Archive for June 2022

Paying to Play in Albany

Posted by NYPIRG on June 27, 2022 at 9:34 am

“There are two things that are important in politics”, Ohio Senator Mark Hanna said a century ago. “The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

Money has been called the “mother’s milk of politics.”  The reality is that for most races without money, there can be no campaign.  Money is needed to buy advertising, rent halls for rallies, pay campaign staff, print materials, pay pollsters and consultants, and fly or drive candidates from one event to the next.

But who foots the bills for most campaigns?  Most of the money comes from the wealthy: lobbyists, government contractors, trade associations, unions, and others who have something other than “good government” on their minds when they write their checks.  Usually, they’re not feeling charitable, usually they want those favors returned.

That system is at its most brazen during the state legislative session.  Pre-pandemic, state elected officials would host campaign fundraisers during the legislative session, sometimes hold more than 200 fundraisers during the 60 days of session.  And who would come to these events?  Lobbyists and others seeking legislative favors.  The 2022 session – in addition to opening up its legislative proceedings – also cranked up the money machine, seeing over 100 fundraisers held while lawmakers considered the pleas of lobbyists, including asks related to the state’s $220 billion budget.

The most successful example of campaign fundraising has to be the current governor.  Governor Hochul, who had already collected roughly $34 million, has – according to reporting in The New York Times – set a target of raising a total of $50 to $70 million by Election Day.  A mind-boggling amount of money in just one year of being governor.

Also according to the Times, many of her campaign contributions came from those with business before the government.  The Times reported Hochul raised over $200,000 from the gambling industry, which is waiting for three new licenses to be issued by the state for casinos in and around New York City.

According to the Times, in her recent filings, the governor received an average donation of about $10,000.  Since taking office, at least 10 percent of her cash has come from donors giving the maximum amount of $69,700.

Real estate interests are also donating heavily to the governor’s campaign.

It’s easy to understand why the governor wants a huge campaign warchest – it will pay for an expensive campaign and ensure that donors think twice about funding her opponents.

It does, however, raise the question:  What do campaign donors want?

That question is not an academic one.  New York has seen more than its share of campaign finance scandals.  During the most recent Cuomo Administration, top aides were sentenced to prison for shaking down campaign contributors who were interested in state government contracts.  Scandals have plagued former state Comptrollers too, leading one to resign.

It’s not just members of the executive branch.  Members of the Legislature have themselves been caught up in corruption investigations in which they were doing the bidding of campaign contributors as part of their “pay-to-play” arrangements.  Most recently, the former Lt. Governor was charged by federal prosecutors in a scheme to pay back a campaign contributor by directing state monies to his organization. 

The typical pay-to-play scheme occurs when private actors “pay” public officials in exchange – sometimes explicitly – for help with various government processes, particularly in gaining favoritism when doing business with the government.  Many states have enacted laws to deter “pay-to-play” schemes.  The City of New York has laws that do so, too. 

But New York State has not. 

New York’s pay-to-play problems have long been in plain view.  Nearly four decades ago, a state commission commented “When running for public office requires enormous expenditures of privately raised funds, challenges to incumbents are all but limited to the most wealthy and well-connected.  Moreover, huge campaign costs pressure candidates to maintain political views that do not offend big money.” 

It was Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, speaker of the California Assembly from 1961 to 1968, who is credited with coining the phrase, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” 

Every candidate for elected office in every state knows that Unruh’s observation is true, nowhere more so than in New York.  As the election season heats up, ending Albany’s “pay-to-play” system should be a top pledge made by every candidate for state office.

A Step Forward on Ethics?

Posted by NYPIRG on June 20, 2022 at 10:21 am

Last week, New York’s ethics oversight system was once again in the spotlight, but not for something that it failed to do.  Instead, it may have – and I emphasize may – taken a step toward improvement.

First some background.  New York’s state ethics watchdog – the Joint Commission on Public Ethics – is on its way to the dustbin of history.  JCOPE was the brainchild of former Governor Cuomo and former legislative leaders (and corrupt politicians) Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver.  JCOPE was not designed to be independent, in fact it was specifically set up to be under the thumbs of the governor and the legislative leaders.

This wasn’t the first time the governor and the legislative leaders set up ethics agencies that were under their direct control.  However, like its predecessors, JCOPE failed and will close up shop in a few weeks and be replaced by a new agency, an 11-member Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (CELIG).

The 11-member Commission will have its membership chosen by the governor and other members of Albany’s political leadership.  But there is a twist.

Under the new law the new commissioners to CELIG must be vetted by the state’s fifteen law school deans.  Under the new law establishing this process, the deans are responsible for reviewing the nominees of the governor, the attorney general, the comptroller and the four legislative leaders and can reject someone not found to have “undisputed honesty, integrity and character.”

Of course, those standards are vague and last week the deans released their interpretation of how they will define “honesty, integrity and character.”  Their plan includes a background check for nominees — similar to those conducted by the State Police for high-level executive branch appointees — to ensure their “past personal and professional conduct reflects adherence to the highest ethical standards, and that their lived experience allows them to understand the range of perspectives needed to effectively serve as a member of an ethics commission that has broad oversight of a large and diverse public workforce.”

The deans’ vetting also is intended to ensure the nominees have demonstrated an ability to be impartial, independent, fair and able to “decide matters based solely on the law and facts presented.”  The nominating process will include a seven-day public comment period for the elected officials’ proposed nominees.

The deans’ process has been applauded by advocates.  If implemented consistently over time, this new process may enhance the independence of new commissioners to CELIG and make it harder for appointing authorities to manipulate the ethics oversight system. 

Yet in politics those looking to advance their own interests are looking for “leverage.”  Leverage is when a politician can identify a weakness in some institution or individual that can be used as a threat.  A threat that can only be avoided if the “target” does what the politician wants.

In this case, the law school deans can be exploited.  They all work for institutions that receive some form of public support – indeed two of them are government-run law schools – and all of them are involved in lobbying the government.

New York’s ethics watchdog not only monitors the behavior of the state workforce, it also monitors the lobbying industry.  Thus, the law school deans represent institutions that rely on government for support and are subject to scrutiny by the state.  In the hands of a power-crazed statewide elected official, for example, that leverage is obvious.

Right now, the deans have taken an important first step, but they do not control the outcome.  The governor and the state’s political leadership still do.  Previously, ethics commissioners were individuals of stature, but some viewed their responsibilities as looking out for the interests of the elected official who appointed them.

That’s how the former governor got a multi-million-dollar book deal approved and that’s how confidential investigations were leaked.

The deans’ first moves are good ones.  The “rubber hits the road” when they choose to reject someone appointed by an elected official.  Right now, the system relies on the honorable intent of those electeds.  Whether that “honor system” holds up over time is anyone’s guess.

Honor systems tend to fail when leverage gets used by a malignant force.  A better system is one that doesn’t rely on honor, but instead relies on an independent commission.  Until that system is created, all New Yorkers can do is hope that a program based on good intentions can hold up.

Lawmakers Advance Help for Hospital Patients

Posted by NYPIRG on June 13, 2022 at 10:32 am

Sometimes one can only marvel at America’s system of health care.  It’s almost as if a bunch of people got together and decided to make a system that defies logic – a system that costs more than that of any other nation, one that produces mediocre life spans, and is so complex that the public simply cannot fathom how to navigate it.

The inefficiencies and illogic of this system manifest themselves in bizarre ways.  For example, hospitals are supposed to treat the sick and injured, no matter whether they have insurance coverage or not.  Obviously, as medical costs increase and coverage weakens, hospitals are forced to try to figure out ways to cover their costs.  It’s difficult to pass the costs of the uninsured – or underinsured – onto the bills of those with more robust coverage, because those prices are usually negotiated between the health care institutions and insurance companies. 

As a result, hospitals look to do what they can to directly squeeze patients to pay for the charges for their hospital stays.  One tool used by hospitals is to go after patients with outstanding bills through a debt collection process.  There have been reports of hospitals getting the courts to place liens on the homes of patients, or getting wages garnished, as a way to collect outstanding medical debts.

This is the way that businesses attempt to collect outstanding debts on cars, credit cards, or homes, in cases where the owner is claimed to have not paid their bills.  But what makes the health care arena different is that patients are not choosing to buy the care – they have to go due to illness or injury.

The American system does not provide universal coverage for those hospital patients, unless they are 65 years old or older (and that system is also complex, but the coverage is there).

So, patients who must get hospital care to recover from their illness can find themselves up against a forceful debt collection machinery when they have outstanding bills.  This adds mental anguish to the physical ones that they experienced.

Who are these patients?  Typically, they are the working poor – those with just enough income to make health coverage unaffordable – or those with inadequate coverage.  Exactly the people who face other forms of financial stress. 

New York’s system of health care – much like the rest of the nation’s – allows for hundreds of thousands to go without health coverage and hundreds of thousands more with inadequate coverage.  This reliance on a hodgepodge health coverage system can put the finances of millions of Americans at risk.

The consequences of inadequate coverage impacts the nation.  According to Forbes, “Fully half of Americans now carry medical debt, up from 46% in 2020” and that “More than half (57%) of Americans with medical debt owe at least $1,000.”  Those debts can often leave needy patients facing legal actions by hospitals and other providers, with judgments often enforced through liens on property or wage garnishments.  And the not surprising result is that medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcy in America. 

The most obvious solution is for the nation to offer coverage to everyone, similar to what seniors have now.  But that’s not in the political cards.

Another is for states to step into the breach and place financial band-aids to eliminate the worst practices.

Buried among the 1,000 bills that passed the Legislature this past session are two that attempt to provide such protection.

One bill simply outlaws the practice of hospitals dunning patients with debts.  This legislation would prohibit a lien being placed on a person’s primary residence for medical debt judgments as well as prohibit wage garnishment for medical debt judgments.

Another bill outlaws a sneaky fee that hospitals add to patients’ bills.  This legislation requires that patients be notified that a hospital will be charging a “facility fee” and whether such fee is covered by the patient’s health insurance.

Facility fees are expenses charged by hospitals to cover their overhead.  People who receive outpatient care at hospital-owned buildings can be charged a facility fee, in addition to treatment costs.  Since hospitals do not have to disclose the costs of facility fees beforehand, patients are often shocked when they receive a bill that is much higher than they expected.  The two main ways patients face facility fees are through outpatient treatment at an emergency room and at a hospital-owned doctor’s office.

Patients needing urgent treatment, requiring greater use of the facility, results in the patient being billed a bigger facility fee. That’s the rationale hospitals use to justify facility fees; but unfortunately those fees can too often be excessive. 

A case could be made to ban such fees, but this legislation does not do so.  It merely requires providers to inform patients of such fees and whether the patient’s insurance covers such fees prior to providing the medical care.  Surely a very reasonable approach and one that will help consumers to avoid those charges. 

Of course, approval of these two bills by the Legislature does not make them law.  Those bills must be approved by Governor Hochul.  But given the financial woes facing New Yorkers, easing those pressures when a patient must go to the hospital would seem like a no-brainer.  The governor must act.

The Legislature Wraps up the 2022 Session

Posted by NYPIRG on June 6, 2022 at 10:11 am

Lawmakers wrapped up the 2022 legislative session last week.  In some ways, the session was like pre-pandemic versions.  In January, the Capitol and the Legislative Office building were opened up to the public.  Hearings were held.  Lobbyists scurried about pleading their cases.  But the pandemic’s ongoing plague cut back public access: legislative committees met online, not in person and lawmakers often participated in floor debates from their offices – freed from having to vote in person.

Despite all of the COVID impacts, some new trends emerged.  The 2022 session saw a total of 1,007 bills pass both houses, more than the nearly 900 last year and the 935 bills that passed in 2019 – although the pandemic session of 2020 saw less legislative activities due to the shutdown. 

And like sessions of the pre-pandemic past, a huge number of bills that were approved by the Legislature came during the final weeks:  651 of the 1,007 bills came in the last two weeks. 

The return to some version of “typical” also meant that some big issues were tackled – often in near secrecy.  During the budget approval in early April, the governor pushed through a billion dollar subsidy for the Buffalo Bills football team, as well as measures to change the state’s public safety laws.  In the last weeks of the session, the governor and Legislature cobbled together big deals on abortion rights and gun control – largely in secret.  Both measures responding to recent events, but neither subject to public scrutiny.  And a $10 billion subsidy for chip fab manufacturers emerged and passed in the wee hours before the state Senate wrapped up its work.     

Not everything was done behind closed doors.  There were very public, months-long fights that resulted in legislative action.  In the area of the environment, the Legislature approved a bill to place a two-year moratorium on a type of energy-intensive “cryptomining.”

Cryptomining is a relatively new technology that provides the basis for private digital currency, like Bitcoin.  Cryptocurrencies are not based on physical notes or coins and do not belong to a central bank, meaning they have no government backing.  Their ability to be electronically transmitted without government oversight makes them a popular choice for cybercriminals. 

These digital currencies require “authentication” through the solving of complex mathematical equations.  The first “cryptominers” to solve an equation authenticates the transaction and wins currency for their effort.

The climate change component of this is that to solve these mathematical equations and to win the currency for their effort, these “miners” need incredible amounts of electricity to run their warehouses full of computers. 

Cheap electric results in more profit and cryptominers in New York are converting old fossil fuel energy plants to power their activities.  The problem is that firing up these old plants contributes significantly to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions – at precisely the time that the world’s climate experts are arguing that we need to cut back.  The legislation puts a hold on permitting the use of these mothballed plants until the state understands the climate (and freshwater) impacts of these operations. 

Unfortunately, other important environmental measures – like requiring that new building construction rely on electricity, not oil or gas for power – were stalled in both houses.

Legislation was also approved to allow do-it-yourselfers and independent repair shops to fix common digital devices.  Manufacturers of products like cell phones, computers, tablets, video and digital audio systems refuse to share diagnostic information, replacement parts or tools.  That means consumers have limited repair choices and spend more time and pay more money to repair fixable items and generate an enormous amount of electronic waste as items are discarded instead of being fixed cheaply and locally.  Legislation spearheaded by state Assemblymember Pat Fahy and state Senator Neil Breslin addressed that problem by requiring that manufacturers make information and parts publicly available.  This “Right to Repair” legislation, if approved by the governor, will provide a first-in-the-nation protection for consumers.

Overall, the number of bills passed in 2022 documents that one-party control has reversed an overall historical trend:  Since seizing control of the Senate, the Democratic majorities in both legislative houses have increased approval of matching bills, reversing the previous decade’s overall decline and reaching the highest amounts seen over the past two decades (other than the 2020 pandemic session).

Yet quantity is not necessarily quality.  The climate crisis caused by the burning of oil, gas, and coal is an existential one and deserves urgent legislative attention.  Lawmakers did end the session with a significant amount of approved legislation, but unless they are willing to tackle the significant steps needed to respond to climate threats, their work is not done.