Archive for December 2020

2020 Heads for the Exit

Posted by NYPIRG on December 28, 2020 at 12:11 pm

As 2020 grinds toward an end, it is a good time to review the profound changes that have occurred over the past 52 weeks. 

It’s impossible to ignore the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As the virus gathered steam last winter, New York’s elected officials took unprecedented steps to respond.  The Legislature ceded much of its constitutional authority to the governor.  Despite going into the new fiscal year with a multi-billion-dollar deficit, the Legislature essentially approved Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget and gave him additional powers to make changes that the governor deemed necessary to keep the state financially solvent through the remainder of the fiscal year (which ends on March 31st). 

This budgetary power bolstered the governor’s executive authority and has allowed his office to freeze billions of dollars in budget items that had been approved in early April.  In effect, the Administration has made its own budgetary decisions to keep the state’s books balanced.

The Legislature granted the governor additional non-budgetary powers as well.  Under the American form of democracy, a system of checks-and-balances is in place to ensure that no one branch of government can fully dominate the others.  Typically, the Executive can advance legislation of its own, but it must be approved by the Legislature before it can become law.  There are loopholes in this relationship, one of which allows the governor to issue executive orders that can have the force of law, but do not extend beyond the governor’s term.

As part of the COVID-19 response, the Legislature granted the governor new power to unilaterally enact new laws.  This new power was tied to his existing executive powers and is subject to the Legislature’s override, but so far none of the governor’s decisions have been overruled.  This authorization expires in April of 2021.

These new powers were, of course, granted in order to allow the governor to move quickly to respond to the unprecedented public health threat posed by the pandemic.  But these are powers that previous governors could not have dreamed of having.  And those changes have fundamentally altered the relationship between the two branches of government, at least temporarily.

Another huge change came in New York this year:  2020 was the first election that saw large-scale use of mail in ballots.  The changes in the election process – and the new conveniences to voters – are likely to become permanent.  It is hard to believe that the public will go back to the days of schlepping to polling places if it is inconvenient to do so. 

The changes in voting in 2020 underscored the need to overhaul elections administration in New York and to add adequate resources.  Long lines during early voting were widespread across New York and the result of inadequate funding by the Administration as well as the lack of bureaucratic competence. 

Not surprisingly, the issue of health care rose to the top of public concern.  Despite the callous efforts by the outgoing Trump Administration to take away health care from Americans during a pandemic, Americans saw just how important access to health insurance can be.  Of course, for the uninsured it has long been clear that universal health care is a basic human right.  But that view picked up steam as millions of Americans were laid off during the pandemic-fueled economic downturn and in many cases lost their health coverage.  It has become quite clear that universal health coverage is a necessity. 

2020 was, once again, one of the hottest years in human history and the trend has the planet getting even hotter.  The heating of the planet as the result of human activities did not stop during the pandemic.  The planet is heating up, storms are more severe, huge swaths of the planet is getting drier and more prone to fires.  The fires in Australia, California and the Amazon clearly show that climate-changing global catastrophes are here now and getting worse.

Hopefully, new vaccines and changes in human behavior can alter the course of the pandemic, ultimately leading to the end of the threat.  But its impact on our democracy and our health care system will last for years to come.  These impacts will be clearer next year and all of us should hope that those changes bolster our self-governance and improve the nation’s health.

The incoming Biden Administration has promised to take the global warming threat seriously and that crisis can be mitigated if the nation – and the world – moves to an economy powered by wind, solar and more energy efficiency.

As 2020 thankfully comes to an end, we all look ahead with optimism for the new year.  This year’s optimism hinges on the medical breakthroughs that have led to new vaccines to combat the pandemic.  But lingering threats remain – to our democracy, to our health, and to the environment.  Let’s hope that our political leadership rises to meet these challenges.

New York’s Budget Crisis Is Coming to a Climax

Posted by NYPIRG on December 21, 2020 at 9:10 am

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the world.  An interconnected planet has its great advantages, but dangerous viruses can also hitchhike along aviation routes and shipping lanes to spread disease at incredible speed.  Not only has the pandemic savaged the world’s public health, but it has similarly devastated nations’ finances. 

New York – once the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States – has seen its state and local government budgets shredded.  In the face of a rapidly spreading, dangerous virus, businesses were shut down, travel and personal spending dried up – and as a result there has been a huge drop-off in tax revenues to the state.

The state’s elected leadership hoped that cratering public finances would be offset by federal government intervention.  In the meantime, the Cuomo Administration has withheld billions in state expenditures in hopes of financial relief from Washington.  Monies that had been withheld would be returned to agencies that have cut state aid.  If federal funds were never to arrive, these “withholds” would become permanent cuts, cuts that would total 20 percent.

Earlier stimulus packages helped New Yorkers directly and provided indirect financial help to the state and local governments.  This weekend – some nine months later – the most recent stimulus agreement appears to have been finally negotiated, but it leaves state governments largely out in the winter cold.

It became increasingly obvious that there would be no Congressional rescue of the states during the Trump Administration and the pressure has been building for New York to develop permanent solutions to its fiscal disarray.  New York State Assembly Speaker Heastie recently called for a special session to take place before the new year to raise taxes to offset expected cuts. 

In response, Governor Cuomo argued there can be no increase in revenues unless lawmakers agree to a full, new budget.  The Speaker responded with puzzlement, arguing correctly that the state’s current budget needs revenues and that revenues need to be added immediately.

So, what happens next?  In Albany’s opaque system, it’s always hard to tell what is really happening.  Public statements often do not reflect political calculations or private negotiations.

One thing’s for sure, there will be pain.

New York’s massive public deficits simply cannot be addressed by cutting programs; the cuts would be too deep and would harm those most in need – those who already have borne the worst of the pandemic.

The other option is to raise revenues – taxes.  The governor has repeatedly said that he is concerned that taxes on the wealthy will be a problem, that the wealthy may simply up and move.  What is left out in that argument is the devastation to those who rely on public support, and that without that support they will miss out on education, lose access to health care, or starve.

There is no magic bullet.  Whatever the state does will cause pain.  The question is, who should feel that pain the most?  The people who rely on government help and who have suffered the most during the pandemic or those who have become more well-off over the past six months and who have had far less exposure to the disease?

Seems obvious – the wealthy few should shoulder the burden.

There are options for policymakers to consider.  One is to increase the personal income taxes on those who make a lot of money.  Neighboring New Jersey has done that.  New York has done it in the past. 

Another option is to collect and retain the Stock Transfer Tax.  Since 1905, New York State has had a stock transfer tax which acts much like a sales tax on the buying and selling of equities.  Since the early 1980s, the tiny per trade tax has been refunded to investors.  While a small fee per trade, due to the high volume of speculative stock sales it adds up.  During the first half of this fiscal year, New York has collected and rebated back to Wall Street – over $4.2 billion.

That’s right, over $4.2 billion in six months – sent back to one of the few sectors of the economy that has profited handsomely during the pandemic.

The state’s finances are a mess and there is no Congressional bailout.  Fortunately, two New York lawmakers – Senator James Sanders and Assemblymember Phil Steck – have introduced legislation that would allow the state to keep the Stock Transfer Tax revenues once again.  The stock market has handled the pandemic very, very well.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average index dropped around 8,000 points in the four weeks from February 12 to March 11, 2020, but has since recovered to over 30,000 points last week – a new record.

There are no easy answers, however one answer is quite clear:  The state should keep the billions it currently taxes on the buying and selling of stocks on Wall Street.  In a time of crisis, it makes far more sense to help those who need the help – not to add to their suffering.

The Electoral College Picks a President

Posted by NYPIRG on December 14, 2020 at 9:51 am

Monday, December 14th, the nation formally picks its President.  A full month after the popular election, delegates to the Electoral College will gather in each of the states to vote on whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump should be President.  Four years ago, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by the margin of three million votes, yet still lost the election since her opponent, now President Trump, won big in the Electoral College.

In most modern elections, the votes of the Electoral College fly under the radar.  The candidate with the most popular votes usually wins.  But in the 2000 election and the 2016 election, the candidates with the most votes did not win.

Technically when we vote for president, we vote for a slate of party officials who, if their candidate wins, have pledged to vote for that candidate at the state’s Electoral College.

The Electoral College consists of a certain number of delegates assigned to each state based on the census count of the state’s population.  Each state gets delegates for each of its two U.S. Senators plus one delegate for each of its members of Congress.  The District of Columbia gets three delegates too.  Each Electoral College delegate represents, on average, a bit more than 600,000 people, but the system is skewed since no state can have fewer than three delegates (the smallest states have two U.S. Senators and one member of Congress).

Thus, states with the largest populations are underrepresented in the Electoral College and the smallest are overrepresented.  If New York had the number of delegates that matched its portion of the nation’s population, it would have 32 delegates instead of 29.  Neighboring Vermont would have one delegate instead of three.

Every four years, 538 electors from all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. cast their votes for president and vice president of the United States.  A candidate needs a majority of 270 electoral votes to win each race.

The Electoral College system was created in 1787 as part of the Constitutional Convention.  The support for the system came from the smaller states, which – coupled with the requirement of each state having two U.S. Senators – wanted to make sure their voices would be heard.  Similarly, many states in the south feared that a direct popular vote would lessen that area’s influence, since a great deal of its population at the time was non-voting enslaved people. 

Ironically, the framers created the system to help ensure that partisan politics wouldn’t dominate the country’s electoral process — hoping that electors would choose the person running, regardless of party membership.  As we have seen in recent days, it hasn’t worked out that way.

Meeting at New York’s Capitol Monday will be the state’s Electoral College delegates for the Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Senator and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, New York’s Democratic political leaders, the Democratic heads of the state Legislature, union leaders, local Democratic leaders, and other Democratic activists. 

The New York delegates will cast their votes for President-elect Joe Biden and in other state capitals delegates also will convene to cast their votes.  New York, like most other states, is a “winner-take-all” electoral state, so only the delegates that have pledged to the winning candidate cast votes at that state’s Electoral College meeting.

But it is unlikely that the drama will end there. 

While Biden is expected to far exceed the minimum number of Electoral College delegate votes needed to win the Presidency, there have been instances where delegates have refused to follow the will of the popular vote in their states.

These contrarian votes are cast by so-called “faithless electors” – someone who votes for someone other than their political party’s candidate.  Some thirty-three states (plus the District of Columbia) require electors to vote for a pledged candidate.  

New York, however, is not one of those states.  Legislation to require electors to follow the popular vote was passed in the state Senate this year but stalled in the Assembly.

Given the President-elect’s substantial victory – he won the popular vote by seven million votes and is expected to garner over 300 delegates – even if there are instances of “faithless electors,” it seems highly improbable for such electors to change the outcome.

The antics of the President and his followers to overthrow the clear decision of the voters hinges now on the unfair and confusing Electoral College system.  It’s long past time for the nation to once and for all fix the anachronistic and deeply flawed Electoral College.

New York Closes the Book on the 2020 Elections (Almost)

Posted by NYPIRG on December 7, 2020 at 9:49 am

One full month after Election Day, New York finally closed the books on 2020.  Although there is still one Congressional race outstanding, the final tallies are in for November’s elections.  What is most notable about the election is that by allowing the widespread use of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic, the outcome initially seen on Election Day was dramatically changed after all paper ballots were counted.

While there was no doubt that Democrat Joe Biden would carry New York, his margin grew significantly once the paper ballots were counted.  On Election Day, Biden had a solid lead:  Biden received 3.7 million votes to President Trump’s 2.8 million, a margin of nearly 1 million votes cast on November 3rd. 

But once the paper ballots were counted, the President-elect’s margin swelled.  Biden received 5.2 million votes to Trump’s 3.2 million, doubling the President-elect’s lead.  Once all the dust had settled, it looked like Biden had won 80 percent of the paper ballots and that gave him his overwhelming victory.

Compared to 2016 Presidential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Biden received 60 percent of the votes, while Clinton had garnered 58 percent.  Biden carried 21 of New York 62 counties, while Clinton carried 17.

Moreover, Biden had increased the Democrats’ margin of victory in the downstate suburbs and even carried the total aggregate vote for all counties north of Westchester (Clinton had lost).  While Biden crushed Trump in the total New York City count, the President got more votes in the Big Apple than he had in 2016.

New York’s total voter turnout swelled dramatically – even though the state’s overall population has remained stagnant between 2016 and 2020.  In 2016, 7.8 million New Yorkers voted in the Presidential election, but in 2020 that number jumped to 8.7 million.  While it is clear that voter turnout was high across the country, compared to the rest of the nation, New York’s voter participation looks to be below the national average – as it usually is.

Not only was 2020 the first Presidential election in which New Yorkers could vote by mail and vote early, it was the first year with new, and much more stringent, requirements for minor political parties to qualify for future ballots.

For years, New York allowed minor parties that received 50,000 votes or more in gubernatorial elections to automatically qualify for future ballots and to enroll members on voter registration forms.  This status is a huge advantage for a political party.

As a result of a big push by Governor Cuomo that standard was changed.  In order to automatically qualify for the ballot, minor parties now must garner far more votes (in November it was at least 130,000 votes) in both the gubernatorial and presidential election years.

This election, only the Conservative and Working Families Parties hit that mark.  Other minor parties, for example the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, failed to reach the new minimum and are now knocked off from having automatic ballot access.

The surge in mail-in ballots not only swelled the President-elect’s lead, but it also dramatically changed the preliminary vote tallies in down ballot races.

On Election Day, the Republican Party was ecstatic:  It looked like they had picked up three New York Congressional seats, four state Senate seats, and at least eleven state Assembly seats – despite Biden’s solid win.

The President-elect’s performance in mail in ballots – in which he took by an apparent 80-20 margin – was replicated in down ballot races.  Instead of Republicans gaining three Congressional seats, they have picked up one and there is one race that is still too close to call.  Instead of Republicans gaining four state Senate seats, it turns out that the Democrats picked up a net of three.  And the Assembly margin stayed the same.

One example of the swing in final vote tallies after counting mail-ins was in the third Congressional district on Long Island.  On Election Day, incumbent Democrat Tom Suozzi was down by 4,000 votes; once the paper ballots were counted, he had won by over 40,000.

Back in Albany, for the 2021 legislative session Democrats will have “supermajorities” in both legislative houses, instead of having lost seats.  That new political power will give them a greater say in the policymaking of state government.  One area that they should examine is how New York runs elections.

It took more than a month to properly tally the votes.  If New York had been crucial to determining the winner of the Presidency, it would have been the target of political pundits and late-night comedians.  While it is reasonable to consider that this was the first time the state had run an election with large numbers of mail-in ballots, New York’s overall voter participation is expected, once again, to be below the national average. 

And New Yorkers had to endure long lines as well as mishaps with ballots.  One policy to look at is whether New Yorkers should continue to rely on the two major political parties to run the state’s elections.  The parties’ interest is in their own success, not necessarily the public’s interest in a flourishing democracy.

Even a well-run elections bureaucracy needs resources.  The board of elections estimated that they would need $50 million to properly administer the November elections.  It’s clear that they didn’t get it.

Hearings are needed.  For too long, New Yorkers have had to suffer due to poorly resourced and inadequately managed elections.  Legislative hearings are a first step to digging into the problems and advancing solutions.  Elections are the essential machines of our democracy and in New York they are in serious need of repair and overhaul.