Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

The State’s Public Financing Commission Starts to Put Its Plan Together

Posted by NYPIRG on November 11, 2019 at 8:29 am
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New York State’s campaign financing system has been notorious – sky-high contributions that allow the wealthy and powerful to legally donate over $100,000; ineffective enforcement; loopholes galore and inadequate disclosures.  The result?  Scandals.  Most recently the convictions of big donors and top-ranking state officials in an incredible scheme that rigged government contracts for big campaign donors.

The lousy system is not something new – for decades, blue ribbon commissions, federal prosecutors, and experts have roundly criticized New York’s campaign financing practices and its anemic laws.

And for decades Governors and state lawmakers have pledged to fix the system, only to complain that partisan gridlock blocked necessary reforms.

New York City’s experience, on the other hand, was different.  In the 1980s, it too experienced stunning levels of corruption.  But a politically unified city government coupled with public outrage yielded the creation of a system of public financing that shifted the emphasis away from raising money from special interests who write big checks to getting small donations that are amplified by public matching funds.  New York City’s program is now considered a model for the nation.

After the 2018 election, Democrats took firm control of the state government when they won a working majority of seats in the state senate.  Governor Cuomo had regularly advanced legislation to create a voluntary system of public financing modeled on the New York City program.  The new Democratic Senate majority had also pledged to support establishing a New York City-style system.  The Assembly had approved legislation creating a New York City-style system regularly for years since the 1980s.  Reform seemed like a done deal.

But something happened.  Democrats’ great enthusiasm for public financing evaporated during the first half of the legislative session.  Eventually, instead of directly voting to adopt a New York City-style system, the governor and the legislative leaders established a commission empowered to create a public financing system in New York State.  The legislation was approved at the end of March and this new Commission was charged with releasing its plan by December 1st of this year, giving the group only eight months to get its work completed.

But the games continued.  The leaders made no appointments to the commission until early July, thus cutting the timetable to a mere five months.  The commission had no staff, few resources and couldn’t pull off its first meeting until late August.

Now the timetable was cut to 3 months.

The commission then wasted its time publicly debating whether to curtail the involvement of minor parties in elections.  The commission is now down to a few precious weeks to get its monumental work completed.

You would think that under the circumstances the Commission would focus on a program that has had a three-decade track record of success.  A program that already exists in New York State.  The commission could then focus on how best to scale it up to a statewide program.

But you would be wrong.

Instead, the commission seems to want to develop a system very different from New York City’s.  At its most recent meeting, the commission approved an outline of a program that would diverge from the New York City model by prohibiting public financing matches for out-of-district.  Instead, in-district contributions would be matched up to $250 according to a tier of ratios: the first $50 at 12:1, the next $100 at 9:1, and the next $100 at 8:1.  

This untried, complicated system is being cooked up with less than three weeks to go.  It almost seems like they are doing all they can to develop a program too flawed to succeed. 

This has happened before.  In 2014, the governor rushed through a campaign financing change that covered only the Comptroller’s race. The program was so flawed that the Comptroller did not choose to participate and his opponent couldn’t meet the complicated standards.

Why is the commission operating this way?  Since so much of what they do is done in secret, it’s hard to know.  But it’s safe to say that the governor and the legislative leaders are comfortable with the ways things are going.

New Yorkers, on the other hand, should not be.  New York’s corrupt campaign financing system needs drastic change.  If the unelected commission fails to make it happen, New Yorkers should look to the actions of the governor and the legislature before, during, and after the commission acts.  It is their leadership that should be under scrutiny.

Early Voting in New York Finishes Its First Run

Posted by NYPIRG on November 4, 2019 at 8:39 am
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One of the big changes in how New York runs its elections is a measure to allow “early voting.”  Early voting allows for people to cast their ballots in advance of Election Day.  And early voting has been tested across the nation.

When New York acted it became the 39th jurisdiction to do so.  Thus, the overwhelming number of states had already made the change.  It has long been clear that early voting is the type of convenience that is popular and necessary. 

From Saturday October 26th through this past Sunday, New Yorkers could vote in advance of Election Day, Tuesday, November 5th.  And while the final numbers are not yet in, it looks like over 250,000 voters showed up at nearly 250 early voting polling sites across the state and that the glitches were kept to a minimum. 

There are some issues that need to be addressed before the next votes are cast.  Under the recently passed law, local boards of elections were given discretion in how many early voting sites that would be required and where they would be located.

First, the new law stated that each county should provide at least one early voting polling place per 50,000 registered voters.  Seems simple enough.  For those counties with voting populations less than 50,000, they had to have at least one early polling place. 

However, the early voting law has one big loophole: counties with large numbers of voters are not be required to keep to the 50,000 voters per early voting polling site ratio.  The law states that in no case shall a county be required to have more than seven sites, no matter how large the population.  Thus, the largest counties have a lot of room in terms of the number of early voting locations. 

Sixteen counties had a ratio greater than one early voting location per 50,000 voters.  Some large counties provided many voting sites.  For example, Erie County had 37 early voting sites with a ratio of about 16,000 voters per location.  On the other hand, Manhattan had a ratio of one early voting place for every 100,000 voters – double what was the goal in the law.  Not illegal, but unfair to Manhattan voters as compared to Erie County. 

The law also requires local boards of elections to consider, but does not require, certain factors when deciding where to locate early polling locations.  The law states that factors like “population density, travel time to the polling place, proximity to other early voting poll sites, public transportation routes, commuter traffic patterns” be considered.  Yet, “consideration” is not a mandate.  In the county of Rensselaer, the city of Troy (population is about 50,000) had no early voting locations.

Having New York’s initial experience be during an “off-year” election makes good sense.  Fewer voters show up at the polls and the elections bureaucracy learns from the experience.

But policymakers need to learn too.  Both houses of the Legislature should hold hearings to review the early election experience.

It is clear, however, that the state needs to be more demanding.  New York should require that no county is allowed to ratios of voters to early voting poll of more than 50,000 to one.  And that every local community that relies heavily on mass transportation, or ones that have dense population centers, or rural areas in which distances are far, have reasonable access.

One additional lesson to be learned involves money.  For unknown reasons, the state government didn’t immediately let flow the $10 million earmarked to help counties, slowing down efforts to plan and cover the costs.  The counties should get the resources that they need.

Early voting is a reform that helps voters cast their ballots, a constitutional right.  New York should do all it can to make voting easier.  In the modern world, allowing voters to cast their ballots during the time before election day makes sense and must be continued.

But it must be done in a manner that makes it easier for all voters, not just those in selected areas.  Thus, new standards should be put in place that ensure areas with the most people get the most early voting sites.  And resources must be made available for those areas in which voters must travel long distances.

We live in a representative democracy.  Making the choice about who represents us should be easy and uncomplicated.  Let’s make sure that is the case.

Public College Students Paying Billions More Due to Tuition Hikes

Posted by NYPIRG on October 28, 2019 at 8:17 am
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In 2011, Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature passed “SUNY2020,” a multi-part higher education bill which, among other things, increased tuition annually at the State University of New York and the City University of New York.   At the time of first passage, Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers promised to use the additional tuition dollars to enhance student services, including but not limited to; academic mentoring, counseling and advising. The tuition dollars were not intended to backfill budget holes, but rather enhance students’ education.

An important provision of SUNY2020 was a “maintenance of effort” provision which stipulated that the government would not reduce SUNY’s or CUNY’s general operating funds in following budgets. This was to ensure that increased tuition would not be offset by decreased state support.  However, the “maintenance of effort” provision excluded certain mandatory, predictable cost increases. 

As a result of that loophole, there has been mounting legislative – and anecdotal evidence – that the state support for public colleges has been eroding and that, in fact, tuition increases have been used to backfill budget holes in college budgets.

In recent years, New York lawmakers have approved legislation – subsequently vetoed by the governor – that would have enhanced the pledge to maintain the state’s efforts to provide adequate funding for the State University and City University systems. 

Had the legislation been approved by the governor, inflationary and collective bargaining costs would be covered by the state and would have reduced the need for siphoning away tuition dollars to make up the difference.

In addition, the SUNY2020 law mandated that public colleges pick up the cost of tuition for the poorest students, if state aid did not cover that cost.  And that is exactly what has happened.  The Tuition Assistance Program’s (TAP, the state’s biggest financial aid program) maximum award is set at $5,165, while tuition at SUNY has increased to more than $7,000 for the combined Fall and Spring academic semesters.  That “gap” between maximum TAP award and current tuition (roughly $2,000) must be covered by the college, thus increasing its financial stress and also making it more likely that tuition dollars are used to cover the difference.

Unfortunately, there is growing anecdotal evidence that colleges are struggling to cover these additional costs.  From hiring freezes to department reductions, colleges across the state are publicly reporting that they must cutback instructional and student services to balance their budgets. 

The erosion of state support and the creation of growing funding gaps is translating into an erosion of student services. Students have experienced firsthand difficulty in getting into the classes they need to graduate, limited services such as library hours, and advisement gaps across the CUNY and SUNY systems. The consequences have been especially troubling for students interested in graduating on time.

For example, according to a CUNY survey, over one-third of CUNY students reported not being able to register for a course they needed for their major. Of those students, half couldn’t register because there were not enough seats available.

In addition to attending colleges that are increasingly strapped for resources, what is that cost to college students and their families?  According to the new analysis, public college students are paying over $2.5 billion more in tuition thanks to SUNY2020.  That’s right; students have forked over billions to cover rising tuition costs while colleges are struggling to pay their bills.

So what should be done?  The responses should come in two ways: Freeze the increases in tuition costs and increase state support.  Governor Cuomo and the Legislature should make sure that next year’s higher education budget:

  • Freezes all tuition rates at senior and community colleges.
  • Enhances funding for CUNY and SUNY by closing the “TAP Gap” and include mandatory costs in its base funding equation through an enhanced “maintenance of effort.”
  • Enhances financial aid programs like TAP and the Excelsior Scholarship, so that they are available during winter and summer sessions, increase maximum awards, and expanding programs for use beyond covering tuition.
  • Expands funding for student services and opportunity programs – such as CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) which is a model for free public college, addressing the all-in costs of higher education.

Investing in higher education is investing in New York’s future.  The state’s budget has grown by more than one-quarter during the period of SUNY2020.  It’s time that students got some cost relief and services received a big boost from the state.

New York Starts Early Voting This Week

Posted by NYPIRG on October 21, 2019 at 8:22 am
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New York has had a well-deserved reputation as a state with laws that discourage voter participation.  In the area of redistricting, elected officials have long conspired to deny voters competitive elections.  In the area of campaign finance, loopholes in the law make it possible for wealthy and powerful interests to shower candidates with contributions of unlimited amounts.  In the area of ethics, enforcement is controlled by the state’s elected leadership.  In the area of voting, state policies have created obstacles to registering to vote and casting a ballot.

And the results have been clear.  In 2018, at least one million otherwise eligible voters were not registered, often due to laws that have made it hard to register.  In the 2018 general election, a stunningly low percentage of registered New Yorkers – 45.2 percent –voted.  A review of the U.S. Elections Project analysis showed New York to be among the ten worst turnout rates in the nation. 

Thankfully, this is one area in which the governor and the Legislature have begun to act.  This year a package of legislation was passed that could ultimately make New York one of the nation’s model in how to encourage voter participation.

One of the new laws that has gone into effect allows eligible voters to cast their ballots early instead of waiting until Election day.   New York joins 38 states (including 3 that mail ballots to all voters) and the District of Columbia, that allow any qualified voter to cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day.  No excuse or justification is required.

In our modern age, allowing flexibility in voting makes perfect sense.  Since Election Day is a Tuesday in November, it can be difficult for many New Yorkers to juggle personal and employment demands and still get to the polls.  Allowing voters to cast their ballots early is simply a recognition that the constitutional guarantee to vote should be made as easy as possible.

Which is why the vast majority of states allow it and why New York acted.

This is the first election in which early voting will occur in New York.  Under the new law, early voting begins Saturday, October 26th and runs until Sunday November 3rd.  New Yorkers can still vote on Election Day, November 5th as they always have.

Where you live will determine where you go to vote.  The state law mandates counties to have at least one early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters.  The law requires that each site be open for a certain number of hours, not necessarily all day for each of the locations. However, a minimum of 60 hours must be made available.

Given the populations, for 40 of New York’s 62 counties only one early voting site is required. There are slightly larger counties, especially in upstate, that must have a minimum of two of three sites.  The larger counties, such as Albany, are subject to a higher floor.

In Albany, there are eight locations spread throughout the county, including the county board of elections location in the city of Albany.  In other counties, similar situations exist, depending on the population.  There are a total of more than 200 early voting sites sprinkled across the state.

Granting eligible New Yorkers the early voting option makes sense.  It offers a more convenient option for busy people and may help improve the state’s overall voting performance.

There are logistics that still need to be ironed out, and having the 2019 elections be the first one covered by the mandate makes sense.  Given that 2019 is largely an election for local governmental offices, it should help elections officials prepare for the big votes for President next year.

But early voting is only one step that is needed.  As part of the elections reform package approved this legislative session, one initiative amended the state constitution to allow new voters the opportunity to register and vote on Election Day.  The states that allow that option have among the highest voter participation rates nationwide.

Even more needs to be done to clean up and overhaul New York’s woeful democracy.  Campaign financing reforms may still occur, but changes are needed for redistricting which gets triggered by next year’s Census as well as proposals to make the state’s ethics laws enforcement independent of those it regulates.

Democracy is a work in progress, a constant march toward to government accountability and enhanced representation.  Early voting constitutes a step – and significant one – in that march.  If you want to vote early, check out your local county board of elections for locations most convenient to you.  

The Reality of Climate Change Clashes With Fossil Fuel Expansion

Posted by NYPIRG on October 14, 2019 at 7:04 am
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The United Nations’ Climate Action Week wrapped up with intense speeches, promises and emotional pleas for action.  Here in New York, the battle over how best to respond to the unfolding climate catastrophe is intensifying.

Let’s start with the science. 

Since the beginning of industrialization in the second half of the 18th century, humans have released so much CO2 into the atmosphere that the global average temperature has increased by around 1 degree Celsius (nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit).  And temperatures currently continue to rise by a further 0.2 degrees Celsius each decade.  The amount of carbon dioxide in the air—the key metric of greenhouse gas pollution over time—is at 408 parts per million, well beyond the safe level of 350 ppm and 46% more than pre-industrial level of 280 ppm.

The consequences of global warming have long since become tangible in the form of heat waves, rising oceans, floods and droughts.  And the costs could be much more dramatic, far-reaching and lasting than anything the civilized world has ever had to contend with.  Heatwaves, droughts, storms, forest fires, floods, disruption to the entire food chain: The impacts are becoming more visible all the time.

In October 2018, the world’s climate experts (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) issued a report examining whether the world will meet the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times—a target contained in the 2015 Paris Agreement.  Their conclusion was that every nation needs to do a lot more, much more than they are currently doing.

According to the experts, there is only one way to meet the 1.5-degree goal: the world’s CO2 emissions must be cut nearly in half by 2030.  By middle of this Century at the latest, the world must reach a carbon “net zero.”  That means that if CO2 is released at all, the same amount must be removed from the atmosphere.  If the climate warms by 2 degrees Celsius (nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit), the future looks even more dire.

Two degrees would mean a complete destruction of the coral reefs, huge crop losses, the melting of the Greenland icepack and catastrophic threats to millions of people.

It bears noting that more recently climate scientists have stated that the climate crisis is accelerating even faster than they believed and that things are perhaps even more dire than the 2018 report indicated.

Which brings us to the fight in New York.

Despite the growing existential climate crisis, some continue to advance plans seemingly without concern for the consequences.

For example, National Grid—a United Kingdom company which provides power to much of New York State, wants to build a new $1 billion natural gas pipeline under the Hudson River. The rationale for this expansion is that the company expects there to be a 10 percent increase in gas demand over the next decade due to a growing New York’s economy and as building owners stop using oil as a source of heat.  

The pipeline would take time to build and would have to operate for decades for its investors to make a profit from the construction of the pipeline.  Organizations concerned about the threat posed by the burning of fossil fuels have opposed the plan (and others like it) stating that expansion of the use of any fossil fuel makes no sense due to the growing threat from global warming.  Governor Cuomo has pledged to block the pipeline.

What should be done?  Instead of building new natural gas hook-ups, many customers should look at relying on electricity for their needs.  While much of the power for electric use comes from polluting sources, ultimately those will be replaced with renewable sources and thus building for that future makes more sense than building out new fossil fuel infrastructure.

No one is arguing that people should stop driving cars, turn off the lights, eat only cold foods and live in homes with freezing or hot temperatures.  But the planet must stop building for a fossil fuel future.  The fossil fuel era, like the steam engine before it, has passed.  We are now living with the consequences.  It’s time to focus our resources and planning on a non-fossil fuel future.

New York cannot invest in long-term fossil fuel capital projects at the same time that state law mandates a rapid transition to renewable energy in all sectors—housing, transportation and industrial and commercial.  The policy in New York is settled and we must move quickly away from fossil fuels.  As the world’s experts have said, there is no time to waste.  Actions to curb such use must be taken now.