Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Cuomo’s Budget: Questions New Yorkers Should Be Asking

Posted by NYPIRG on January 18, 2021 at 9:37 am

Governor Cuomo is scheduled to release his proposed state budget this Tuesday.  His budget will be the first to comprehensively analyze the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state’s finances and it will also be the first budget of the second decade of the Cuomo Administration.

New York requires that state budgets be balanced.  How will he balance the budget?  There can be no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the state’s finances.  While there is some dispute over the size of the looming budget deficits over the next few years, there is no disagreement that the state’s finances have been badly damaged. 

Moreover, the state’s finances were in bad shape even before the pandemic hit.  Last year, the state faced a $6 billion deficit, a deficit that the governor and the Legislature were grappling with just as the pandemic emerged.  All those budget problems were swept into the state’s emergency plans as it faced the pandemic, but those imbalances are still there and continue to aggravate the state’s financial woes.

It is expected that there will be another federal stimulus, one that will help state and local governments.  How much of the state’s revenue shortfall will be covered by this stimulus? 

Will the governor add new revenues beyond his recent pledges to tax the sale of marijuana and online sports betting – both of which are currently illegal and therefore will take some time to get off the ground? 

Will the governor make publicly available his Administration’s decisions to withhold from agencies state monies that were supposed to be spent?  The Administration has stated that in many cases they withheld as much as 20 percent of approved spending for the current fiscal year, which ends March 31st.  

Will the governor fundamentally reshape state government?  In his 2010 campaign, then-candidate Cuomo promised to fundamentally reorganize state government – stating that the former Governor Al Smith’s plan was his inspiration.  Nothing much has come of that pledge.  It is clear from fiascos like the efforts to get unemployment insurance to the pandemic-impacted unemployed and the recent roll out of the COVID vaccine that the years of cuts to state agencies have taken their toll. 

How will he reform health care?  Despite a decade of Cuomo Administration oversight, New York’s health care system continues to deliver uneven services, often ones that leaves the poor and underserved to face poor quality care.  The impacts of the COVID pandemic turned a harsh spotlight on New York’s health care delivery system and its woefully underfunded public health programs.  Will he offer a vision of reform?

How will he stabilize the higher education sector?  As colleges and universities moved to on-line, remote education in the spring, new challenges emerged in how to teach and equip students.  The pandemic also showed how the decades-long state pullback of support for higher education left some colleges teetering on the financial brink.  Particularly small independent colleges – those without large endowments – and public community colleges – those who normally see a surge in enrollment when the economy tanks, but have not seen that during the pandemic – are struggling to survive and may not unless the state steps in.  Will the governor do so?

How will he address the state’s crumbling infrastructure?  The governor spent a significant part of the State of the State presentations on how he will restore New York’s old, crumbling, municipal infrastructure.  How will he pay for it?  The cost of improving the state’s water and sewage infrastructure, for example, will costs tens of billions of dollars.  How will he pay for that and other mass transit and roadway needs?

How will he attack festering environmental problems?  The governor has stated that he will advance proposals to push New York toward a greener energy future.  Will he include a detailed reporting system so that the public can monitor progress?  And what about other environmental hazards, such as the legacy of industrial pollution that threatens drinking water supplies?

There are questions for lawmakers:  Will the Legislature roll back the unprecedented “super powers” it granted the governor to attack the pandemic?  Those powers are supposed to end at the end of March for his budget “super powers” and in April for his non-budget “super powers.” 

Unprecedented times demand bold, imaginative responses.  The big question in this year’s budget is whether the governor will seize on this opportunity to remake the state’s finances and governance.  New Yorkers will have a clearer picture on Tuesday.

A Dark Day in American History

Posted by NYPIRG on January 11, 2021 at 10:49 am

Last week the President of the United States attempted to overturn the 2020 election through the use of force.  There can be no other interpretation of his actions.  His effort was planned for months and executed after all his other measures to overturn the election failed. 

The actions of President Trump are a dark stain on America.

For sure, the nation has seen worse events: Slavery, the Civil War, the genocide of native peoples, the post reconstruction apartheid in the South.  But never has the nation witnessed an attempt by an incumbent President to use mob rule to overturn the vote of the people.

Let us start with the facts.  The President was elected in 2016 despite having lost the popular vote by 3 million ballots.  In the run up to the 2016 election he was laying the groundwork to challenge the results.  In his mind a victory by his opponent could only be an example of an election that was “rigged.”  A classic “heads I win, tails you lose.” 

In 2020 the same scenario unfolded.  The President knew he would lose the popular vote – which he did by 7 million – and he launched attacks on the election on multiple fronts.  Tellingly the challenges he issued were only in states where his electoral loss was close. 

In every state, his challenges were thrown out of court.  Yet, he and his collaborators continued with the public messaging that the election was stolen.  The President personally intervened in Georgia in a failed effort to pressure Republican election officials to find just enough votes to overturn the win for President-elect Biden. 

Having lost legal and illegal efforts to overturn the election, the increasingly desperate President took the lead in urging his followers to march on Washington – an effort that he believed would add mob pressure on members of Congress for them to throw out the result of the election.  He knew that he had collaborators in the Congress who would work hand-in-glove with his effort; the mob would add pressure to those on the fence.

At last week’s rally, the President urged his followers to march on the Capitol and to “be wild.”  After repeating a long list of lies about the election and his dangerous conspiracy theories, he went on to say, “We’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you.  You’ll never take back our country with weakness.  You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”  These calls echoed language calling for violent action circulating among extremist groups.

And march they did.  Many were wearing military equipment – helmets, body armor, camouflaged military garb, and carrying batons as well as other hand-held weapons – clothing that is not worn when people are expecting a peaceful protest.  No, they were ready for a fight. 

The attack on the U.S. Capitol followed.  Had the President’s insurrection succeeded, leaders of Congress could have been kidnapped – or worse.  And it would have advanced the president’s agenda, creating an unprecedented political convulsion that would have halted the Congress’s acceptance of the Electoral College’s vote affirming the victory by former Vice President Biden. 

Luckily, that didn’t happen.  But America is still roiling from the attempted coup.

Questions need to be answered.  Why were the Capitol police so unprepared?  Without doubt law enforcement was aware of what could happen.  Michigan had recently experienced a military-style attack on its state Capitol and the governor there was the target of an attempted kidnapping by fascists. 

Instead, the national Capitol police were overwhelmed and injured – one killed – by the coup attempt.  The President’s response to the violence did nothing to quell the mob.  In fact, he emboldened them, telling the rioters that “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace.  Remember this day forever!”

Another question is what happens next?  Clearly, the President violated his oath of office and schemed to overthrow the election.  The danger has not passed – the President is still in office for another week and anything can happen.  He has not shown remorse or stopped with his propaganda.  He must be removed from office, even if there are only a few days until the new President is sworn in.  His actions simply cannot be ignored.

For the individuals involved in the storming of the Capitol, they should be arrested and face legal consequences for their actions.  If convicted, they should face long prison sentences.  In addition, there must be a 9/11-style commission to look at the security threats posed by domestic terrorists across the nation.

That leaves the Congressional collaborators who abetted the President’s efforts to overturn the election.  They too must face the consequences for their part in the coup attempt.  By echoing the President’s lies and working to overturn the will of the people, they must face sanction.  Here in New York, four Congressional Representatives Jacobs, Malliotakis, Stefanik and Zeldin – were among this group.

The Trump Presidency has been a stress test for our system of government, and it has exposed weaknesses in the American form of democracy.  Why keep the Electoral College?  Why is the President immune from investigation for corrupt actions?  Why are governmental watchdogs and whistleblowers not protected from Presidential retribution? 

America has always thought of itself as a beacon for democracy and freedom.  After the actions of last week, that beacon has been dimmed.  Will it be extinguished?  What happens next will answer that question.

The 2021 Legislative Session Opens

Posted by NYPIRG on January 4, 2021 at 11:57 am

New York State lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene this week to start a new two-year legislative session.  The state Constitution is clear about the opening of the Legislature, that it must start meeting on the “first Wednesday after the first Monday in January.”

Usually, the opening of the Legislature coincides with the delivery of the governor’s State of the State message.  That message is also required under the state Constitution, “The governor shall communicate by 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.”  However, the date of that message is not set and the current governor, Andrew Cuomo, has not always delivered his message on the first legislative day.  Technically it doesn’t have to be given in an oral presentation, but that has become the custom.

The Legislature is scheduled to convene on January 6 and adjourn on June 18.

There are, of course, huge differences between this session and previous ones.  Most obvious is that fact that lawmakers will convene during a pandemic – and that situation has dramatically changed the nature of the session.  Instead of being physically present at the state Capitol for its proceedings, lawmakers will “meet” through remote Internet-based platforms.

In addition, both houses of the Legislature will have Democratic “super-majorities.”  A “super-majority” allows the Democrats who dominate both houses to – at least theoretically – overturn a gubernatorial veto without needing to make a deal with the minority party. 

Democrats won a 43-20 majority in the Senate and will maintain a majority in the Assembly (with 107 of 150 members of the Majority conference).  At the start of the 2021 session, New York is one of 22 state legislatures where one party has a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers.

Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers will have to grapple with big issues this session.  The biggest of all will be figuring out to close the state’s yawning budget gap. 

Even though that state has a large budget – last year over $175 billion – much of it is required spending, spending that leaves little ability to make major changes.  The massive current deficit, as well as the big ones over the next few years, will require dramatic actions.

The state’s strategy to date has been to hope for federal help, which has not materialized.  That hope continues with a new Biden Administration being sworn in later this month.  But the timing could be a problem.  New York’s budget must be in place by April 1st and the Biden Administration may not have negotiated a new stimulus package by then (or ever).  The governor has said the state is looking at tax increases, revenue raisers, layoffs, borrowing and early retirements, but has not provided further details.

Even with federal assistance, it is likely that the state will have to deal with budget deficits.  Moreover, the COVID-19 continues to rage and will depress economic activity and may require the state to shut down and restrict business activities even further.   

That and literally hundreds of issues – large and small – will be addressed during the next six months of the legislative session.  The first big decision lawmakers must make is to decide on their own procedural rules.  At the beginning of every two-year legislative term, lawmakers must approve legislative rules that determine how policy changes get made.

And given the fact that this will be the first full session in which lawmakers will operate remotely, those rules matter even more.  A coalition of civic groups have urged lawmakers to amend their rules to allow for greater public participation and accountability. 

In a letter to the legislative leaders, the groups noted that while lawmakers have been operating remotely since last spring, “public access to the halls of government is literally prohibited; and just as lawmakers are finding new ways to do business, members of the public are looking for ways to engage with them.”

The groups further noted that “Public confidence in government is even more important when lawmakers are out of sight.  Work behind closed doors undermines public confidence and breeds public cynicism and apathy.  Public distrust of the legislative process erodes democracy.”

The groups urged measures to help bridge the “digital divide,” to ensure the public has both Internet-based and phone access to proceedings, provide that participating lawmakers in meetings are visible to the public, as well as other measures to further open proceedings. 

The groups also noted the need for rules changes to further empower rank-and-file members of the legislature and ensure fairness in the allocation of resources to all members, including those in the minority parties.

This week a new session for our state legislative body begins.  In many ways, the session will seem like all others – public fights, secret negotiations, hundreds of bills passed.  In key ways – most notably the pandemic – the session will be unprecedented.  And that uniqueness offers lawmakers a unique opportunity for re-imaging how they do their work.  Let’s hope that they decide to take steps toward more openness.  If they do, the pandemic will offer a small silver lining: greater transparency in government and greater trust in state government.

2020 Heads for the Exit

Posted by NYPIRG on December 28, 2020 at 12:11 pm

As 2020 grinds toward an end, it is a good time to review the profound changes that have occurred over the past 52 weeks. 

It’s impossible to ignore the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As the virus gathered steam last winter, New York’s elected officials took unprecedented steps to respond.  The Legislature ceded much of its constitutional authority to the governor.  Despite going into the new fiscal year with a multi-billion-dollar deficit, the Legislature essentially approved Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget and gave him additional powers to make changes that the governor deemed necessary to keep the state financially solvent through the remainder of the fiscal year (which ends on March 31st). 

This budgetary power bolstered the governor’s executive authority and has allowed his office to freeze billions of dollars in budget items that had been approved in early April.  In effect, the Administration has made its own budgetary decisions to keep the state’s books balanced.

The Legislature granted the governor additional non-budgetary powers as well.  Under the American form of democracy, a system of checks-and-balances is in place to ensure that no one branch of government can fully dominate the others.  Typically, the Executive can advance legislation of its own, but it must be approved by the Legislature before it can become law.  There are loopholes in this relationship, one of which allows the governor to issue executive orders that can have the force of law, but do not extend beyond the governor’s term.

As part of the COVID-19 response, the Legislature granted the governor new power to unilaterally enact new laws.  This new power was tied to his existing executive powers and is subject to the Legislature’s override, but so far none of the governor’s decisions have been overruled.  This authorization expires in April of 2021.

These new powers were, of course, granted in order to allow the governor to move quickly to respond to the unprecedented public health threat posed by the pandemic.  But these are powers that previous governors could not have dreamed of having.  And those changes have fundamentally altered the relationship between the two branches of government, at least temporarily.

Another huge change came in New York this year:  2020 was the first election that saw large-scale use of mail in ballots.  The changes in the election process – and the new conveniences to voters – are likely to become permanent.  It is hard to believe that the public will go back to the days of schlepping to polling places if it is inconvenient to do so. 

The changes in voting in 2020 underscored the need to overhaul elections administration in New York and to add adequate resources.  Long lines during early voting were widespread across New York and the result of inadequate funding by the Administration as well as the lack of bureaucratic competence. 

Not surprisingly, the issue of health care rose to the top of public concern.  Despite the callous efforts by the outgoing Trump Administration to take away health care from Americans during a pandemic, Americans saw just how important access to health insurance can be.  Of course, for the uninsured it has long been clear that universal health care is a basic human right.  But that view picked up steam as millions of Americans were laid off during the pandemic-fueled economic downturn and in many cases lost their health coverage.  It has become quite clear that universal health coverage is a necessity. 

2020 was, once again, one of the hottest years in human history and the trend has the planet getting even hotter.  The heating of the planet as the result of human activities did not stop during the pandemic.  The planet is heating up, storms are more severe, huge swaths of the planet is getting drier and more prone to fires.  The fires in Australia, California and the Amazon clearly show that climate-changing global catastrophes are here now and getting worse.

Hopefully, new vaccines and changes in human behavior can alter the course of the pandemic, ultimately leading to the end of the threat.  But its impact on our democracy and our health care system will last for years to come.  These impacts will be clearer next year and all of us should hope that those changes bolster our self-governance and improve the nation’s health.

The incoming Biden Administration has promised to take the global warming threat seriously and that crisis can be mitigated if the nation – and the world – moves to an economy powered by wind, solar and more energy efficiency.

As 2020 thankfully comes to an end, we all look ahead with optimism for the new year.  This year’s optimism hinges on the medical breakthroughs that have led to new vaccines to combat the pandemic.  But lingering threats remain – to our democracy, to our health, and to the environment.  Let’s hope that our political leadership rises to meet these challenges.

New York’s Budget Crisis Is Coming to a Climax

Posted by NYPIRG on December 21, 2020 at 9:10 am

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the world.  An interconnected planet has its great advantages, but dangerous viruses can also hitchhike along aviation routes and shipping lanes to spread disease at incredible speed.  Not only has the pandemic savaged the world’s public health, but it has similarly devastated nations’ finances. 

New York – once the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States – has seen its state and local government budgets shredded.  In the face of a rapidly spreading, dangerous virus, businesses were shut down, travel and personal spending dried up – and as a result there has been a huge drop-off in tax revenues to the state.

The state’s elected leadership hoped that cratering public finances would be offset by federal government intervention.  In the meantime, the Cuomo Administration has withheld billions in state expenditures in hopes of financial relief from Washington.  Monies that had been withheld would be returned to agencies that have cut state aid.  If federal funds were never to arrive, these “withholds” would become permanent cuts, cuts that would total 20 percent.

Earlier stimulus packages helped New Yorkers directly and provided indirect financial help to the state and local governments.  This weekend – some nine months later – the most recent stimulus agreement appears to have been finally negotiated, but it leaves state governments largely out in the winter cold.

It became increasingly obvious that there would be no Congressional rescue of the states during the Trump Administration and the pressure has been building for New York to develop permanent solutions to its fiscal disarray.  New York State Assembly Speaker Heastie recently called for a special session to take place before the new year to raise taxes to offset expected cuts. 

In response, Governor Cuomo argued there can be no increase in revenues unless lawmakers agree to a full, new budget.  The Speaker responded with puzzlement, arguing correctly that the state’s current budget needs revenues and that revenues need to be added immediately.

So, what happens next?  In Albany’s opaque system, it’s always hard to tell what is really happening.  Public statements often do not reflect political calculations or private negotiations.

One thing’s for sure, there will be pain.

New York’s massive public deficits simply cannot be addressed by cutting programs; the cuts would be too deep and would harm those most in need – those who already have borne the worst of the pandemic.

The other option is to raise revenues – taxes.  The governor has repeatedly said that he is concerned that taxes on the wealthy will be a problem, that the wealthy may simply up and move.  What is left out in that argument is the devastation to those who rely on public support, and that without that support they will miss out on education, lose access to health care, or starve.

There is no magic bullet.  Whatever the state does will cause pain.  The question is, who should feel that pain the most?  The people who rely on government help and who have suffered the most during the pandemic or those who have become more well-off over the past six months and who have had far less exposure to the disease?

Seems obvious – the wealthy few should shoulder the burden.

There are options for policymakers to consider.  One is to increase the personal income taxes on those who make a lot of money.  Neighboring New Jersey has done that.  New York has done it in the past. 

Another option is to collect and retain the Stock Transfer Tax.  Since 1905, New York State has had a stock transfer tax which acts much like a sales tax on the buying and selling of equities.  Since the early 1980s, the tiny per trade tax has been refunded to investors.  While a small fee per trade, due to the high volume of speculative stock sales it adds up.  During the first half of this fiscal year, New York has collected and rebated back to Wall Street – over $4.2 billion.

That’s right, over $4.2 billion in six months – sent back to one of the few sectors of the economy that has profited handsomely during the pandemic.

The state’s finances are a mess and there is no Congressional bailout.  Fortunately, two New York lawmakers – Senator James Sanders and Assemblymember Phil Steck – have introduced legislation that would allow the state to keep the Stock Transfer Tax revenues once again.  The stock market has handled the pandemic very, very well.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average index dropped around 8,000 points in the four weeks from February 12 to March 11, 2020, but has since recovered to over 30,000 points last week – a new record.

There are no easy answers, however one answer is quite clear:  The state should keep the billions it currently taxes on the buying and selling of stocks on Wall Street.  In a time of crisis, it makes far more sense to help those who need the help – not to add to their suffering.