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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.

New York’s Voting Deadline Looms, but Its System Fails

Posted by NYPIRG on October 7, 2019 at 8:48 am
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This week is the deadline to register for those who wish to vote in the 2019 election in New York State.  That’s right, a full 25 days before the election is the deadline to register.  In many cases, busy New Yorkers may not be paying attention to the candidates until Election Day gets closer.  For those would-be New York voters, they will be shut out.

Why a 25-day deadline?  Good question.  Voting is a constitutional right, not a privilege.  Yet New York is notorious for making it difficult to vote.   And the impact is clear:  New York State had a Voting Eligible Population (VEP) of nearly 13.8 million in 2018.  VEP is the most reasonable measure of participation and includes citizens over 18 who are not incarcerated for a felony.  However, 12.7 million New Yorkers were listed by the New York State Board of Elections as either active or inactive voters for the same time period.  That means over one million eligible citizens were not registered to vote.  While the comparison of these two datasets is imperfect, it underscores that many New Yorkers who are eligible, are simply not registered to vote.

Simply put, New York’s voter registration and voter participation rates are anemic.  In the 2018 general election, a stunningly low percentage of registered New Yorkers – an estimated 45.2 percent – voted.  A review of the U.S. Elections Project analysis showed New York to be among the worst in the nation in terms of eligible voter turnout.  

When New York is near – or at – the back of the nation in voting, why hasn’t the state acted to improve things instead of making them worse?  One reason is that partisan differences on the issue have blocked needed reforms.  Another reason is that incumbents get elected by those who do vote – incumbents may fear that reforms that bring in new voters may put them at risk.

After years of failing to act, Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature this year began to attack some of the long-festering problems in New York’s system of elections.

Among the changes, lawmakers agreed on legislation to allow for early voting and to allow 16 and 17 year olds to register to vote prior to their 18th birthday.  They also agreed to the first passage of a constitutional amendment that – if approved a second time and then approved by the voters in a referendum – would allow voters to register and vote on Election Day.  Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia offer “same-day registration” so any qualified resident of the state can go to register to vote and cast a ballot all on the same day. 

Two weeks ago, the governor approved legislation that took another step toward modernizing New York’s elections.  New York has one of the nation’s earliest deadlines for being able to register in advance of an election.  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.    Until recently, the last day voters could change their party enrollment for the 2020 Presidential and state primaries was Friday, October 11, 2019, making New York the longest wait time in the nation.

Under the legislation approved by the governor, New Yorkers will have until February 14, 2020 to decide if they wish to change political parties in order to vote in April’s Presidential primary.

For years, 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.  Still a long time to wait, but far better than the current situation.

Of course, it’s always best to register in advance of the deadline for this November’s election – October 11, 2019.  In this way, you can be sure to have your voice heard in the elections of 2019 and 2020.