting the infamous limited liability companies’ campaign finance “loophole.”  Under state law, LLCs are allowed to donate much higher campaign contributions than other businesses.

There has been an ongoing effort to close the “loophole” and treat LLCs like other corporations.  But the effort has been repeatedly blocked by some Republicans.  Last week, the governor tried another approach – he offered the Senate Republican leadership an a la carte version, which would allow them to treat LLCs like other businesses for the governor’s office only.  It was rejected.

But the governor’s focus on pushing the LLC issue raises a more important question:  What should be Albany’s priority in ethics reform?

The major scandals have been instances in which top-ranking public officials used the power of their government office to enrich themselves personally.  In the case of former Assembly Speaker Silver, he gamed the system to the tune of millions of dollars.  Limited liability companies played a role – they were some of his lucrative clients – but the scandal had little to do with campaign contributions per se.

Why then the focus on LLCs’ loophole?  The governor has argued that the public understands little of the complexities of the various scandals and necessary reforms.  But that’s because so little public education has occurred.

Had the governor used the last two months to build public support for reforms, he might have had a better package of reforms to advance.  Instead, the governor said virtually nothing about what ails Albany.  Now at this late date he argues that he can’t advance a more comprehensive package due to public ignorance.

Political leadership was, and still is, needed.  Its absence is why the public debate is so diffuse.

As public officials move toward the end of session, now is the time to focus on the most important reforms and “grade” the governor and the legislature on what they are able to accomplish.

The top reform is an overhaul of state ethics enforcement.  Why did for the former Speaker and Senate Majority Leader think that they could use their power to enrich themselves?  Because they knew that no one was watching.  If it wasn’t for federal prosecutors, the head of the Assembly would be Silver and the head of the Senate would be Skelos.  Instead, they are out due to their corruption convictions.

New York’s top ethics watchdog – the Joint Commission on Public Ethics – is a captive agency, not an independent one.  Its commissioners are appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders.  Its current and previous executive directors have all worked for the governor. New York State needs an independent commission, one which will enforce the law without fear of favor.

New York needs to limit the “moonlighting” of public officials.  State lawmakers are allowed to have outside jobs.  Consistently, that outside employment has created conflicts for some public officials and led to scandals.  And this problem is not just one of the legislative branch, the most recent federal subpoenas have targeted the outside employment of one of the governor’s former top aides.  New York should track the Congressional system and drastically limit the temptation of outside employment.

Government should operate in the open.  New York’s economic development programs are under scrutiny by federal investigators.  Some of the legislative scandals, most notably the former Assembly Speaker’s, stemmed from unaccountable agency slush funds.  Too often, these agencies operate in secret.  Governmental entities operate on behalf of the public; they must do so openly and accountably.

Campaign finance reforms are needed too.  The LLC loophole is just one of a number of changes that should be tackled.

Albany’s ethics reform scorecard must focus on the biggest problems and be based on performance, not rhetoric.

Higher Education Budget Shortfall Gets A Response

Posted by NYPIRG on May 23, 2016 at 11:58 am
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The state budget approved in April contained some good news for public college students and their families: It added a $100 increase per full-time enrolled student (FTE) in community college base aid over that proposed by the governor—an increase over last year’s budget.  The new budget also restored the governor’s proposed cuts to some financial assistance programs.

In addition, the governor’s proposed extension of a state law that annually increased public college tuition was rejected.  That meant that public college students and their families would not face a tuition hike for the first time in five years.  However, the additional funds that SUNY said was necessary to hold the line on tuition was not included.

That decision left both the State University of New York and the City University of New York systems scrambling.

Here’s some background:  Current law had as its central component annual public tuition hikes that turned out to be $300 per year.  And tuition did go up $300 every year since 2011, totaling a whopping 30% increase for SUNY and CUNY students.

As part of the deal to hike tuition, the state agreed to a “maintenance of effort” promise.  Essentially, the state promised not to cut its support for SUNY and CUNY, and that the new revenues generated by the tuition hikes would go toward enhancing college programs, not filling in budget cuts.

But that promise turned out to be a weak one.  For example, the maintenance of effort pledge did not include salary increases for SUNY, which means that $130 million for those increases had to come from somewhere, likely students’ tuition.  And the impact has been real: in 2008, before the annual tuition hikes went into effect, students covered 50 percent of SUNY’s budget; they now cover over 60 percent – thanks to the tuition hikes and the stagnant state support.

In 2010, the state’s overall budget totaled roughly $130 billion.  The current state budget has grown to $150 billion.  The state’s financial picture has improved.  The case for giving public college students and their families a break from large tuition hikes was compelling enough that the legislature acted.

As mentioned earlier, in the 2016-2017 final State Budget, public college tuition was frozen at current rates, which helped curb the financial hit to students and their families from tuition hikes over the past five years.  However, the final state budget did not add any significant new state monies.  Both the State University and City University systems will have to somehow cover budget shortfalls unless state lawmakers act before the end of the legislative session.

Whether Albany responds is not yet clear, but the chairs of both the Senate and Assembly Higher Education committees have introduced legislation to respond to the public college budget shortfalls.

Their matching legislation mandates that the state ensure that public higher education funding is enhanced, not cut for the State University of New York and City University of New York systems.  The bills also expand the definition of what the state’s support should cover to collective bargaining, fringe benefits and other items to that maintenance of effort.

In short, the legislation ensures that the state will spend more to boost support for higher education.

This legislation acts to fill the SUNY and CUNY budget gaps.  Given the extraordinary increase in state revenues over the past five years, it makes sense that the priority of the state should be to enhance its support for public higher education, instead of hitting up college students and their families.  This legislation does just that – it fills in a budget gap left as a result of the final budget agreement and does so in a way that is fair and reasonable.

Now that the two higher education committee chairs have developed a response to the budget shortfalls at SUNY and CUNY, the question is – will Albany act?  Will the Legislature embrace these ideas and will the governor approve them?

A failure to act will hurt public higher education and the state as well.  It is, after all, the state’s investments in higher education that helps create a skilled workforce and an informed citizenry.

ANOTHER ALBANY POL BITES THE DUST

Posted by NYPIRG on May 16, 2016 at 1:05 pm
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Some of the big news in state politics last week was the sentencing of former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.  Skelos, like the former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was convicted of corruption.  Skelos was sentenced for five years in prison for his activities in shaking down businesses for often no-show jobs for his son.  A couple of weeks earlier, Silver received 12 years for his corrupt schemes that enriched him by millions of dollars.

Both cases had their differences, but both had a consistent theme – both men secretly and nakedly used the power of their public positions to enrich themselves or their family.

The swirling controversies around current or former members of the Cuomo Administration also appear to have the same common thread; in those cases, a former official and a current lobbyist with long ties to the governor, allegedly gamed the system to enrich themselves.

These scandals and controversies are not the only examples of this type of corruption, nor is New York the only government to have experienced them.  But the scale of the size of New York government, with its $150 billion annual budget, the fact that it operates at the highest levels in incredible secrecy, the number of global companies based in the state, and the lack of independent state-based enforcement, all raise the risk of corruption.

At the heart of the problem – that public officials use their positions to enrich themselves personally – is the perception that state government watchdog agencies are not independently and aggressively monitoring ethics laws.

In other controversies – most notably the allegations swirling around the New York City Mayor as well as elements of the reports about actions of former and current members of the Cuomo Administration – there is a second type of misbehavior, using governmental largesse to benefit campaign contributors and other well-connected interest groups.  This transactional means of operating is known as “pay to play.”

These complaints have consistently been raised about deal-making in New York, and other parts of the country.  As in the case of personal enrichment by public officials, there is a belief that participating in a “pay-to-play” political culture is necessary and, in fact, required, of those seeking governmental favors.  Albany’s secrecy fosters such a culture.

Recent polls have found that virtually all New Yorkers are fed up with what they have seen from their state’s government.  Yet, there is an increasing sense that Albany will wrap up its legislative session next month and have achieved little, or nothing, to respond to the outcomes of recent investigations.  With just 15 scheduled legislative session days left, that’s looking increasingly likely.

Whether that turns out to be the case will be determined by what the governor does.  In Albany’s legislative partisan split – Republicans control the Senate and Democrats control the Assembly – it is the governor who must force a debate and a consensus on legislative action.  It is the governor, after all, who commands the largest bully pulpit, it is the governor that is the most powerful political figure, and it is the governor who prides himself on getting things done.  Chief executives after all are where the buck stops, whether it’s a mayor, governor or president.

In this year’s budget, New Yorkers saw that power and its skillful deployment in Governor Cuomo’s efforts to raise the minimum wage and to enact paid family leave.  In both cases, there was considerable opposition – both within Albany and by outside business groups.  Yet, the governor kept at it and organized public support into legislative victories.

Unlike the fights over the minimum wage and paid family leave, when it comes to ethics the governor would have a huge advantage – near unanimous public support for reforms.  But the governor has done little to focus public attention on the solutions that are needed.  Thus, the groundwork has not been laid to galvanize public support on key solutions.

And those real solutions must be based on opening up state government, reducing the temptations to allow public officials to enrich themselves, curbing Albany’s pay-to-play political culture, and – most importantly – overhauling ethics enforcement agencies to ensure independence and competence.  New Yorkers cannot assume that Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney who has done most of the work to bring corrupt public officials to justice, will be around forever.

At the end of the legislative session, whether real reforms are approved or not will rest almost entirely on what Governor Cuomo chooses to do.  And while voters should hold their legislators accountable for Albany’s failures, they should expect that this governor does what he was elected to do – solve problems.  And Albany has a big problem right now, we’ll soon see if the governor is up to solving it.

AND IN OTHER NEWS

Posted by NYPIRG on May 9, 2016 at 11:42 am
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As New York’s ethics problems continue to dominate headlines, other important issues are getting short shrift.   Just one such issue is the quality of drinking water supplies – particularly those found in New York’s schools.

Last week, concerns raised by parents in New Rochelle were reported – some test results in their school district found levels of lead that are too high.  None of the tests came close to those found in places like Flint, Michigan, but there is no safe level of lead exposure for children.  And this was water found in schools.

The district had dozens of faucets and fountains sampled and found some with high lead levels, after flushing water systems, lead levels dropped off.  But parents are still concerned.

They join parents in places like Ithaca and Binghamton who have also found elevated lead levels in schools’ drinking water supplies.

Over the last decade we’ve learned that the testing routines did not detect true risk from lead, that there are sources of lead that we’re missing in our tests and that testing was too infrequent. It’s hard to see how the status quo in lead testing for water is adequately serving the public.  Albany must act.

Lead is a persistent and bio-accumulative toxic metal that is a threat to public health. When consumed, even low levels of lead can have a harmful impact on almost every system and organ in the human body. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the maximum contaminant level target for lead in drinking water at zero, as any level of lead exposure can be detrimental to human health. There is no safe level of lead exposure for children.

This highly toxic substance is a particular threat to children whose bodies absorb more lead than adults. Even low levels of lead exposure in children have been linked to, among other symptoms: damage of the nervous system; learning disabilities; behavior problems; and in extreme cases ingestion of lead by young children has been linked to seizures, coma and death.

Amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) banned the use of lead plumbing and solder in the installation and repair of any service lines used to provide water for human consumption. However, service lines in schools built before the 1986 lead ban may still contain lead fixtures and lead solder, allowing the toxic metal to leach into water supplies as infrastructure corrodes over time.

While federal and state laws mandate testing of municipal water supplies for contamination, there are no mandatory guidelines in place requiring the testing of schools’ tap water. Currently, the EPA has no requirement mandating that school districts drawing from municipal water systems test their water at the tap at all, only making strong recommendations that individual school districts do so. As of right now, any lead testing at schools connected to municipal water supplies is voluntary, therefore it is unclear exactly how many New York State schoolchildren are unknowingly being poisoned.

The New York State Department of Health warns that “primary prevention” – taking deliberate measures to prevent exposure to lead before it occurs – is the only effective way to protect children and families from lead poisoning. While measures have been taken to protect children’s drinking water at the source, the threat of lead contamination from infrastructure decay looms heavily over schools.

Lead poisoning is preventable, and the only way to keep children safe is to reduce any risk of exposure. By not regularly testing schools’ water at the tap, New York puts the health, safety, and future of children in danger. New York State has a moral obligation to keep its children safe and its schools’ drinking water lead-free.

While the media is focused on the growing controversies that threaten to overwhelm the Cuomo Administration, there are important issues that lawmakers must address.  Mandating aggressive action on lead – as well as other toxic substances – in schools’ drinking water is important issue that must be addressed this session, before the next school year begins.

ETHICS CONTROVERSIES CONTINUE TO DOG NEW YORK

Posted by NYPIRG on May 2, 2016 at 9:35 am
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Another week, another series of ethics controversies in New York.  The week began with the leak of a confidential report by the state’s elections enforcer that alleged that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had engaged in an illegal effort to circumvent campaign contribution limits in his 2014 push to bolster the re-election prospects of some sitting state Senate Democrats, who presumably would be more favorable to the democrat mayor’s city agenda in Albany.

The week ended with media reports of subpoenas being issued by the U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara into the possibility of unethical actions by members of the Cuomo Administration in advancing the governor’s “Buffalo Billion” program.

Some background first on the controversies swirling around the Mayor.  According to the leaked document, the Mayor’s team hit up some New York City campaign contributors to urge that they donate large sums to local political party committees in areas in which incumbent state Senate Democrats were facing tough re-election bids.

Under New York State election law, political party committees are set up to allow the parties to raise enormous contributions – in some cases well over $100,000 – and then transfers those sums to the candidates of their choice.  This is routinely done with a wink and a nod.  Effectively, New York law allows the state’s donor class to legally circumvent already sky-high contribution limits, which often allow donations that double or triple the amount permitted under federal law.

What made the de Blasio team’s behavior different according to the leaked document is that these donations were allegedly specifically raised and directed with the party committee acting as nothing more than a pass through.

Of course, to most of us that is a distinction without much of a difference and really underscores just how disgraceful the state’s campaign finance system is – if you make those donations and wink about where the money will go, it’s ok; if you are explicit, it’s illegal.

The criminal referrals have been made to the Manhattan District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney’s office and subpoenas have been issued.  Ultimately, they will decide whether crimes were committed.

In the “Buffalo Billion” case, it is less clear what has happened.  Media reports have identified a long-time Cuomo aide, who recently left the Administration, as the individual who may have accepted illegal outside income as part of his involvement in advancing the interests of a Buffalo business to get a lucrative government contract; a business which just happens to be a big Cuomo campaign contributor.

Again, there is no way to know how this will play out and whether any crimes were committed.  But as in the case of the Mayor, there is a lot of smoke, we’ll see if there is any fire.

All of this occurs as state lawmakers return to Albany to begin their seven-week dash to the end of the 2016 legislative session.  The governor has stated that ethics reforms are his top priority, but has done little more than say so.

As lawmakers return, they must tackle ethics reforms that:

  1. Limit outside income.  The crimes committed by the soon-to-be-sentenced former Assembly Speaker and former Senate Majority Leader were all about using their powerful public positions to enrich themselves personally.  Placing Congressional-style limits on outside income will help reduce that temptation in the future.
  1. Basic campaign finance reforms. The company at the heart of each of the scandals that resulted in the legislative leaders’ convictions was a real estate firm that had used dozens of limited liability companies to funnel campaign cash into the political process – as a way to boost their influence over state political-making.  LLCs should be treated like other businesses and have their controlling identities disclosed.

    A second issue is that one that has engulfed the Mayor – the law that allows huge contributions to political party committees and then gives them the option of transferring unlimited amounts to their candidates.  The state needs new, much lower limits on donations to the parties as well as restrictions on how much they can spend on candidates.

  1. Overhaul ethics enforcement. The state’s ethics watchdog continues to be relegated to the sidelines.  In the controversy surrounding the Cuomo Administration, the public would be well-served by an independent ethics watchdog, not one with ties to both the governor and legislative leadership.

Albany’s ethics “dirty laundry basket” keeps getting bigger.  New York’s ethics failures are a big problem.  The public sends representatives to Albany in order to solve problems.  If they can’t – or won’t – it will be time to replace them.