Archive for July 2021

The U.S. Senate Faces a Policy Traffic Jam – and Its Recess Looms

Posted by NYPIRG on July 26, 2021 at 10:43 am

The Biden Administration’s plans to tackle the nation’s infrastructure woes and to combat climate change are among the top policy issues stuck in the U.S. Senate.  The President’s plans have passed the House of Representatives, but the razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate makes progress slow going.

With Western North America in flames, and unprecedented floods across the globe, you’d think that addressing climate change would be an easy lift – new roads, bridges, and mass transit systems need to be upgraded in order to handle the more savage storms and heat waves that result from global warming.

But it’s not.

The greed of the oil companies and the cravenness of their Congressional toadies muck up any progress.  When our democracy fails to respond to serious crises, it makes sense to examine what’s wrong with the system.

In the same way as the oil companies deceived the public and shoveled money to candidates who mouthed their lies, the propaganda wars over American elections continues to undermine our democracy.

In the same way that the political and public relations consultants helped fuel the war against science in responding to the climate crisis, a new propaganda war is playing out over elections.

Former President Trump continues to pound away on the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and that widespread voter fraud was the culprit.  And just like the cynical lies used to block measures to combat global warming, the claims of widespread voter fraud simply do not exist.  Yet millions believe those lies.

As a result, states across the nation are debating and implementing new ways to make it harder to vote under the guise of fighting that non-existent widespread voter fraud.  That’s right, even though all Americans over the age of 18 have a right to vote, the Big Lie of a stolen election is being used to make voting more difficult and to get rid of elections administrators regardless of party affiliation who based their actions on facts, not ideology.

It’s a very bad turn of events.  It is not hard to see the road to authoritarianism if they succeed.

What should be done?  Among the pile of important issues stuck in the molasses of U.S. Senate decision-making is a proposal for the Congress to establish a voting “floor” below which no state can go.  That floor would include basic voting rights that make casting a ballot easier, not harder. 

The measure, introduced as Senate bill 1, matches a House version, which has already passed that chamber.  The bill relies on the nation’s “best practices” when it comes to elections, including automatic voter registration, and nationwide early voting.  The bill also supports restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act, would require independent redistricting in all states, and establish a voluntary system of public financing that relies on small donations – not big campaign contributions.

But it’s stuck in the Senate mud.  In the Senate, the rules in place say that 60 votes are needed to avoid a filibuster that can stop legislation in its tracks.  In the current Senate divide – both parties having 50 members –uniform Senate Republican opposition is blocking approval of the legislation.

Unless something is done about limiting the filibuster, it’s hard to imagine success in approving the elections measure.

But there is a way.  The Senate has trimmed back the use of the filibuster rule in the case of approving federal judges.  Most recently, in April 2017, the Republican Senate majority changed the rule to allow a simple majority to approve US Supreme Court nominees, which enabled the nomination of Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch to proceed to a vote.

Why not apply the same rule for appointing Supreme Court nominees to measures to protect American democracy?

New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer has to decide whether to make such a move.  Of course, he needs all Senate Democrats and the Vice President to agree to the change, and not all of those Senators are on board right now. 

Senator Schumer is the Majority Leader because he is an expert in moving that Chamber.  If and when he makes his move could determine the future of American democracy and world.

With so much at stake, the Senate must act – to both reduce the existential threat posed by global warming as well as to preserve our democracy.  Let’s hope it does.  The alternatives are harrowing.

The Fight Against Antibiotic Resistance Is in Crisis

Posted by NYPIRG on July 19, 2021 at 8:13 am

The world is in crisis: climate change has triggered once-in-a-millennium catastrophic weather events and we are all enduring the second year of a worldwide pandemic. 

There is, unfortunately, another public health crisis that is emerging: the growing inability of antibiotics to kill off infections.  Unless the world responds intelligently to this growing threat, these antibiotic-resistant infections, also known as “superbugs,” could kill more people worldwide than cancer by the middle of this century.

You heard that right:  Experts now predict that unless the threat posed by “superbugs” is curbed, in the not too distant future more will die from currently treatable infections than will die of cancer.

An appropriate response has a two-pronged approach: curb the overuse and misuse of current antibiotics and invest in new therapies that will kill “superbugs.”

How did the world find itself under this new threat? 

The more antibiotics are used, the faster bacteria evolve and develop resistance to them.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 2.8 million people develop resistant infections each year in the United States, and more than 35,000 die.

The pandemic may have made the situation worse.  The early treatment for COVID patients was to use antibiotics as a way to help fend off secondary infections – antibiotics attack bacteria, they do not kill viruses.  Yet, the regular use of antibiotics on COVID patients may have helped accelerate microbial resistance. 

All this to say that the nation – and the world – need to act before it is too late and the current antibiotics lose their effectiveness.  Some steps have been taken.  New York State now requires all hospitals and nursing homes to develop infection stewardship programs to better regulate the use of antibiotics.

There also is a growing recognition of the dangers posed by the overuse and misuse of human-important antibiotics on farm animals – but outside of the states of California and Maryland, little has been done in the U.S.  More on this in a moment.

And despite the obvious urgency, global research and development for new antibiotics is running dry.

Unlike cancer drugs or medicines that people take for years to control chronic illnesses, antibiotics must be used as conservatively as possible to preserve their effectiveness.  Using a product sparingly undermines its profitability.  Given that the antibiotics-making-business is unprofitable, drug companies spend their investment dollars on other therapies with big payoffs. 

Additionally, as mentioned earlier, hospitals and health systems have begun to implement much-needed antibiotic stewardship programs to reduce inappropriate antibiotic use and preserve the drugs’ efficacy.   While those actions are appropriate, a collateral effect is that it reduces the sales of new antibiotics.  Few drug companies find it feasible to spend big bucks to create an affordable drug that is meant to sit on the shelf for as long as possible.

These market factors have led almost every large pharmaceutical company to leave the field in recent years.  In 2014, eight big drug makers had a new antibiotic in the clinical pipeline; last year only two did.

The Biden Administration has advanced in its budget plan funding increases for key agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health—which are deeply involved in the fight against antibiotic resistance.  Congress is considering legislation that would offer funding contracts to drug companies, providing them with a fair return on investment for the risk they incur to develop a new antibiotic based on the drug’s value to public health.  Hopefully, action will be taken.

Here in New York, the governor and state lawmakers should also consider measures to reduce overuse and misuse of antibiotics on farm animals.  Nearly one-quarter of all antibiotic-resistant infections emerge from agriculture, putting workers and communities at risk.  The superbug problem needs to be attacked at every level, including in agricultural settings.

There is no time to waste.

New York’s Ethics Watchdog Under Scrutiny

Posted by NYPIRG on July 12, 2021 at 12:30 pm

For over a decade the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) has been the state’s leading ethics watchdog agency.  Its job is to oversee compliance with ethics standards set for the executive branch, in a limited way to do the same for the legislative branch, and to regulate state and local lobbyists and their clients.  Since its inception critics have charged that the structure of the agency is not independent and it is, in fact, a political agency – one in which the leaders of the executive and legislative branches controlled the actions of the agency.

This week, the state Senate’s Ethics Committee will hold a hearing to examine the work of New York’s ethics watchdogs. 

Unfortunately, the evidence has borne out those criticisms.  While the activities of JCOPE have been shrouded in secrecy (largely the result of state laws), reporting by investigative journalists has shed light on this critically important agency.  And the picture that emerges is deeply troubling.  The hard work of digging into JCOPE has been led by the Albany’s Times Union newspaper, which has devoted considerable resources into getting under the hood of JCOPE to see how it operates.  What little the public knows of JCOPE’s inner workings has been through the media, primarily the Times Union.

One issue currently under JCOPE’s consideration is examining the use of public resources for private gain.  Both of Governor Cuomo’s book deals were approved by the JCOPE staff without, it appears, full Commission approval.  It has been reported that some commissioners now believe that such approval should have gone to the full Commission. 

In both cases, the governor’s office argued that there was precedent for staff to decide the issue without going to the full board that directs JCOPE.  In both cases, the governor’s book deals resulted in significant compensation.  How the staff made their decisions and whether they were aware of all the details of the size of the financial compensation is not at all clear. 

Moreover, when the Executive Chamber’s employees requested approval on behalf of the governor, the correspondence was written on state letterhead and may have been written by a government employee working on public time.  These facts raise questions about where JCOPE draws the line in determining when the use of public resources is appropriate and when it is not. 

JCOPE has been criticized from within as well.  Members of the JCOPE board have alleged that the governor was told of the private discussions about allegations that a former top aide to the governor misused public resources.  Under state law, those discussions are supposed to be secret.  As of today, no one is aware of how the governor and his staff were alerted to these internal discussions.

There have been public complaints made by commissioners that JCOPE’s decision-making hinges on a small number of commissioners working with senior staff.  Again, it is not clear if this is true. 

This week’s state Senate’s hearing should be the place were these – and other – questions get raised and answered by JCOPE officials.  The new Executive Director of JCOPE will testify at that hearing, but it is not clear if the Senate plans on interviewing other members of the Commission or the senior-level staff.

Since the public pays for the ethics agency, they should have a right to know if any of these allegations are true.  The public deserves to get a better understanding of how ethics enforcement works – or doesn’t work – in New York.

Of course, the structure of the agency is the root problem: Commissioners appointed directly by the governor and the Legislative leaders – the very people whose ethical behavior could be questioned.

That simply cannot work.

That’s what government watchdogs and a New York City Bar Association review concluded.  The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (and the Legislative Ethics Commission) should be replaced with an independent ethics enforcement agency that would monitor and enforce ethics for the executive and legislative branches. 

Nowhere is the public’s trust more susceptible to harm than when lawmakers act in ways that skirt not only the letter, but also the spirit, of ethics laws.  New York has seen its share of ethical lapses, yet little has been done.  Prison sentences, convictions, plea deals, scandals and other allegations of ethical misconduct have been on the front pages of the state’s newspapers far too often.  As a result, the ways in which the state regulates political ethics has been a front-burner issue. 

Unfortunately, little is clear when it comes to New York State’s ethics laws.  The laws are riddled with loopholes and poorly – if at all – enforced.  Changes are needed to comprehensively reform the state’s ethics laws.  Let’s hope that the Senate uses its powers to get important questions answered and begins to develop reforms that will both ensure independent, competent ethical oversight and bolster public confidence in state government.

New York City Uses Ranked Choice Voting

Posted by NYPIRG on July 5, 2021 at 10:09 am

In New York City’s recent primary a new system of voting was implemented: ranked choice voting (RCV).  RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, instead of limiting their decision to one candidate.  The new system was put in place after New York City voters overwhelmingly approved it (73.5%) for municipal and primary elections in 2019.  RCV is rare in the U.S., existing in several municipalities as well as in the states of Maine and Alaska.

Here’s how the NYC RCV system works:  Voters can choose to list up to five candidates in descending preference.  The New York City Board of Elections (BOE) then tabulates the votes.  A candidate who receives more than 50% of the vote wins.  If no candidate exceeds 50% in the first round of voting, counting continues.  In the second round, the candidate who received the fewest votes is dropped from consideration and that candidate’s votes are applied to the remaining candidates.  For the voters whose candidate was eliminated, their votes are redistributed based on their second choices.  If no candidate still garners 50%, then a third round is calculated, eliminating the candidate with the fewest votes, and redistributing those votes to the remaining candidates.  The process continues until one candidate’s vote count exceeds 50%.   

Proponents of the new system successfully argued that RCV gives voters more choices, that candidates are more likely to cooperate since they would not want to alienate other candidates’ voters.  Why?  Because if they are not a voter’s first preference they would want to be listed as a second or third choice since that may still help them to win the election.  Lastly, proponents argued that the RCV system would save money.  Prior to this new system, if no citywide candidate received 40% of the vote, a runoff election was held – and running elections costs money.

How did the new system perform?  There is good and bad news.  The good news is that despite fears it would be too complicated, New Yorkers overwhelmingly found it easy and straightforward to rank.  Primary turnout hit its highest levels in more than 20 years.  The mayoral race attracted a wide range of high-quality candidates, and quite a lot of media attention. The race was interesting because it was uncertain and competitive — and it was uncertain and competitive in large part because of ranked-choice voting.  Dynamic, competitive races lead to higher turnout. More voters are engaged, and more votes matter.

And according to a voter survey, New Yorkers liked the system.  In a survey jointly released by Common Cause/NY and Rank the Vote NYC, and based on exit polling conducted by Edison Research, 77% of New Yorkers want RCV in future local elections, 95% of voters found their ballot simple to complete, and 78% said they understood RCV extremely or very well.

On the negative side, the agency responsible for running the RCV election – New York City’s Board of Elections – has so far done a poor job.  The City’s BOE, which was established decades ago, has been long criticized as incompetent and too focused on the needs of the two major political parties, not the needs of voters.  The criticisms originate with the structure of the BOE. 

The NYC BOE – like all of the state’s local elections agencies – is run jointly by the two major political parties.  The commissioners are usually chosen due to their partisan loyalty, not their ability to competently run elections.  Of course, that does not mean that all elections commissioners and board staff cannot do a competent job – there are some that are quite skilled – but that the process of appointing them is far too likely to reward partisan loyalists. 

As a result of this system that rewards the party faithful – not necessarily what’s best for elections administration – polls across the state have been plagued with errors, incompetence, and too often illegalities.  New York City has not been immune.

For example, in 2016 the NYC BOE mistakenly purged 200,000 people from voting rolls, which led to some voters waiting in four-hour lines to cast their ballots.  In 2020, the BOE sent out 100,000 absentee ballots to voters, but with incorrect names and addresses.

In this year’s June Democratic primary, the BOE included 135,000 test ballots in the preliminary unofficial release of ranked-choice voting results.  After the error was identified, the BOE took down the faulty tabulations.  But the damage was done – giving RCV opponents an excuse to criticize the new system itself and cast doubt on the election results.

Of course, the BOE error in reporting the preliminary count has nothing to do with RCV.  BOE’s mistake was the result of human error.  It’s incomprehensibly incompetent, but it’s not a failure of RCV. 

New Yorkers are still waiting for the final results of the June Democratic primary election – absentee ballots still need to be counted and those RCV votes tabulated.  But until then, and despite the underwhelming performance of the NYC BOE, ranked-choice voting has passed its first test – City voters liked it, it reduced elections costs, and may even have begun to move toward a less toxic election cycle.  For other municipalities with run-off elections, it serves as a positive option.