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Keeping the Holiday Season Safe for Children

Posted by NYPIRG on November 28, 2016 at 12:32 pm
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Thanksgiving is the start of the holiday shopping season.  It is a time when many adults look for gifts for children.  And while the holidays are a time for fun and giving, it is important that it be a safe time as well.

A recent survey of toys found some that posed health and safety threats to children.  The report identified toys recalled by the federal government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) from January 2015 to October 2016. For large items such as cars, when they get recalled, owners will usually be contacted immediately through VIN numbers. However, that’s not the case with toy recalls.

Some of the recalled toys that the researchers found were still available for sale at online stores include:

  • A toy glockenspiel which was recalled in February 2016 due to high levels of lead in the paint. If the paint is scraped off and ingested lead can cause adverse health effects.
  • A remote-controlled flying toy which was recalled in June 2016. The toy’s USB charging cord can overheat, posing a hazard.
  • A pencil case which contains two magnets that hold the case lid closed can detach, posing an ingestion hazard. If these two magnets are swallowed, they can link together inside a child’s intestines and result in serious internal injuries.

It is illegal to sell a recalled product under CPSC rules. The authors of the report have notified the CPSC about these potentially illegal sales and have asked them to investigate these toys further and take appropriate action.

In addition to this call for an investigation, the report urged that the CPSC improve its recall effectiveness by:

  • Engaging in efforts to increase consumer and researcher awareness of the public hazard database SaferProducts.gov.
  • Aggressively seeking to increase recall effectiveness by making sellers agree to conduct more effective outreach campaigns that stress the real hazard posed, rather than simply promoting the purported good will of the firm.
  • Performing regular online sweeps checking for the availability of previously-recalled toys.
  • Holding companies reselling recalled products accountable, this will also send a message to others.

Of course, government oversight, while important, is not enough.  The report urged that parents and caregivers take steps to protect children from potential hazards. The report recommended that parents:

  • Subscribe to email recall updates from the CPSC and other U.S. government safety agencies available at www.recalls.gov.
  • Examine toys carefully for hazards before purchase – and don’t trust that they are safe just because they are on a store shelf. Check the CPSC recall database at CPSC.gov before buying toys online.
  • Report unsafe toys or toy-related injuries to the CPSC at Saferproducts.gov.

Of course, the report only identified toys that had been previously recalled. Other hazards may exist.

To help consumer ensure that all toys are safe, the report’s authors offered some additional tips for parents and other consumers of toys:

  • Review the recalled toys list in this report and compare it to toys in children’s toy boxes.
  • Put small parts, or toys broken into small parts, out of reach. Regularly check that toys appropriate for older children are not left within reach of younger children who still put things in their mouths.

To get a copy of the report, you can view it on the website of the New York Public Interest Research Group at www.nypirg.org.

Smarter toy choices can help keep this holiday season safe.

Ethics Reforms Are Proposed, Again

Posted by NYPIRG on November 21, 2016 at 11:54 am
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Corruption and ethics continue to dominate the headlines out of Albany.  Last week, the verbal sparring over ethics reforms spilled into public view.

Early in the week, Governor Cuomo’s appointees on a panel reviewing pay levels for the legislative and executive branches killed a proposal to hike salaries – after the governor announced his opposition.  The governor’s stated opposition to a pay increase stemmed from the legislature’s reluctance to approve a Congressional-style limit on outside income for lawmakers.

Later in the week, the governor announced another package of ethics reforms that he promised would end the unrelenting scandals that have plagued state government.

In his statement, the governor said

“I believe this public trust and integrity issue must be addressed – directly and forthrightly. I don’t believe in denial as a life strategy. I believe you must face your problems, no matter how unpleasant, and do your best to resolve them.

It is time for action, not words.”

Of course, no statement can explain every detail and when it comes to ethics and government accountability, details matter.  For example, the governor’s proposal to cut off campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts is a welcome addition to the debate, but the details on how that would be accomplished really do matter.

Would a ban on contributions from those who receive government contracts apply to corporate affiliates, to unions, to family members?  Would the prohibition extend to all political committees – including local ones, not just those controlled by elected officials?

We don’t know the answers yet, but how the governor packages that proposal could go a long way toward whether it solves a real problem, or just creates the illusion of a solution.

Another example is the governor’s proposal to create a new position within his office — a Chief Procurement Officer.  The Chief Procurement Officer would, according to the governor’s statement, “be charged with reviewing all state contracts, with an eye towards eliminating any wrongdoing, conflicts of interest or collusion.”

There is good reason for better oversight of government contracts:  The U.S. Attorney has alleged serious instances of corruption involving the award of large economic development contracts from state government.  Yet, the state constitution already establishes someone to monitor the New York’s finances — the independently elected State Comptroller.

In recent years, however, the governor and the legislature have taken numerous actions to weaken the oversight provided by the Comptroller.

Instead, the governor and legislative leaders should be looking to enhance checks and balances and for ways to restore and strengthen the Comptroller’s powers to independently oversee government spending.

The governor’s ethics statement observed, “That fear of real problems, combined with mistrust about the government, is the toxic combination that this nation now faces.

Sadly, New York is no exception. Our state has suffered a few long years of seemingly endless scandals at all levels.”

And as the governor said “It is time for action, not words.”

Sadly, for far too long, Albany has been all talk and very little action.

The governor’s statement was another in series of public promises, New Yorkers can only hope that this time actions will follow words.

A Look at Election 2016

Posted by NYPIRG on November 14, 2016 at 9:27 am
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One of the notable surprises of last week’s Presidential Election is that it appears that Donald Trump has become President-elect while getting fewer votes than Mitt Romney received in his losing Presidential bid in 2012.  You heard that right, while there are still results being counted in Michigan, as of now Donald Trump received roughly 60.3 million votes, while Mitt Romney in 2012 received nearly 61 million votes.

Hillary Clinton appears to have garnered nearly 61 million votes (more than Trump), but far less than Barack Obama’s 66 million in 2012.

What happened?  We do know that the population of the nation grew during that time, as did the number of voters.  In 2016, there are an estimated 323.4 million Americans with nearly 226 million eligible voters.  In contrast, in 2012, there were 308.1 million Americans and 215 million eligible voters.

Yet fewer people voted.  Why?

Part of it is the increasing difficulty in voting in America.  As part of the ongoing – and false – campaign about so-called voter fraud, laws are now in place that makes it more difficult for eligible Americans to register and for voters to vote.

In 2016 alone, at least 14 states installed restrictive voting laws around the country, including limitations on voter registration, photo ID mandates and narrower time periods for early voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

But it’s also part of an “institutional voter suppression” effort.  By that I mean the way in which the elections are conducted.  In New York State, for example, the longest lines to vote are usually in the City of New York.  Voters who see long lines can be turned off and choose not to vote.  Low turnout in New York City is a key reason why New York State is at the “bottom of the nation’s barrel” in voter participation.

Since New York State is a “blue state” why would it allow long lines in the Democratic Party-dominated City?  Current elected officials win because the current crop of voters turns out.  Bringing in new voters can put incumbents – of any party – at risk.  There is less incentive to overhaul the system.

Another factor is the toxicity of the election itself.  The more ugly the election, the more likely voters will be turned off.  That has to have been a factor in last week’s election.  Less-partisan voters are less likely go to the polls and that suppresses turnout.

There is not much that can be done to reduce the toxic nature of American politics.  But there are things that can be done to make voting easier.

Americans have a constitutional right to vote.  However for some, voting is seen as a privilege that citizens should strive to achieve.  Thus, for those individuals, registration requirements are no big thing.

Yet, in other democracies, voting is treated as a right.  In most countries, the government takes the lead in getting people’s names on the rolls – whether by registering them automatically once they become eligible (as in, for example, Sweden or Germany) or by aggressively seeking out and registering eligible voters (as in the UK and Australia).

In the U.S., by contrast, registration is mainly an individual responsibility. And registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other advanced democracy: Only about 65% of the U.S. voting-age population was registered in 2012, compared with 91% in Canada and the UK, 96% in Sweden and nearly 99% in Japan.

Democracy is a work in progress.  But when it comes to voting, progress – not retrenchment – is needed.  Hopefully, Governor Cuomo can figure out a way to move New York State from one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to voting, to an example of what should be done.

Governor Pushes Ethics Reform, Again

Posted by NYPIRG on November 7, 2016 at 10:39 am
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As the election staggers across the finish line, the question for New Yorkers is what next?  At the state level, Governor Cuomo weighed in to support legislative candidates who embraced his agenda.  The governor went so as far as to circulate a questionnaire to candidates quizzing them on their support for ethics law changes, asking their position on limiting lawmakers’ outside income and stricter campaign contribution requirements for Limited Liability Companies (LLCs).

Urging reforms in those two areas are mightily important.  The loophole that allows those controlling Limited Liability Companies to donate essentially unlimited amounts of campaign contributions is an example of the loophole that swallows the law.

That loophole is based on a decision by the New York State Board of Elections – there is nothing on the law on this – that says that LLCs should be treated differently from other companies and allowed contribution limits that far exceed those for corporations.  Corporations, for example, are limited to no more than $5,000 annually in campaign contributions.  LLCs each can donate as much as $60,000 for candidates for governor and more to other candidates.  For them, essentially the sky is the limit.

Real estate developers in particular, have used the LLC loophole to donate enormous sums.  The network of LLCs controlled by real estate tycoon Leonard Litwin (who controls scores of LLCs) has admitted to contributing over $10 million in this way.

Given that LLCs have become the “honey pot” of campaign contributions for elected officials, they are also found at the heart of some of the state’s most recent political scandals.  In the cases that led to the convictions of the former Senate Majority Leader and the former Assembly Speaker, LLCs were used to enrich both men and their families.

Allowing lawmakers to “moonlight” – have jobs outside of their legislative ones also can create temptations for officials to trade on their public offices to enrich themselves personally.  Again, in both cases of the former legislative leaders, the corruption conviction stemmed from their efforts to use their public offices for personal gain.

But the needed ethics reforms go beyond merely closing the LLC loophole and limiting outside income for lawmakers.  The allegations and convictions of corruption in state government are so widespread that additional reforms are needed.

The investigation into apparent misconduct by top aides to the governor and his close allies underscore the need for real changes in the way the state’s contracts are awarded – bringing much greater openness and accountability to state contracting is a must.

The investigations into the state’s contracting also identified allegations of a “pay-to-play” system in which government contracts were allegedly awarded to big campaign donors.  As a candidate for governor, Andrew Cuomo advanced a proposal to place new, strict, and lower campaign contribution limits on those seeking and receiving government contracts.

Since becoming governor, however, little has been done to advance that plan.

Also, all of these investigations were brought by federal prosecutors, not state ethics watchdogs.  It is clear that overhaul of these entities must be part of a reform agenda.

The state’s leading ethics watchdogs for the executive branch, lobbying, the legislative branch, and campaign finance system are far too beholden to the political elites that run the state.  Truly independent watchdogs are needed.  And these agencies must be directed by individuals who are empowered and protected to enforce the law without fear or favor.

To clean up the mess of unprecedented corruption that has, sadly, become the hallmark of New York State government, Governor Cuomo needs a comprehensive approach and use all of the tools he’s been given to boost ethical standards and public confidence.

In 2010, then-candidate Cuomo launched his campaign for governor on the steps of the Tweed Courthouse, pledging to reform Albany.  Since then he has talked grandly, but has simply not accomplished enough.

New Yorkers have heard enough talk about reform, now is the time to actually deliver on it.