Archive for August 2019

The State Finally Starts the Process to Establish a Public Campaign Financing System

Posted by NYPIRG on August 26, 2019 at 10:59 am

There is a clear need for a new campaign financing system.  Under New York State’s current campaign financing system, a small number of big contributors dominate the system and have an outsized influence over policymaking.  As a result, seemingly endless campaign finance “pay-to-play” controversies and scandals have occurred over the decades.  Reformers, academics, blue-ribbon commissions, and others have consistently advanced plans that would shift that paradigm to a system to fund runs for state government offices that relies on a large number of small contributors, thus reducing the corruption risk and engaging more voters.

Finally, after decades of reports and hand wringing, as part of the budget earlier this year Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature agreed to create the commission to work out the final details to institute a voluntary system of public financing in New York.

Last week, nearly five months after it was established in law, that state commission held its first meeting.  The commission is charged with creating this new system by December first of this year, about three months from now.

Why did it take so long to get moving?  The governor and the legislative leaders took months to make their legally required appointments.  Months of foot-dragging by the leaders has left the commission will precious little time to meet the deadline of December 1st.

Yet, things are never as they seem in Albany.  Almost immediately, the governor and others have argued that an additional mandate of the commission is to determine whether “fusion” voting would continue to be allowed as well.

“Fusion” voting is a system in which candidates for elective office can run on multiple political party lines and then aggregate total of votes of these lines to determine the total number of votes for a particular candidate.  Thus, for example, a candidate running on the Republican and Conservative party lines would be allowed to total the number of votes – or “fuse” them – in order to determine if they won an election.   In the vast majority of states, this practice is not allowed; in those states each party line is considered a separate vote and thus the total votes are not aggregated. 

New York is among the small number of states in which “fusion” is allowed and there has been a decades-long debate over whether this is a good idea. 

But there is nothing in the law creating the public financing commission that says they must consider fusion voting.  The word “fusion” is nowhere to be found. 

In fact, in order to ensure that it was clear that the commission’s mandate was to be narrowly focused on the issue of creating a system of public financing, no more and no less, there was a discussion on the state Senate floor while the Senators were voting on the plan to establish the commission.  During that discussion, the chair of the Senate Elections Committee unequivocally stated that the charge of the commission was limited to the specific changes needed to establish public financing – nothing more.

So why are there reports inaccurately stating that the commission must consider “fusion” voting?  It’s an effort by those wishing to end fusion voting to create enough “buzz” around the issue that their interests become a reality.  And so far, it’s working.

Media reports on the first meeting of the commission stated that it must address fusion voting even though there is no such mandate in the law and there was no debate on the issue during the group’s first meeting.

In politics, advocates can create a public perspective so strong that it can become a reality, as long as they stick with it and push their views over and over.  And as long as prominent leaders, in this case the governor, embrace that view, they can succeed.

Whether fusion voting is a good idea should be left for another day.  The commission has only three months to put together a plan for public financing – a mandate clearly articulated in state law.  Dithering over unrelated issues will only cause a major distraction of the important work at hand.

New Yorkers should expect these commissioners to do their job and not get pushed and pulled by invisible demands.  They must focus on a mountain of important decisions – staffing, setting rules for decision-making, holding public hearings, consulting with experts, and developing a voluntary system of public financing that will have the force of law by this December.

The commission has a lot to do and precious little time to do it.  The time crunch is not their fault, that failure lies with the governor and the legislative leaders.  However, New Yorkers must hope that the commission does not compound the leaders’ error by focusing valuable time on issues outside the scope of their mandate.

Decisions Loom in Advance of New York’s Presidential Primary

Posted by NYPIRG on August 19, 2019 at 11:39 am

New York is notorious when it comes to a cornerstone of its democracy: voting.  For decades, voter turnout rates have been abysmal, typically ranking at, or near, the bottom in the nation.  An important reason for New York’s pathetic voter participation rates has been its confusing and cumbersome registration system.

New York has one of the nation’s earliest deadlines for being able to register in advance of an election: 25 days prior to Election Day.  And in a peculiar twist, the state’s registration deadline rules dramatically impact voter participation in Presidential primaries.

The Democratic and possible Republican Presidential primaries in New York will be in April 2020.    Under current New York law, the last day voters can change their party enrollment for the 2020 Presidential and state primaries is Friday, October 11, 2019.  

Voters who seek changes of political party enrollment after that date will discover the change won’t be effective until after the November 2020 elections, not in time to be able to vote in the upcoming Presidential Primaries themselves.  For example, voters who wished to change their party enrollment to vote in the 2016 New York Presidential Primary, would have had to apply for a change of enrollment by October 2015, a full 193 days before the Presidential Primary.  New York’s rules are widely considered to be the longest time period in the nation.

But that may soon change.

The first indication came last Spring, when the New York State Democratic Party voted unanimously to change the party enrollment date for the 2020 presidential primary, potentially allowing many more non-Democrats to register into the party much closer to election time.

The state party supported shifting the party switch deadline to 60 days before the primary and allowing voters unaffiliated with a party—the many so-called “independents” who make up a significant portion of the voting rolls—to register as Democrats before the April 28th, 2020 primary.

However, officials at the State Board of Elections argued that such a change cannot occur without corresponding changes in law – a view at odds with the State Democrats.

Thus, last session the Legislature acted.  Both houses approved legislation that would create a February 14th deadline for previously registered voters to change their party enrollment.  This move would allow a voter to switch parties before or on that date. If the change is filed after February 14th, then it won’t take effect until seven days after the state primary election in June and after the Presidential primary. 

In the past, lawmakers have been leery of passing any laws that could threaten incumbents: a raft of new primary voters presents an element of unpredictability for those holding office.  Some elected officials and third parties also were concerned about “party raiding,” the practice of voters ideologically unaligned with a particular political party simply enrolling to make mischief in a primary. 

Yet, New York’s practice has created the longest wait time in the nation and the approved legislation would make a significant change.

As mentioned earlier, New York’s election calendar has been criticized, especially before and after the 2016 presidential primary.  Many unaffiliated voters didn’t learn until days or weeks before the primary election that the deadline to change their enrollment had passed months before.  The approved legislation changes that from a 190-plus day period to roughly 70-plus days for the Presidential primaries.  

With the state Legislature’s approval, the bill will eventually be sent to the governor’s office for approval.  New Yorkers should hope that the governor acts to reduce New York’s longest-in-the-nation barrier to participation by interested voters.

If the governor vetoes the legislation – or if it doesn’t make it to his desk soon – voters and would-be voters should stick to the existing elections timetable and register in the party whose primary they want to vote in no later than October 11, 2019.  In this way, you can be sure to have your voice heard in the elections of 2020.

Will Albany Strengthen Independent Oversight of Government Contracting?

Posted by NYPIRG on August 12, 2019 at 11:03 am

Over the last two years, top aides to Governor Cuomo, a political ally, and big campaign contributors were convicted of bid-rigging and other offenses stemming from state contracts tied to New York State’s economic development projects.  While the governor was never accused of wrongdoing, it was clear that better oversight was needed in the way state contracts are awarded.

Thus, reformers cheered when in this year’s State of the State address, the governor surprisingly announced that he had an agreement with State Comptroller DiNapoli to implement a new process to strengthen oversight of the government’s contact award process.

The governor stated back in January, “Comptroller DiNapoli and I have agreed on a new process to implement procurement reforms.  I want to publicly thank, the Comptroller for his good work and his cooperation.”

The agreement hinged on legislation.  With the legislative session having come and gone by late June, that legislation was never approved.

When the governor was asked last week about the lack of action, he stated that an agreement was, in fact, reached – not legislatively, but administratively.  The Comptroller’s office had a different view, “The details of our agreement were included in the budget proposals of the Senate and the Assembly but did not make it into the final budget and was not resolved before the end of session.”

Why does this matter? 

Under the state Constitution, New Yorkers elect a state Comptroller.  While many states do not have Comptrollers to oversee governmental finances, of those that do, voters in only nine directly elect them.  In other states they are either appointed by the governor or the Legislature.  The rationale for this unusual arrangement is that New Yorkers decided that they needed to have an independent watchdog monitoring the state’s finances. 

In 2011, the governor argued that he needed fewer restrictions on his economic development efforts and lawmakers backed his plan to rein in the Comptroller’s oversight – limitations that included diluting oversight of economic development efforts.

Of course, there is no way to know for sure if that decision led to the corruption scandals that hit the Administration, but it’s fair to say that it might have made the now-disgraced former aides to the governor a bit more cautious had they known that the Comptroller was watching.

At the heart of the scandals were two non-profit entities set up by state government to act on its behalf and that were central to advancing programs around the governor’s so-called “Buffalo Billion” economic development plan. 

The corruption cases brought by the U.S. Attorney that led to the convictions of the governor’s top aides as well as the leader of New York’s hi-tech economic development efforts highlighted that the secrecy surrounding their deal making contributed mightily to a culture in which the risk of corruption grew. 

And that risk led to the misuse of taxpayers’ dollars through sweetheart deal-making between government officials and lobbyists, “pay-to-play” campaign practices that hinged on big campaign contributions from those receiving lucrative government contracts, and a web of shadowy corporate entities created by the government through which billions of taxpayer dollars were spent outside of the normal transparency measures required of traditional government entities.

Waste, fraud and abuse not only waste tax dollars, they erode the public’s confidence in its government.  The state Constitution established a Comptroller’s office to be an independent bean counter and help bolster public confidence in governmental finances. 

It’s clear that those powers should now be restored and strengthened.

The governor was correct in his State of the State address that steps should be taken to enhance the powers of the Comptroller.  But actions speak louder than words.  The governor must make good on his pledge.

A Rising Addiction Threat That Targets Kids

Posted by NYPIRG on August 5, 2019 at 3:31 pm

We all know the terrible statistics about smoking.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans die each year due to tobacco use.  It is the leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women.  Tobacco use is also addicting.  It’s an unusual product, that when used as directed, addicts and kills.

The problem for the tobacco industry is getting people hooked.  Starting to smoke or chew tobacco is not fun; it tastes awful, it hurts your throat and makes you cough.  The industry knows this and glamorized tobacco use through such images as the Marlboro Man to lure people into the habit.

We know that the vast majority of tobacco users start before the age of 18.  Nearly 90 percent of all tobacco users start before the age of 18 with the average age of initiation being 14.

How does the industry get children to not only try tobacco products, but to actually be able to tolerate those initial experiences?  They do it by offering tobacco products with candy and other sweet flavors.  The evidence of the tobacco industry’s strategies was so compelling that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of candy-flavored cigarettes, although continues to allow it for small cigars, known as cigarillos, and pipe tobacco.

Yet, smart public health strategies like raising the price of tobacco products through higher levels of taxation, restricting the use of tobacco products in public and work places, as well as funding aggressive public health marketing, particularly to kids, has drastically reduced the rate of tobacco use in the United States.  The rate of tobacco use among teens has dropped dramatically as well.

And without teens taking up this deadly addiction, the tobacco industry has seen the writing on the wall.  Without youthful “replacement smokers,” the tobacco industry will eventually die off.

So they have embraced a new product, while employing the same tactics.

The new products are electronic cigarettes, or “e-cigarettes.”  E-cigs are a new technology in which the user does not inhale smoke, but the vapor from an electronic device.  E-cigarettes are sleek, high tech and easy to hide. They look like USB flash drives and can be charged in the USB port of a computer.  They don’t look anything like a traditional tobacco product.  And they’re small enough to fit in a closed hand.

E-cigarettes deliver nicotine in the same way as cigarettes do, but without all of the smoke.  They also pack quite a punch; e-cigarettes deliver a much higher dose of nicotine than traditional burned cigarettes.

The tobacco industry has seen the potential; they have invested billions of dollars in the e-cigarette industry.

E-cigarette companies are using a tactic used for decades by the tobacco industry: heavy advertising and offering “starter” products with sweet tastes.  

As a result, e-cigarettes have flooded the market in recent years, contributing to skyrocketing rates of youth tobacco product use.  Vaping among high school students increased nationally nearly 80 percent from 2017 to 2018, with 1 in 5 high schoolers using these products. 

How did a generation become hooked on e-cigarettes so quickly? A major factor has been flavored products. With flavors like mango, vanilla, and mint, e-cigarette makers have created a line of products with massive appeal to teens.  A Surgeon General’s report cited a study that found 81.5 percent of current youth e-cigarette users said they use the products because “they come in flavors that I like.” 

Because these candy-like flavors mask the nasty taste, kids often don’t realize that they’re using nicotine, or understand how dangerous it is. The Surgeon General’s office recently found that over 60 percent of high schoolers believe occasional use of e-cigarettes causes little harm – a claim that the medical community has refuted time and again – and another survey found that more than 60 percent of young adult users didn’t know the product always contains nicotine.  In fact, one e-cig pod can contain as much nicotine as an entire pack of twenty cigarettes. 

For years, tobacco use among young people saw a steady decline.  However, that progress is now at risk due to the rapid rise of e-cigarettes.  As the U.S. Surgeon General has commented, “The recent surge in e-cigarette use among youth, which has been fueled by new types of e-cigarettes that have recently entered the market, is a cause for great concern. We must take action now to protect the health of our nation’s young people.”

New York lawmakers can show the nation how to take action by starting to ban the use of candy-flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes products.  We must do what we can to prevent children from getting hooked on this lethal nicotine addiction.