Archive for September 2020

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.

New York’s Finances Are on the Precipice

Posted by NYPIRG on September 21, 2020 at 7:08 am

With Congress stalled on a bailout package, New York’s financial situation is becoming increasingly dire.  As the feds debate, in the meantime, the state is withholding support for local governments and non-profits that provide services.  That “withholding” can turn into cuts as local governments cut back on assistance.

First, some background.  Due to the pandemic, New York State is projected to bring in almost $15 billion less than it planned to spend.  The governor estimates that the state budget deficit over the next four years will exceed $60 billion.  The financial pain includes the yawning budget gaps of local governments and other public entities.  According to the governor, the state needs some $50 billion from the federal government to cure the state’s budget woes and provide relief to the MTA, Port Authority, and other agencies.

So far, the Cuomo Administration has “withheld” about $1.9 billion in payments to localities, school districts and nonprofits.  The Administration has been clear that the money being “withheld” could become permanent cuts if there is no additional federal aid.

That policy of “withholding” funds is part of a plan to drastically reduce state spending unless the federal government provides help.

With the opening of the school year, the Cuomo Administration was reportedly considering “withholding” a portion of its $3 billion payment to schools in September.  But before the Administration could act, the teachers union challenged that possibility in court.

That legal challenge was immediately followed by the governor’s office announcing it would in fact disburse all the September school aid.

The teachers union contended that the contemplated reduction in state school aid was an illegal cut—that massive cuts to schools undermined the state’s constitutional obligation to guarantee students get a “sound basic education.”

And while the harm to school children was, at least to some extent, averted for now, the larger question remains: How will the state address its budget problems?

While action by the federal government could ease the state’s financial plight, no one expects the federal government to eliminate New York’s—and the rest of the nation’s—budget deficits. 

So far, the Administration has not advanced a comprehensive plan to address its budgetary problems.  They have said that they will do 20% across-the-board cuts to services.  That would be both devastating and unfair.  After all, not all programs are of equal importance.

In terms of raising revenues, the governor has said little other than he is concerned that the wealthy and powerful will leave the state if their taxes go up.

So, if large cuts are devastating and the governor does not wish to ding the wealthy, how does the state balance its books?

Some proposals being floated would raise costs on middle income New Yorkers.  Last week, a plan was advanced that would increase the cost of heating homes and driving cars in New York.  Earlier this year, the governor proposed to keep raising public college tuition.  You get the picture:  If the wealthy threaten to leave, New Yorkers currently struggling to pay their bills will have more costs added to their burden.

Will the rich leave New York if taxes go up?  The governor says the wealthy—many of whom are riding out the pandemic from second homes—told him higher taxes will drive them out of state.  But what does history tell us?

It is true that a small number of very wealthy people already provide considerable revenues.  For example, in 2016, 32 percent of all of New York City’s reported income—more than $100 billion—came from just one percent of the City’s 2.6 million taxpayers.  Roughly 1,500 New Yorkers reported an income of over $10 million annually.  Would they really leave if state tax rates were raised to match those in California or if rates were like New York in the early 1980s (during the last fiscal crisis)?

Last week, New Jersey raised its income taxes beyond those in New York State.  New Jersey’s budget deal boosted taxes on people earning between $1 million and $5 million a year.  The Cuomo Administration noted that if one adds the income taxes charged by New York City (which has its own tax and where most of the wealthy have residences), the effective rate for them is comparable to New Jersey’s new rate.

Of course, that ignores the wealthy that live outside of New York City.  But the question remains, who will pay to make up the state’s recurring budget shortfalls?

If New York State matched New Jersey’s top rate that could bring in more than $5 billion, making up one third of the state’s annual budget shortfall. 

There is no magic bullet.  New Yorkers will take a hit because of the state’s deficits.  The question for the governor though is who will bear the biggest share of that pain—low, moderate, and middle-income New Yorkers, or the wealthy?  On whose backs should the budget be balanced?  The way things are going, New Yorkers may not know until after the November election.

The West Coast Is Burning, Time to Tackle Global Warming

Posted by NYPIRG on September 14, 2020 at 7:36 am

The massive fires on the West Coast are unprecedented in both their size and impact.  An area larger than the size of New Jersey is now burning in California, Oregon, and Washington.  Those fires continue to rage and the death toll continues to rise.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans are poised to flee their homes as the dangers grow. 

At least 24 people have been killed, with dozens more missing and more than 3,000 homes destroyed since the most recent fires began.  In the state of Oregon, half a million people were under evacuation orders as out-of-control fires advanced toward Salem and Portland’s suburbs.

California’s wildfires, driven by extreme blazes in August and September, have already burned more acres than any year on record.  There are now blazes burning in at least ten western states.

The air quality over the West Coast is now the most polluted on the planet and the toxic nature of the nation’s politics further clouds the public discussion around the fires.  Social media platforms are abuzz with false claims that the fires were intentionally set by extremist groups.  In reality, the fires burning across the Pacific Coast are the latest evidence of the harms from a rapidly heating planet, a heat that dries out forests and makes them more susceptible to fires.  Like the huge fires in Australia and the Amazon, these infernos are the most recent examples of an atmosphere choking on greenhouse gases.

In January, vast areas of Australia burned.  The skies turned orange, and smoke blanketed the country’s largest cities.  Entire cities were wiped out.  Now, across the Pacific, it is the skies over San Francisco, Portland and Seattle that have turned red and orange, with smoke blocking out the sun.

There is no question that 2020 will be one of the hottest years on record for the planet; currently it is second.  However, 2020 has been the hottest in certain parts of the world: including a large portion of northern Asia, parts of Europe, China, Mexico, northern South America, as well as the Atlantic, northern Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Those increased temperatures allow fires to burn more intensely and cause forests to dry out and burn more easily.  These intense fires are not started by climate change, but they are exacerbated by the effects of global warming.  Experts believe that fire conditions are now more dangerous than they were in the past, with longer bushfire seasons, drought, drier fuels and soils, and record-breaking heat.

The increased heat is diminishing mountain snow packs, leading to hotter and drier summers.  Eighty percent of California, 95% of Oregon, and all of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico are currently in drought.  Higher temperatures further dry out forest and rangeland soils.  Stronger lightning storms are igniting multiple fires at a time, and we are seeing the consequences today.

And it is not just fires that result from global warming.  Other climate-change impacts are accelerating too, in the form of more intense storms, melting glaciers, rising seas, and more.

The fact that our habitat is being destroyed by global warming has not, unfortunately, led to action by the Trump Administration.  In fact, their actions over the past three and a half years will make things worse. 

The Trump Administration has rolled back numerous environmental programs saying that they were unnecessary and burdensome to the fossil fuel industry and other businesses.  The Administration has weakened Obama-era limits on planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and from cars and trucks.

And the oil industry is fueling that political fire, even though they know it is wrong.  According to reporting by The New York Times, last summer oil and gas-industry groups were lobbying to overturn federal rules on leaks of natural gas, a major contributor to climate change.  Instead of concern about how methane leaks from fossil fuel production significantly contributes to the climate crisis, the oil and gas leaders were focused on the public relations damage to the industry’s reputation.

For years, researchers have warned that drilling for the gas also causes sizable leaks of methane directly into the atmosphere.  Methane can trap more than 80 times more heat in the earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Research has shown that methane emissions from oil and gas production are far larger than previously estimated.

To address the issue, the Obama Administration had proposed new regulations that would have required, among other measures, that oil and gas companies install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from wells, pipelines, and storage facilities.  That’s one of the programs weakened by the Trump Administration.

Dismantling environmental programs, pulling out of the Paris accords, and undermining climate science, have acted as an accelerant to the dangers from global warming. 

Since 2008, the fourth week in September–next week–has been considered “Climate Week”: a focus on the worldwide movement to halt the planet’s headlong rush toward catastrophe.  This year’s events will be more subdued due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.  But even if the events are restrained, the activism needed to respond to the burning of the West Coast cannot subside.

The West Coast fires are the latest unmistakable alarm sounding that the deadly consequences of global warming are real and happening now.  We need a government that responds to the science.  For that to happen, the planet needs to sustain an unprecedented level of citizen activism.  If we collectively fail to respond today, what will be our excuse to future generations?

Two Months to Go and NY Has a New System of Voting

Posted by NYPIRG on September 7, 2020 at 7:00 am

There are fewer than two months until Election Day – an election that will impact the history of this nation and the world.  In New York, due to the disruption created by the pandemic, voters will be casting their ballots in an unfamiliar system, one that has been constantly changing.  A new wrinkle was added last week.

Last week, Governor Cuomo unveiled a new option for voters that will allow them to request an absentee ballot online, instead of through the mail.  It underscored just how much voting in New York has changed since the last Presidential election.

Given those changes, here is an outline of the options for voting in New York.

First, check to make sure that you are registered.  The New York State Board of Elections has a tool to allow voters to verify their polling site and to ensure that they are registered in the first place.  (It’s tricky to find, so the web address is You can also contact your county board of elections to ensure that you are registered. 

If you are not, you can register through the State Board of Elections online or you can call to obtain a voter registration form, 1-800-FOR-VOTE.  If you are not registered to vote, you must do so (either online, through the mail, or dropping your form off at the relevant county board of election) by October 9th.  Don’t put this off as it is a hard deadline.

Once you are registered – or confirmed your registration – you have two choices on how to vote.  You can do so by going in-person to a polling site or you can vote through the mail.

If you prefer to vote in-person, once again you have two choices.  For the first time in a Presidential Election, New York allows voters to vote early.  Under New York law, voters can cast their ballots starting 10 days prior to Election Day.  This year, the early voting period is October 24th through November 1st.  Every county must have at least one early voting polling place.  You can find out where yours is by checking out your local county board of elections.  Of course, voters can still go to the polls on Election Day, Tuesday November 3rd, and cast their ballot like in the old days.  As with all our public activities these days, when going to their polling place to vote, voters should wear a protective facial mask and socially distance.

In addition to allowing early voting, New York now allows eligible New Yorkers to vote by mail.  This option is a bit more complicated.  The New York State Constitution allows only in-person voting unless a voter is ill or is expected to be traveling.  If a voter wants to cast an absentee ballot, they must apply.  Once their application is accepted, they receive a hard-copy ballot through the mail and can then complete the ballot and mail their vote in.

Due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the Governor and the State Legislature made changes to the constitutional provision allowing voters to cast their ballot under the illness exception—even if not actually sick. 

The change allows voters to choose this option if they wish to avoid contact with other people by checking off the “temporary illness or disability” excuse on the absentee ballot application since voting in-person may put the voter at risk of contracting or spreading a communicable disease like COVID-19.  Last week’s order by the Governor, allows voters to request an absentee ballot application online.  If voters wish to receive an absentee application directly, they can request it from their local county board of elections.  More information to do so is available at the State Board of Elections website.  The voter must apply online, postmark, email or fax a completed application or letter request for the General Election absentee ballot no later than 7 days (October 27th) before the election.  Voters may apply in-person up to the day before the election (November 2nd). 

Once a voter’s absentee application is accepted, they can then vote.  The voter fills out the ballot, places it in a security envelope – which also needs the voter’s signature.  The security envelope is then placed in the return envelope.  The voter then mails it (postmarked no later than November 3rd) or brings it to the relevant county board of elections (no later than November 3rd by 9 p.m.) or drops it off at a polling site during either the early voting period or on Election Day (November 3rd by 9 p.m.).

With more options, voters have more opportunities to participate.  We live in a representative democracy – one in which we choose our representatives to decide for us the important issues of the day. Voting is how we make our wishes known.  This year, we should vote as if our lives – and the lives of our families and communities – depended on it, because it does.