Archive for December 2019

News “Deserts” Threaten Democracy

Posted by NYPIRG on December 30, 2019 at 8:57 am
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As the decade comes to an end, one disturbing trend has been the accelerating loss of local newspapers and other media outlets.  Over the last 15 years, local newspapers across the U.S. have lost more than $35 billion in advertising revenue and shed half of their staff, and at least 2,000 news outlets have closed during that time.

And many of those who have survived barely cling to life.

2019 alone was an extremely tough year for older news sources, like newspapers, magazines, television and radio.  Revenue for television was down nearly 4% this year, and for print it was down nearly 20%.

The human toll has been staggering:  Some have estimated that nearly 8,000 people were laid off or lost their jobs in U.S. media in 2019.

The problem has become so bad that areas without local media outlets are now considered “news deserts.”  What is a “news desert”?  It is a term without a universally agreed-upon definition.  Generally speaking, a news desert is a place with no local news outlets at all.  Some define it a bit more loosely, stating that news deserts are “places where it is difficult to access daily, local news and information” or even “a community overlooked, if not entirely ignored, by the media.”

While the definition is vague, the impact is clear:  Inadequate local media coverage can result in communities that are more willing to rely on ideological messengers and a community where government is less accountable to the public it is supposed to serve.

In our representative democracy, an informed electorate is fundamentally important to ensuring that the system works.  Many Americans have unprecedented access to information, but with lives busier than ever, it’s very hard for citizens to fill the reporting and analysis void provided by local reporting.

If the “watchdogging” that has historically been done by local media evaporates and there isn’t anybody watching the local town or city council meetings and reporting on them, there’s potential for abuse or fraud.  There’s a growing body of compelling research that has found that as local news coverage declines, government corruption and government costs increase.

Moreover, less local coverage can dampen public interest in local elections.   Local news drives civic engagement.  And when it comes time to pick our representatives, voters living in “news deserts” are less likely to know who is running and how they stand on issues.  Thus, they are less likely to participate.  

Of course, the situation is not uniformly bad.  Excellent investigative journalism continues, but for those in the “news deserts” – and for those soon to be in them – the situation is very bad.

So, what should be done?  One idea is to consider whether local media should reorganize itself as charitable non-profit corporations – such as the one you are listening to now.

It isn’t a far-fetched idea.  As taxpayers we currently support commercial media through postal subsidies, through tax breaks and through government ads.  Why not encourage them to become nonprofits?

It would help insulate them from the whims of owners and reduce exposure to taxes.  And, after all, the “mission” of local media is actually public service.

Like everything else, it’s easier said than done.  In order to become a nonprofit, a local media outlet would have to reorganize its governance structure and reclassify how it’s registered with the state.  It would also need to meet the IRS’s strict requirements for tax-exempt nonprofit status.  In order to maintain nonprofit status, an organization must be primarily supported by the public, through mechanisms such as foundation grants or individual donations.  Typically, newspapers rely on selling ads and subscriptions, which would have to change.

There are also strict limitations against nonprofits engaging in political activity.  As a result, these nonprofit news organizations are forbidden from endorsing or opposing candidates for office and there are limitations on how they can support or oppose legislation.  That means the newspapers’ editorial pages wouldn’t be able to endorse candidates, and they would likely face a problem in endorsing ballot measures or legislation.

We’re well into a reordering of how some of our basic institutions have operated for the past century.  The decimation of news gathering and reporting outlets in communities across the nation imperils democracy be reducing local government accountability and the amount of information voters receive about candidates.  That’s something that should concern us all and is worthy of putting near the top of the issues we collectively need to address in the decade to come.

The Climate Crisis Worsens and Big Oil Dodges Legal Accountability

Posted by NYPIRG on December 16, 2019 at 9:03 am
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The world’s leaders met in Madrid to discuss new steps to combat the threat posed by global warming.  The Conference was convened by the United Nations two weeks ago and finished its work with far too little progress toward curbing a rapidly heating planet.  The Conference wrapped up with a modest agreement, too weak to have any effect on the warming of the planet – a warming that is heating up at a pace that exceeds even the direst predictions from a few years ago.

And the data is showing that the world may be past the tipping point – the point at which the damage to the environment and the public’s health may be catastrophic.  For example, a report by the United Nations found that by 2030, global emissions — which are currently still rising — would have to be 25 percent lower than last year in order to keep the rise in the global temperature less than 2˚C (3.6˚F) and 55 percent less than last year in order to keep the global warming to less than 1.5°C (2.7˚F).

Why should the world be keeping the heat to those levels?  According to the International Panel on Climate Change (the world’s experts), going from 2.7˚F of global warming to 3.6˚F could mean:

  • 1.7 billion more people will experience severe heatwaves at least once every five years.
  • Seas will rise – on average – another 4 inches.
  • Up to several hundred million more people will become exposed to climate-related risks and poverty.
  • The coral reefs that support marine environments around the world could decline as much as 99 percent.
  • Global fishery catches could face massive declines.

Going above 2.7˚F of warming puts millions more at risk of potentially life-threatening heatwaves and poverty. It all but wipes out coral reefs that entire ecosystems rely on. Seas will flood even more of the world’s cities.

Yet, not enough is being done to keep the lid on heating.  Instead, the planet is heating up at a rate that may threaten our existence.

As depressing as the projections are, what is most shocking is that we are doing it to ourselves.  Most notably, scientists at huge oil companies like Exxon knew since the 1970s that global warming was an increasing existential threat – unless actions were taken.  But instead of alerting the public and policymakers to the growing danger, the industry focused on undermining the science and using its finances to bamboozle the public and purchase political leaders as its supporters.

And they succeeded.

We live in a country whose political leaders don’t believe the science.  They are far more interested in fattening the profit margins of the oil, gas and coal industries.  And the nation’s lack of leadership is also contributing mightily to the global failures to collectively act.

The fossil fuel’s industry actions may have pushed the earth – and civilization – to the breaking point.  What consequences should they face?

Last week, the effort by the New York State Attorney General to hold oil companies legally accountable for their actions was blocked.  A judge ruled in favor of ExxonMobil Corp. in a case that accused the company of misleading investors about climate-change regulations.

New York state’s attorney general launched an investigation into Exxon in 2015 and then sued the company last year, claiming it used two sets of numbers when calculating the cost of climate change regulations on its operations. This approach, according to the Attorney General, misled investors and made the company’s investment decisions appear more profitable or less costly than they otherwise would have.

The court ruled against the Attorney General, however, stating that New York “failed to prove that ExxonMobil made any material misstatements or omissions about its practices and procedures that misled any reasonable investor.”

Whether New York chooses to challenge the ruling is unclear, but it shouldn’t be the last effort to hold the industry accountable.  The Attorney General’s effort deserved public support.  But its legal loss shouldn’t mean that the industry should not be held to account for its efforts to undermine the science and corrupt the nation’s politics.

Like any polluter, they should pay for the mess that they have created.  And policymakers worldwide should use the industry’s resources to pull back from the climate abyss.

State Budget Deficit Looms; Will College Financial Aid Programs Take a Hit?

Posted by NYPIRG on December 9, 2019 at 8:31 am
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Reports out of New York’s Capitol paint a worsening picture of the state’s finances.  It’s been reported that the state is facing an upcoming budget deficit in excess of $6 billion.  Half of the deficit is attributed to costs relating to the state Medicaid program – the health insurance coverage for the poor and disabled.

The Assembly Speaker has raised the idea of closing the deficit by raising revenues instead of cutting public programs.  Although more muted, the response from the governor’s office has been cool to the idea of raising taxes.

If history is any guide, lawmakers will be reluctant to enact cuts to popular programs in an election year.  The biggest parts of the state budget – K-12 education and health care – are fiercely protected by interest groups looking to maintain funding.

The governor’s office has instructed agencies to prepare their budgets with no expectation of increased state support beyond – perhaps – offsetting inflation.  Altogether it looks like the debate over how to close the budget deficit will dominate the 2020 legislative session that begins in early January.

And looking back over the record of past budget fights, the programs most likely to face the biggest funding cuts are those that do not have politically powerful institutional supports.  These are the programs that are designed to benefit smaller groups of individuals, usually without the capacity to make campaign contributions or hire hotwired lobbyists to represent them.

One such program is the state’s efforts to aid needy college students.  The state offers an impressive Tuition Assistance Program, which offsets a billion dollars in tuition costs for students in both the public and independent college sectors.

But for students and their families, college costs go beyond tuition alone: there are textbook costs, housing, transportation, food, etc.  In an effort to offset these costs and to provide other assistance to students in need, the state offers “opportunity programs.”  Opportunity programs are designed for educationally and economically disadvantaged students—in general, students who have come from low-income communities and often rank low on traditional measures of collegiate admissions standards, such SAT scores, high school GPA, and class standing.  

New York State has several opportunity programs in place to help students at both public and independent colleges and universities overcome the financial and academic obstacles of completing their education: Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK), Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), College Discovery (CD), and Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP).  These programs take a comprehensive approach to college access and affordability by building in academic counseling, mentoring, and often providing waivers for related costs such as transit, textbooks, and childcare. 

These programs have had a long track record of success.  For example, the State University of New York’s EOP provides access, academic support, and supplemental financial assistance to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of them the first in their families to attend college.  

According to SUNY, graduation and retention rates of Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) students compare favorably to that of the general student population at comparable schools.  First year retention, where a student re-enrolls for a second year, for SUNY four-year senior college EOP students is 91% percent, whereas first year retention rates for the general student body at SUNY senior colleges is approximately 84%.  The six-year graduation rate for EOP students is 73%, whereas the SUNY-wide senior college rate is 68%.

Helping college students succeed is in the state’s interest.  Investment in education pays off:  For every $1 spent on education, the economy reaps $8 in benefits.  And college-educated workers earn more than their high-school educated peers by an average of $17,500 per year.

So, what’s the problem?  Despite their track record of success, these programs benefit a relatively small number of students and those individuals and their families lack political clout.  Usually, the governor cuts funding for these programs and the Legislature then restores them to the previous year’s levels.  But status-quo restorations often mean that additional needy students cannot obtain benefits and the impact of inflation erodes the funding levels even for those who do obtain help.

With New York facing a budget deficit, state officials will be looking for cuts in programs that do not result in a widespread public uproar.  Let’s hope that this year the governor examines the success of these programs and decides that despite the pressures, he’ll keep the state investing in its future and help those college students who need the most help.

New York’s Public Financing Commission Wraps up Its Work, but Fails to Deliver Real Reform

Posted by NYPIRG on December 2, 2019 at 8:53 am
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New York looks like it will have some form of a voluntary system for publicly financing state government elections. Unfortunately, far too much of the program is unnecessarily complicated and untested.  In addition, while the commission lowers New York State’s ridiculously high campaign contribution limits, it still allows donations far in excess of those allowed for runs for federal office, including the President.  Lastly, the commission has advanced new schemes to make it harder for minor political parties to operate.

Before getting into the details, let’s recap how we got here.  The commission was originally established as part of the state budget deal that came together in late March.  The law required the commission to finish its work by December 1st, just eight months later.  At that time, Governor Cuomo promised that the commission’s work would result in a program that was a model for the nation.

However, when it came to setting up the commission, the governor and the state legislative leaders dragged their feet.  The governor and the Legislature finally appointed commissioners in early July, allowing three months to be frittered away.  When the appointments were made, the governor inserted the head of the state Democratic Party into the commission, an unusual move that put the head of one political party involved in developing the campaign rules for all other parties – an obvious conflict of interest.

With only three months to go, the commission held its first meeting.  At that meeting, the head of the Democratic Party pushed hard for the commission to change the rules for how minor political parties operated instead of conducting a focused public debate on creating a system of public financing of campaigns for state elective office.

At a series of public forums, experts, academics and advocates testified that the commission should focus its efforts on adapting the well regarded New York City public financing system for all state races.  The City’s program has existed for over three decades and is widely viewed as a model for the nation. 

But the commission ignored that advice and instead advanced an untested, complicated program that is dramatically different from the road-tested City system.

It seemed like the governor, the legislative leaders, and at least some of the commission, were hell-bent on undermining their own work.

So what did they come up with?

The commission established a system of public financing, but different from what advocates recommended.  The New York City system allows contributions up to $250 to be matched by public funding at a ratio of $8 to $1.  So a $100 donation, for example, turns into a $900 contribution. 

Instead, the commission approved a plan that has a complicated sliding scale matching system.  For contributions up to $50, there will be a $12 to $1 match; for the next $100 a $9 to $1 match; and for the next $100, an $8 to $1 match.  Matches are only allowed for contributions up to $250 from donors living in the district.  Could be a good idea, but untested and extremely complex to administer and enforce.

The commission lowers campaign contribution limits a lot, but they are still high.  For example, under current law, a donor can make a contribution to governor of up to $69,700, a shockingly high number.  Under the commission plan, that number drops to $18,000.  But the national average for gubernatorial candidates is up to $7,000 and no one can contribute more than $6,000 for candidates for President.  New York City limits contributions for Mayor to no more than $2,000 for candidates running in the public financing program.  $18,000 campaign contributions for statewide office are still way too high.

Under the commission’s plan the New York State Board of Elections will administer the program, although with some tweaks.  The State Board of Elections is a political creature – run by the two major political parties – and has been viewed as ineffective. 

And, the commission added one more unnecessary measure by advancing new obstacles for minor political parties to effectively participate in New York elections. 

Instead of building on a successful New York City program, the commission instead offers an untested and incredibly complicated public financing scheme, allows high campaign contribution limits, continues to rely on a politically-driven entity for administration and enforcement, and establishes new obstacles to minor party participation.  It’s clear that the commission failed to do its job.

Under the law, the governor and state lawmakers have until December 22nd to fix the commission’s work.  They must fix it so that New York State has a program that is truly a model for the nation.