Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Colleges and Lady Justice Face Emergency Budget Axe

Posted by NYPIRG on October 26, 2020 at 6:43 am

A little more than halfway through its fiscal year and New York State is dealing with a budget that is billions of dollars in the red.  Unless something changes, that’s the way it will be for the foreseeable future.  These deficits are largely the result of the cratering state finances driven by the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic.  In addition to the staggering toll in death and sickness from COVID-19, state revenues took a nose dive because New Yorkers have not been working, or shopping, or traveling, at pre-pandemic levels.

As the tide of red ink mounted, the Cuomo Administration’s strategy has largely been to hope for a Congressional bailout.  As it waits, the Administration has “withheld” funding from government services – both those directly offered by the state and those contracted out to non-profits.  The argument is that these “withholds” are temporary but could become permanent cuts if Washington fails to act.

The governor can take these actions unilaterally under powers granted to him by the Legislature.

As a result, non-profits are laying off staff and hundreds of millions of dollars have been cut from state support for colleges.  Those cuts from the state’s “withholds,” for example, have resulted in the loss of jobs for thousands of adjunct professors.

Recently, the “withhold” plan has hit the state’s legal system.    

Under current law, state judges are required to retire when they reach the age of 70.  This age was set over one hundred years ago when the productive life of New Yorkers was shorter.  In recognition of this obviously ageist practice, the courts allowed judges to stay on the bench if they passed cognitive and physical tests.  These certifications allowed judges to stay on the bench for 2-year extensions, which could be renewed until the age of 76.

The Cuomo Administration’s “withholds” strategy called for agencies to reduce spending for the court system by 10 percent.  The administrators of the state court system earlier this month decided, with little notice, to reject the renewal requests of 46 judges aged 70 or older whose terms expired at the end of 2020 and approved the requests of three such judges.

This decision to cut off these judges also results in cuts to their staffs as well.

The quick decision created a firestorm in the legal community.  Dozens of state lawmakers, bar associations, and civic groups criticized the plan.  While recognizing the fiscal problem, most argued that the decision of the court system was poorly timed and should be a last resort.  They observed that the courts have been operating on a limited basis during the pandemic and that has led to a backlog.  As the Bar Association of the City of New York commented, “These difficult times require experienced judges to cut through the considerable backlog of cases built up from the pandemic.”

Others noted that the loss of these judges would require the remaining jurists to deal with their own case backlogs as well as pick up the orphaned dockets from the loss of these four dozen judges. 

Of course, that would further exacerbate delays – and impact the public (as well as the morale of those still working within the court system).  After all, justice delayed is justice denied.

The savings that is anticipated from this move still leaves the courts with a yawning gap; the plan only addressed $55 million of the $300 million “savings” called for by the governor.

It’s not at all clear how the courts decided to make this choice.  Did they consider offering early retirement to all judges in order to obtain savings, for example, as compared to taking an easier approach of just cutting short the careers of these experienced jurists whose only “failing” is that their 70th birthdays occurred this year or earlier?

Could they have waited, like the Cuomo Administration is doing, to see if the elections changed the Congressional approach toward helping the states?  If that occurs, replacing experienced judges with less experienced ones could haunt the state’s legal system for years to come.

While the “what ifs” can be debated, it is clear that experienced judges are being essentially laid off while the state faces a large backlog of legal cases.  State legislators have a responsibility to hold hearings to review this decision and ensure that the public has a better understanding of the court system’s logic, what the likely impacts will be, and how the delivery in justice in New York will be maintained.

And the public needs to hear from the Cuomo Administration about why when it comes to dealing with the budget shortfalls, only cuts are being implemented, cuts that have slashed services to those who need them, cuts that make it harder for colleges to teach, cuts that will inevitably diminish justice in New York.

It is our government.  We have a right to know.

New York Colleges Take a Big Hit in State’s Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on October 19, 2020 at 9:09 am

For months, the state’s finances teetered on the edge as the Cuomo Administration attempted to keep New York’s budget in balance while hoping for a bailout from the Congress.  The bulk of the Administration’s hopes hinged on two tactics: one, borrowing to ensure that revenues covered expenses; and two, “withholding” payments to government agencies and non-profit service providers to keep expenses down.  The Administration “withholds” funding instead of cutting programs while waiting for a federal stimulus deal to fill up the state’s coffers.

This second strategy has been in place for half a year now and the “withholds” are taking their toll. 

For example, last week a coalition of over 150 student, faculty, and community groups representing public and independent institutions from across the state delivered a letter to Governor Cuomo and state legislative leaders calling on them to increase state revenue – instead of cuts or “withholds” – to support public and independent colleges and to strengthen financial aid and opportunity programs.

Colleges and universities in New York have been hit hard by the Administration’s “withholds” approach.  Higher education programs took the biggest hit in the first fiscal quarter of any category of spending – with over $400 million withheld in the April-June period.  All told, the state has withheld $2.2 billion from all services and programs.

The groups cited an example of the impact of the Administration’s approach – the City University of New York has been forced to lay off nearly 3,000 adjunct teachers.

As part of a COVID legislative package, the governor received a massive expansion of his already powerful executive powers, allowing him to unilaterally suspend specific provisions of any law of any agency.  A month later in the state budget agreement, those powers were further expanded to allow the governor to slash funds as he saw fit.  In both cases, the Legislature retained the power to overturn the governor’s decisions retroactively – a power which they have not yet used.

In the seven months since onset of the pandemic, in addition to the billions of dollars “withheld” from public programs, the governor issued more than 70 executive orders, covering a wide range of issues.

With higher education taking a real financial beating from the governor’s decision to “withhold” hundreds of millions of dollars from New York’s system of colleges and universities, the groups were arguing for restoration and a freeze on budget cuts.

The groups argued that higher education is the state’s investment in its future and cuts harm the state’s civic life and damage the future economy.  They argued that financial assistance is the way in which many low-income, working college students can afford a college degree.  And it is these students who come from families that often include “essential workers,” those who have had to endure hardships and health threats from COVID to keep the state’s economy moving.  It would be unfair to then make it harder for them to access a college degree.

They have already paid enough.

Therefore, the groups urged that any state action to address New York’s budget crisis meet the following goals:

  1. The state should enhance its support for public colleges and universities.  The State University of New York and the City University of New York are already grappling with financial stresses.  The state should boost its financial support for SUNY and CUNY and do so in a way that freezes the cost of tuition. 
  2. The state should maintain support for independent higher education institutions.  Many of the smaller, independent liberal arts colleges are teetering on the financial brink.  State support should be advanced to make sure that no institution fails during this pandemic.
  3. The state should ensure that programs to maintain college affordability are strengthened.  The state’s financial assistance programs should be expanded to ensure that students who are enduring financial hardship are not turned away from college.  

The groups wrapped up their letter with a recommendation that the state boost revenues by collecting additional taxes from those with the greatest ability to pay them – the same New Yorkers who have been able to withstand the worst of the coronavirus ravages due to their wealth. 

No one disputes that the finances of the state – and the nation – are in bad shape from the economic impact of the pandemic.  But it is clear that those with the resources should shoulder the burden of balancing government’s finances, not those who need it most.

Taking on the Lies About Mail-in Voting

Posted by NYPIRG on October 12, 2020 at 12:03 pm

Led by the President, there is a nationwide attack on the mail in voting option.  The basic thrust of these attacks is that voting by mail is prone to “fraud” and that the mail-in votes will not be counted or will be lost. 

The evidence that those claims are not true is overwhelming and compelling.

So how come we still hear it?

As Mark Twain is credited with declaiming, “A lie can travel around the world while the truth is lacing up its boots.”  As that saying makes clear, the problem of responding to lies has always been difficult.  But in our hi-tech world with a dizzying number of social media platforms all operating on their own codes of ethics and fact-checking standards, pushing out a lie is easy to do and can travel many times around the world before truth has even gotten out of bed.

Add to that the power of the Presidency – and its unique bully pulpit – and it is not hard to see how easily the message can stick.  The facts are clear, however, that such charges are simply not true and they have the pernicious effect of sowing doubts about the validity of the outcome of the election. 

So, let’s help truth to lace up its boots.

Studies have shown that all forms of voting fraud are extremely rare in the United States.  A national study in 2016 found few credible allegations of fraudulent voting.  A panel that President Trump himself charged with investigating election corruption found no real evidence of fraud before he disbanded it in 2018.

Five states currently conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah.  They report very little fraud.

Here in New York, a voter can get a mail-in ballot through the state’s “absentee voter process.”  Under the state Constitution, voters who cannot make it to the polls due to illness or travel can request a ballot to mail in.  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all voters can now request a ballot if they are concerned that they will jeopardize their health by voting in person.  All the voter must do is obtain an application for an absentee ballot and choose “temporary illness” as the reason.

Voters can obtain the application to vote by mail by going to New York State Board of Elections at https://absenteeballot.elections.ny.gov/ and fill out the online form.  Or a voter can contact their local county board of elections by phone, email, fax, mail or in person.

After successfully submitting the application, the voter will then receive the ballot in the mail.   When the voter receives the ballot they must fill out the ballot properly – the instructions on how to do it are precise and must be followed to a “tee” – and then submit it.  A ballot must be postmarked no later than Election Day, November 3rd, and received by the local county board of elections by November 10th.  Be sure to put the proper postage on the outer envelope—two $.55 stamps are recommended.  A ballot can also be hand delivered to the relevant county board of elections office by November 3rd at 9 p.m. or during the early voting period’s polling hours.  Early voting runs from October 24th through November 1st.  If a voter wishes to drop off the ballot to an early voting site, the voter must return it during normal polling hours from October 24th through November 1st.  

Voters do have options if they don’t want to mail in their ballot.  The most obvious option is to vote the old-fashioned way, on Election Day November 3rd.  A second option is to cast a ballot during the early voting period.  New Yorkers have a window of opportunity to vote from October 24th through November 1st under the state’s early voting law.  In order to find out where to vote, go to the State Board of Elections at https://voterlookup.elections.ny.gov/ or check with your local county board of elections.

There are a lot of safeguards in place to make sure that a voter’s ballot is legitimate.  Under New York State law, for example, the name on every absentee ballot must be checked against the board of elections poll books, which must be signed by the voter each year.  Each book typically has several signatures from past election days for comparison. 

The important thing is to have a voting plan in place.  Voting for our representatives is the bedrock of our democracy.  Efforts to sow doubt, mislead, or lie about the process undermine public confidence and damage our democracy.  Don’t let the liars win; cast your ballot – either through the mail or in person.  Let’s make sure that in the race for democracy, truth wins.

Upstate New York’s Utility Consumers May Take a Hit

Posted by NYPIRG on October 5, 2020 at 1:24 pm

Utility giant National Grid has proposed a rate hike of 4 percent more for electric and 6 percent more for natural gas service that, if approved, would start next July.  Those proposals would boost the utilities revenues by $100 million for electric delivery and $42 million for natural gas delivery.  The plan has been the subject of a series of public hearings organized by the New York State Public Service Commission and has generated widespread concern.

And the plan has generated significant opposition.  Consumer and environmental groups have voiced opposition arguing that a pandemic is no time to raise utility rates, and that National Grid needs to do more to address climate change.

The consumer argument was bolstered by an analysis released by U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer.  Schumer’s office argued that National Grid’s upstate electric prices are already among the highest in the nation.  Schumer pointed to federal data showing that residential electricity rates in northern New York were 37 percent higher than the national average.  Commercial rates were 60 percent higher.  Schumer says National Grid is calling for the rate hike at the same time the company is reporting a 25 percent increase in pre-tax profits.

Schumer argued that the proposed hike comes on the heels of a $119 million rate increase that went into effect earlier this year – an increase that National Grid has deemed “inadequate.”

The size of the hike, particularly during a pandemic, could devastate lower income consumers.  In National Grid’s service area, as of August 2020, over 235,000 New York households served by the company were more than 60 days behind on their utility bills.  Many of these New Yorkers would have been at risk of shut off now, but are protected by a state shut off moratorium law. 

Moreover, environmental groups have lined up against the plan, as well.  Their critique focuses on the fact that the increase would help fund National Grid’s plans for more natural gas pipelines, which they view as the wrong approach in the era of climate change. 

They have a point.

The planet is rapidly heating up and that is primarily the result of the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas.  And the heating planet is causing catastrophic impacts.  For example, the ongoing wildfires in California have burned more than four million acres in 2020, over twice the previous record for any year and an area larger than Connecticut.

California has suffered five of its six largest wildfires in history this year as heat waves and dry-lightning hits coincided with drier conditions that climate scientists blame on global warming.

The world must move away from relying on power generated by fossil fuels.  No one is arguing that people should freeze in their homes or stop driving cars, but it is crystal clear that the world must stop investments in the expanded use of fossil fuels.  We can’t build out fossil fuel infrastructure and fight climate change at the same time.

Instead of proposing rate hikes that would support gas pipelines with a useful life well beyond New York’s 2050 goal of eliminating its greenhouse gas emissions,  National Grid should be focusing on efficiency measures and 21st century infrastructure, such as renewable wind, solar and geothermal energy; distributed resources and energy storage; and empowering consumers to further policy goals. 

When it comes to rate increases, this is not the time to further burden upstate residents with higher bills.  New York has been at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.  In addition to the once-in-a-century deaths and illnesses, the state’s economy has taken a staggering hit.  The economic dislocation has resulted in business failures, business interruptions and many New Yorkers furloughed or newly jobless.  The result is that many New Yorkers cannot pay their bills – even when it comes to essential services like heat and electric.

The Public Service Commission must reject the plan and instead have the company focus on maximizing low-income consumer protection and ensure that National Grid’s investments are focused on protecting the environment, not adding to the global warming catastrophe.

The Digital Divide Undermines Democracy

Posted by NYPIRG on September 28, 2020 at 7:55 am

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus America’s economic and racial disparities.  A stark example is in health care delivery: when it comes to access as well as quality, racial, gender, and geographic differences are enormous and growing.

Another widening disparity exposed by the pandemic is when it comes to access to technology.  On one side are the technological “haves,” including well off and young New Yorkers; on the other side are the technological “have nots,” poor, lower income and older New Yorkers.

Across the nation, the pandemic has shifted the workplace from offices to homes.  Too often left in the dust have been the essential workers or those who do not have the resources to afford digital access.  These workers may face greater health risks and job insecurity because they cannot work from home.

Over time the longstanding debate over the digital divide has tended to focus on education and with good reason.

Simply put, students cannot participate in remote learning if they do not have access to a computer and a reliable Internet connection.  What had been an advantage for students has become a necessity.  What are those students (and their parents) to do now? 

Persistent digital divides exist in communities – urban, suburban, and rural – across New York; in fact, more than one quarter of students in New York lack access to the Internet and/or appropriate devices to participate in remote online education.  One estimate is that over half a million New York students do not have Internet access at home. 

In New York there is a particularly distinct divide between urban and rural areas.  The more rural counties in New York tend to have less access to high-speed Internet service than do the more urban counties.  

New York is nowhere near the bottom of the nation, in fact the state ranked number two for Internet connectivity.  In New York, Internet infrastructure is not the biggest problem, cost is: 97% of New Yorkers have access to wired Internet, but only 70% of the state has access that costs $60 or less a month. 

There are a number of reasons for the digital divide.  Cable companies often do not serve remote rural areas and even some urban locales because it is too costly to run cables to areas with few customers.  Socioeconomic differences between people of different races, incomes and education also are reflected in access to the Internet.

Households that lack any Internet access are most prevalent in neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty.  In New York City, for example, Internet disparities track closely to socioeconomic factors like poverty.  Seniors are much more likely to be without a broadband Internet connection compared to the general population.  

While the public and policymakers are right to focus on the educational disparities the digital divide exacerbates, there is a cost to democracy, too.

Right now, virtually all state policymaking is done over the Internet.  State legislators participate in hearings and cast votes online.  Many public officials have closed their district offices.  Agency public hearings also are conducted over Internet platforms.  Those without Internet access or the necessary technology to participate in governmental proceedings are essentially locked out – of their own democracy.  And those least likely to have digital access are precisely those who need to participate in governmental decisions since they are most likely to be in need.

More than ever the ability to get help from the government is facilitated – if not dependent – on Internet access.  When the pandemic hit New York with full force, New Yorkers seeking unemployment benefits were directed to state websites.  With local state offices closed and telephone lines clogged, an Internet connection was a lifeline.  During this time much of healthcare and mental healthcare migrated online, as well.  And sadly, the Internet became the new way some said goodbye to loved ones through virtual funerals.

Of course, geographic limits existed prior to the pandemic.  But it was possible for everyone to participate.  Now there is another obstacle to that participation – an obstacle due to the digital divide. 

We did not need a pandemic to recognize that people on the wrong side of the digital divide are at a great disadvantage.  But now it is all too clear that without access to these technologies, too many fare ailing to receive the essential opportunities needed to participate in democracy.  In 2020, Internet access is like getting electricity to your home in the 1930s: It’s essential.