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A New Academic Year Begins on College Campuses, Has Albany Been Helping or Hurting?

Posted by NYPIRG on August 29, 2016 at 9:19 am
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Colleges and universities are kicking off their Fall semesters across the state.  As the summer winds down and the dorms open up, it is a good time to review how state policies are impacting higher education.

The case for public investments in higher education is compelling.  A college-educated workforce is in demand; a recent Georgetown University study found that by 2018, nearly two-thirds of New York jobs would require a post-secondary education.   What’s more, college-educated workers still earn more than their high-school educated peers – in fact, by an average of $17,500 per year.   Higher education institutions also boost civic empowerment by exposing students to new and enriching experiences.   For one, college graduates are more likely to vote and to volunteer.  For another, higher education institutions house key democracy-building groups such as student government associations and public interest groups who empower students to be active participants in their own democracy and bring about meaningful social change.

Unfortunately, despite the compelling arguments in support of state investments, the opposite has occurred.  On top of mounting textbook, housing, and transit costs, New York’s so-called “rational tuition” policy jacked-up the cost of tuition at public colleges by over 30% since 2011.  At the same time, state funding had remained largely flat and funding for financial aid programs has stagnated.  Programs like the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) don’t cover college costs for many who qualify and have not kept up with the needs of all students, beyond just the straight-from-high-school-to-college full-time student. This combination has eroded college affordability and has resulted in rising debt for too many college students.

As the state’s policies have been to increase the cost of attending college and limiting the availability of financial assistance, the income growth of New Yorkers has remained stagnant.  In a recent analysis, nationwide from 2000 to 2014, the average cost of in-state tuition and fees for public colleges in America has risen dramatically. During that same time period, the median American household income dropped.

In New York State during that same period, the cost of public college is up nearly 40 percent, while media income in New York has declined by 3 percent.  Rising college costs have been neither offset by rising wages nor offset by rising state-funded grants.

Rising costs and stagnant support have contributed to another problem: a college student “brain drain.”  According to the New York Times, budget cuts have led to sharply higher tuition in New York State, which now exports far more college students than it imports from other states.   And one can see it in the numbers: last year over 3,600 college students came to New York to attend public college, while over 10,000 New York students left the state to attend college – a ratio of 3 to 1.

Just as New York invests in Kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) because full and equal educational opportunity is a public good, expanding investment to higher education will benefit New York’s economy and communities at large.

Without increased public funding, CUNY and SUNY cannot improve rising full-time faculty-to-student ratios, provide adequate counseling and mentorship services, and fund support services critical for students’ success.  Increased state funding will alleviate future pressure for a tuition hike, provide critical resources to protect the quality of a CUNY and SUNY education, and provide higher education accessibility for all students.

Let’s hope that this academic year sees government policy get it right and that it invests more in colleges and universities.  That’s one investment that has guaranteed payoffs.

Presidential Campaign Heats up, What About the Poor?

Posted by NYPIRG on August 22, 2016 at 8:46 am
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According to the New York Times, “The United States, the wealthiest nation on Earth, also abides the deepest poverty of any developed nation, but you would not know it by listening to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.”

While it is undeniable that the economy has improved since the Great Recession, it is also undeniable that the levels of poverty have not recovered to where they were before the nation’s economic downturn.

Here are two examples:

According to a recent poll, when asked “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” nationally one in six households answered “yes.”  And while that is an improvement over the year before, one in six is a lot of Americans.

Not surprisingly, New York State has its own hunger issues.  Overall, more than 3 million New York residents rely on emergency food programs.  In a recent media report, the head of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier stated that, “We are seeing 30 percent more people than we were before the recession.” New York City’s food pantries and soup kitchens have continued to face an increased demand, on top of increases every year since 2009.

Statewide in New York, in 2012-2014, three million people lived in ‘food insecure” households.  “Food insecurity” is, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, when “the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food.”  In other words, when a household is worried that it may not have enough money to buy enough food to eat.

In 2012-2014, one million New York State residents lived in households that included at least one person working, but was food insecure, unable to consistently afford enough food.  In New York City alone, in 2012-2014, fully 450,000 residents lived in households that included at least one person working but were food insecure.

Another indicator of poverty is the rate of homelessness.

In 2014, 7 million Americans in poor households were doubled up with family and friends, the most common prior living situation before becoming homeless. This represents the first significant decrease since the Great Recession. Still, the number of people in poor households living doubled up is 52 percent higher now than in 2007, prior to the recession.

Here in New York, during the period 2007 through 2015 the state had the largest increase in homelessness in the nation, rising over 40 percent.  Between 2014 and 2015 alone, New York State’s homeless population jumped and experienced the largest increase in the nation for the one-year period.  This single-year increase accounted for nearly 33 percent of New York State’s total homeless population growth in the eight-year period since 2007. Of the State’s new homeless, 98 percent were living in New York City.

In 2015, New York City despite the recent slowing of the historic surge in the number of people in New York City’s homeless shelters that began in 2011, homelessness continues to hover at near-record levels: More than 60,000 men, women, and children sleep in municipal shelters each night, including 24,000 children.  Over the course of the last fiscal year, more than 109,000 adults and children slept in the City’s shelter system — a decrease of six percent from last year, but still up since 2005.

Yet few meaningful remedies are being debated in the Presidential race.  As is too often the case, real reforms are being debated at the state level.  Here in New York, the last budget saw an agreement to phase in an increase in the minimum wage and an agreement to mandate paid family leave, both of which will help.

But much more needs to be done.

State and municipal policies have to bridge the gap resulting from the failures of federal policies.  New York State cannot continue to be the nation’s leader in homelessness.

Like the Planet Itself, the Fight to Take on the Oil Companies Is Heating Up

Posted by NYPIRG on August 15, 2016 at 1:30 pm
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In November, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his office would investigate ExxonMobil—the world’s biggest oil and gas company—for misleading the public about global warming.  Under New York law, the Attorney General has the power to investigate whether companies issue misleading statements that could amount to financial fraud.

The relevant New York law in this area is known as the Martin Act.  The Act, passed in 1921, allows the state to bring an action against a company if it can prove that the company deceived the public by misrepresenting or omitting a material fact in the offering of its securities.  The state law is unique in the nation in that no proof of intent to deceive is required to bring a claim, and prosecutors do not even need to show that anyone was in fact defrauded.  The Act allows for criminal as well as civil charges.  New York State’s highest court ruled in 1926 that it covers “all deceitful practices contrary to the plain rules of common honesty.”

It was the Martin Act that was used by former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to aggressively go after Wall Street firms.  Since then, it has been used to prosecute large-scale Ponzi schemes, major investment banks accused of misleading investors and other cases.

Now, Schneiderman is wielding the statute in his probe of Exxon.  Schneiderman subpoenaed Exxon, demanding extensive financial records, emails and other documents to probe the company’s knowledge and disclosures about climate change going back to the 1970s.  In response to the probe, Exxon has said it has worked on climate science in a transparent way for nearly 40 years and has regularly disclosed the business risks of climate change to investors for years.

Exxon has now submitted thousands of its documents to Schneiderman’s office in response to the Attorney General’s subpoena.  Since his action, nearly twenty other states’ Attorneys General have gotten involved in bringing charges against Exxon.

Exxon is, of course, not taking these actions lying down.  They have filed actions to block some states’ investigations and have argued that they did not mislead the public.

Exxon has stated that it “recognizes the risks posed by climate change,” and that the accusations are based on the “preposterous” claim that the company “reached definitive conclusions about climate change before the world’s experts” and withheld it.  The company shared its findings in peer-reviewed publications, it said.

The pushback came from sympathetic members of the Congress as well.  Last month, Congressman Lamar Smith, from Exxon’s home state of Texas, issued a subpoena to the New York Attorney general and demanded all communications since 2012 between the AG’s office and climate change activist organizations.

Congressman Smith said that the Attorney General and environmental groups have secretly collaborated “to act under the color of law to persuade attorneys general to use their prosecutorial powers to stifle scientific discourse, intimidate private entities and individuals, and deprive them of their First Amendment rights and freedoms.”

Attorney General Schneiderman fired back saying that the Congress has no authority in this area and rejected the subpoena, arguing that the request was “unprecedented.”

Instead of a First Amendment issue – infringing on the right of a corporation to freely express its opinion – the New York Attorney General rested its argument on its power under the Martin Act.  In effect, the AG argued, “The First Amendment … doesn’t give you the right to commit fraud.”

While this issue is ultimately going to be decided in the courts, New York’s unique law gives the Attorney General wide powers to police the securities marketplace and protect investors.  Armed with the Martin Act, the AG can determine whether, and if so how, Exxon and other oil companies used their internal research to bamboozle the public – and investors – about the dangers of burning fossil fuels that accelerate global warming.

If he succeeds, the AG may use the legal tools of his office to force the industry to confront its role in climate change.  If that happens, this may be a turning point in history

Shopping Smart for Health Care

Posted by NYPIRG on August 8, 2016 at 10:33 am
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Choosing a health care provider can be tough.  Most of us look at the physicians and hospitals in our network and just make a choice. Sometimes, we ask our friends for a recommendation.  But usually, it’s a shot in the dark; we assume that since the government has licensed the state’s providers, all meet a minimum basic level of competence.

And most often, that assumption is correct.  But for many, choosing the wrong provider can have devastating consequences.

According to experts, hundreds of thousands of Americans lose their lives as the result of poor quality health care.  And hundreds of thousands more get hurt for the same reasons.  A recent article in the British Medical Journal estimated that the third leading cause of preventable death in America is the result of medical mistakes.

It’s important for government to do its job and ensure a minimum level of competence, but it is also government’s job to provide as much health quality information as it can to the public.

Last week, the federal government issued a five-star rating system for the more than 3,600 hospitals across the nation.

The federal rankings used one star for the lowest level of performance and five stars for the highest quality of care.  The number of stars each hospital received was based on the hospital’s performance on 64 measures of safety and performance.  The measures included death rates, hospital readmissions, safety indicators and patient satisfaction scores.

The federal ranking identified 102 hospitals with five stars, 934 received four stars, 1,770 got three stars and 133 would get just one star.  Nearly one out of five U.S. hospitals – 934 – could not be rated because they treat too few patients.  You can get the rankings, which allow the user to search by zip code – by going to medicare.gov, look for the “hospital compare” option.

As mentioned above, the government’s ratings were based on measures such as death rates for various procedures, the safety of the care at the hospital, the rates at which patients were quickly readmitted for complications, and other measures.  This information was then adjusted for each hospital’s case mix in an effort to try to make sure that hospitals that treat sicker patients aren’t penalized if their patients don’t fare as well as those at hospitals that provide more routine care.  But studies show that risk adjustment methods are imperfect and can’t entirely level the playing field.

The rankings also did not factor in the income of patients, an important factor in how well patients fare.  More affluent patients recover more quickly, and are less likely to need follow-up care, than those who have trouble affording rent, food and medication.

The federal agency issuing the stars says it will update the star ratings quarterly.

As mentioned, it is important to adjust the data to ensure that hospitals that take care of the most complicated cases are not penalized.  Unless that adjustment is done, the reporting system would create incentives for hospitals to deny care to those who need it the most.

Those adjustments are complicated, no system is perfect.  It’s hard to adjust for the millions of patient outcomes to cover the uniqueness of each person.  But it is important to do the best one can and to provide quality of care information to the public, with a clear declaration of the limits of that information.

Otherwise, all of us continue to fly in the dark when making health care choices.  The federal and state governments collect a wealth of quality information that can help patients to make informed choices.  But collecting the information is not good enough – the information should be easy to understand and its availability should be well-known to the public.

Unfortunately, too often that is not the case.

Even the federal government’s “star”-ing system of hospitals is only as useful as its efforts to educate the public on the existence of the data.  Aggressively disclosing health care quality information not only helps educate us all, for some patients it can make the difference between health and illness.

Albany Considers a Pay Raise

Posted by NYPIRG on August 1, 2016 at 9:40 am
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Should New York’s legislators and state government heads get pay raises?  Asking that question usually has people grabbing for their pitchforks and torches.  Pay raises for politicians has as much popular support as the plague – which is why there hasn’t been one in New York in nearly 20 years.

Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers know that proposing a pay raise is far too close to political suicide, so last year they created a commission to study the idea and make recommendations.

The commission has appointees of the governor, the legislative leaders, and the courts.  The commission held a hearing n New York City last week and it was reported that they are considering a 47% pay hike.  According to media reports, under consideration is a plan to raise the base salaries of state legislators from the $79,500 they make now to as much as $116,900.  Many legislators also get additional pay tacked on to that $79,500 base for things like chairing a committee.

Before you reach for torches, let’s examine some of the arguments for and against raising public officials’ pay.

New York pays its state lawmakers comparatively well: the governor gets the third highest salary ($179,000) in the country (Pennsylvania is tops, followed by Tennessee) and our legislature gets the third highest salary (behind California and Pennsylvania) for what is technically a part-time job.  So what’s the argument for pay increases?

Supporters argue that state elected officials haven’t had a pay increase since 1999, which is a long time.  No one would like to experience that.  Of course, for many Americans, pay has been stagnant for a long time.  Still no one wishes for pay freezes for decades.

In recent times, Albany has been able to get some important things done.  During the Cuomo years, budgets have been more or less on time.  Big issues – no matter what you think about them – have been tackled: property tax cap, personal income tax reforms, marriage equality, minimum wage increases, gun control, and funding increases for education.

Still, polls consistently show that New Yorkers are deeply unhappy with the performance of the state’s elected leaders.  A chief argument against the pay increase is that the governor and the leaders seem incapable or not interested in stemming the plague of corruption that has gripped the Capitol.

Just this year, the former heads of the Assembly and Senate were convicted in federal court on corruption charges and expelled from their legislative seats.  You would think that Albany’s “Watergate moment” would be followed by major reforms.  But nothing.

Major scandals followed by a failure to enact significant corruption-busting reforms should not be rewarded with a gigantic pay hike, to the highest in the nation.

That’s not to say no pay raise should ever be considered.  Most New Yorkers would consider it reasonable for public officials’ salaries to be adjusted by a truly independent commission.

The commission idea makes sense, if it’s genuinely independent.  An independent commission would not only be free from political meddling, it would make its recommendations based on objective analyses conducted in a public manner.

Whether this commission meets those standards remains to be seen.  The majority of the pay raise commissioners were picked by the governor and the legislative leaders.  Sounds like a commission that could be taking orders, not one designed to be independent.

New Yorkers have seen far too many commissions that serve at the beck and call of the political establishment.  Time will tell if this commission is free to conduct and follow objective analyses.

Here is where you come in.  The commission has to wrap up its work no later than November 15th – which is, of course, right after the elections.  The commission is accessible for public comment via email at:  nyscompensation@gmail.com.

If you contact the commission ask them if they will promise to release their recommendations well in advance of this November’s elections.  In that way, the public can tell candidates for office what they think of the recommendations and hold them accountable if elected.

They will be meeting again after Labor Day.  So there is still time to let them know what you think. One last time, the commission’s email address is

nyscompensation@gmail.com.