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The Governor Proposes Ethics Reforms As Part of His Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on January 30, 2017 at 8:47 am
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For the longest time, the state Capitol has been rocked by scandals.  In recent years, those scandals have mushroomed: Both leaders of the Legislature have been convicted of corruption and face time in prison, and close aides and associates of the governor have been charged.

Not surprisingly, each year Governor Cuomo has touted reforms that are supposed to address the ethical misconduct that has plagued Albany.  Unfortunately, the reforms that have been approved, while heralded as historic, have done little to curb corruption.  Typically the measures are weak; often riddled with loopholes, and in some cases appear deliberately designed to sound good, but fail.

In this year’s budget, the governor once again advances a package that he argues will deal with ethical problems in both state and local governments.  And while his rhetoric sounds good, a closer look reveals his plans are problematic.

Broadly speaking, the governor’s plans tackle four different areas: ethics, openness, campaign finance and voting rights.

The governor offers a number of measures that could help improve New York’s dismal voter participation record.  For decades, New York has ranked at or near the bottom of the nation’s barrel in this area.  Despite New York’s professed “progressivism,” when it comes to voting participation, the state is as bad as the nation gets.

Some of the blame lies with the state’s notoriously rigged political process, which leaves voters with little in the way of choices.  But that alone does not explain New York’s record.  New York has created significant obstacles to citizens registering to vote and does too little to support elections administration.

In the governor’s budget, he advances some “best practices,” most notably proposing that the state allow new voters the opportunity to register and vote on election day.  This is a common feature in many states with the highest voter participation rates.  It makes sense that as election day draws close, would-be voters are most likely to get engaged.  New York’s current voter registration deadline, for example, requires registration typically before Presidential debates occur – or right before voters fully engage.

The governor’s campaign financing proposals contain important reforms: a voluntary system of public financing, lower campaign contribution limits, and more disclosures about campaign contributors.  New to his package is a plan to ban campaign contributions from those who are seeking or receiving government contracts.

This last proposal is perhaps in reaction to the U.S. Attorney’s prosecution of a vast “pay-to-play” scheme, in which it is alleged top Cuomo Administration officials allegedly rigged government contracts to be steered to those who made campaign contributions to the governor’s reelection campaign.

The Cuomo Administration has been severely criticized for its across-the-board opacity.  In terms of openness, the governor is proposing changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).  FOIL is the law that is supposed to allow the public access to government data – usually collected with taxpayers’ dollars.

However, the governor’s proposal does virtually nothing to enhance public access to the records of government agencies.  And government that operates in a secretive and publicly unaccountable manner sets itself up for scandal, among other problems.

And that’s what we’ve seen: scandals at the highest level have been alleged against members of the Administration.

Yet it is in the area of corruption-fighting ethics reforms that the Cuomo plans are most wanting.  The governor advances measures to require limits on the outside income of lawmakers, which is a good idea.  But the scandals alleged in the executive branch under the governor’s watch had nothing to do with caps on income.

Recognizing the need to address this area, the governor offers the creation of new watchdogs, but they are all accountable to the governor.  Instead, the governor should have proposed measures to strengthen the powers of existing watchdogs outside of his direct control.

In particular, when it comes to monitoring government spending, the state constitution establishes a separately-elected Comptroller to monitor the books.  Not someone appointed or accountable to the governor – who directs the state agencies – but someone who is supposed to be directly accountable to the public.  Over recent years, the governor and the Legislature have approved measures that  cut back the power of the Comptroller to monitor government contracts.   Instead they should be strengthening them.

When it comes to ethics, it’s long past time for New York to have a truly independent ethics watchdog.  Not a watchdog with appointees directly chosen by the governor and the legislative leaders.  Not one in which its top staffers are chosen from the staff of the governor.

An entity independent of the political elite that it is supposed to monitor.

Until New York establishes a system of independent ethics and contracting oversight, the nightmare of public corruption scandals will not end.  Hopefully, the final budget will make that happen.

New Yorkers Start to Get the Details on the Gov’s Free Tuition Plan

Posted by NYPIRG on January 23, 2017 at 8:29 am
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Earlier this month, Governor Cuomo held a news conference with the U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders to announce a new initiative: to make public college tuition free for families whose incomes were up to $125,000.

At that time, the governor remarked: “A college education is not a luxury – it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility.”  He went on to say that “(College) is incredibly expensive.”  Senator Sanders was there, since it was his Presidential campaign that focused national attention on the cost of a college degree and the mounting debt that many students incurred to pay for a college education.

For many New Yorkers, the governor’s proposal was a welcome change.  After all, it was Governor Cuomo’s Administration that had changed New York law to automatically allow annual increases in public college tuition.  During his time as governor, the cost of attending the State University of New York has shot up by 30 percent over five years.

Making public college more affordable is a great idea, not only for educating the next generation of workers, but the next generation of citizens as well.

Last week, the details of the governor’s plan took shape.  The governor proposed a state budget that included funding for his “Excelsior scholarship” – the plan to eliminate tuition costs.  His plan tracks the one unveiled with Senator Sanders.  There appears to be one hitch: the Excelsior scholarship is a “deferred payment” program.  That means that the student receives the benefit of the scholarship after successfully completing 15 credits and earning at least a passing C grade.

The plan proposes that the public college defer billing the student for the tuition, and the college does not receive the scholarship money until after the semester.  If the student fails, the public college receives no income from the scholarship and must charge the student for the cost.

As a result, it is possible that the college’s and the student’s financial exposure may make the program less attractive.  Failing to perform puts the student squarely on the financial hook.  Of course, it is not unreasonable for the public to ask that students perform academically, but in life, stuff happens – parents divorce, deaths and illnesses occur; how will life’s unexpected problems and their impacts on students be addressed?

In addition to the Administration’s scholarship program, the governor’s overall higher education budget was not nearly as generous, and in some ways worse, for students than the status quo.

The governor proposed that operational funding for SUNY be kept at this year’s level.  Since the inflation rate is a bit over 2 percent, the governor is effectively proposing a cut of 2 percent in state funding for SUNY.

The governor also proposed cuts to programs that provide support to college students that come from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.

And he proposed a tuition increase to those families making over $125,000.  You heard that correctly, the governor’s no tuition plan hikes SUNY tuition – for those whose incomes are greater than $125,000 annually.

Where will the additional revenues generated by the tuition hike go?  There is language in the governor’s budget that directs SUNY to spend new tuition revenue on hiring new faculty and student services.  But there are additional costs, such as the increases in cost due to inflation for example, that are not mandated.  As those costs increase and state supports stagnates, the increases in tuition will be used to fill those budget holes.

In his speech with Senator Sanders, the governor correctly identified a big problem, the skyrocketing cost of attending public college.  But a tuition-free plan is only one part of the necessary responses: the state needs to provide additional resources and it needs to strengthen programs to help the poor and educationally disadvantaged – students who already go to college tuition-free but often cannot afford the life expenses needed to attend college and complete their degree.

Making a big policy splash helps, but the policy details matter more.  The governor’s proposal is only the first step in New York’s several month budgetary dance.  Here’s hoping that the final budget not only lowers tuition, but provides the resources necessary for SUNY to fulfill its educational mission to all students.

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.