Archive for September 2023

New York Debates Voting by Mail

Posted by NYPIRG on September 25, 2023 at 9:01 am

New York has had a lousy track record on voter participation. Until recently, the state ranked at or near the bottom of the nation in voters turning out at elections. Since 2019 a raft of new laws has been approved that follow the best elections practices of other states. For example, New York is now one of 46 states that allows early voting, with voters able to go to a limited number of polling places to cast their ballots before Election Day.

These new laws have boosted voter turnout relative to the rest of the nation. New York, once at the back of the voting pack, has moved up dramatically—although it still falls below the national average.

As a result, New York voting reform advocates continue to push measures, large and small, to adopt best practices found in states with better voter turnouts.

One of those proven best practices is allowing for broad use of voting by mail. Voting by mail permits voters to submit their ballots through the postal service instead of going to a polling place.

In all-mail elections, all registered voters are sent a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off. Ballots are mailed out ahead of Election Day, and thus voters have an “election period,” not just a single day, to vote. This system is also referred to as “vote by mail.”

The practice is used across the nation. Nearly half the states allow some form of all-mail elections. It’s not just the states: For years, military personnel have voted by mailing in their ballots with few issues.

Here in New York, we have had some recent experience with voting by mail. Under the provisions of the New York State Constitution, mail in votes may be requested and cast by those who affirm they have an illness or will be traveling on Election Day. During the COVID pandemic, voters were allowed to use this provision if they were concerned about contracting illness, or if they were concerned that they may transmit it.

With the end of the pandemic emergency, that option was taken away. The only option available to voters is if they are sick or traveling. That could change, however, under legislation approved last week.

Under that legislation, anyone who is choosing to vote during New York’s early voting period, can request a mail-in ballot. The voter will not need an excuse; they can simply choose to vote by mail during the early voting period, instead of going to a polling place.

However, once Governor Hochul signed the legislation into law, opponents filed suit to stop its implementation. Their argument is based on the results of a 2021 public referendum that asked voters whether New York’s Constitution should be changed with regard to absentee ballots. As mentioned earlier, the Constitution only allows a voter to obtain an absentee ballot if they are ill or traveling.

The rationale for the question being on the ballot in the first place was in reaction to the COVID pandemic. It was widely viewed that voters preferred the option of requesting an absentee ballot without an excuse. That ballot question, however, was defeated, so the status quo stayed in place.

This new measure is not based on a change to the state Constitution. It is focused on the early voting period—a topic not addressed in the Constitution. The Constitution leaves decisions on how voting should occur to the Legislature and governor. The Constitution solely addresses the absentee issue, specifically placing a procedural limit on that constitutional right.

Opponents argue that the newly approved legislation is simply an end run around the Constitutional restriction on absentee ballots. Supporters argue that it is, in fact, addressing a different issue. The opponents do raise an important question: If voters oppose a measure to make it easier for a voter to obtain an absentee ballot, does that mean nothing can be done in New York to allow mail in ballots, short of a constitutional change—no matter how good of an idea?

Voting by mail is a demonstrated way to boost voter participation. The evidence in other states is solid on that question. If opponents prevail, the only way voters can have easy access to voting by mail is if approved through a constitutional amendment. New York’s courts will have the final say on that question.

Cuomo Wins Another Round to Protect His Multi-million Dollar Book Deal

Posted by NYPIRG on September 18, 2023 at 9:05 am

Former Governor Cuomo scored a victory last week in his legal fight to keep $5 million for a book about how he handled the COVID pandemic.  A state judge ruled that the agency looking into whether the former governor violated the state’s ethics code by using government resources to write his book was unconstitutionally constructed.  In doing so, the judge shut down – at least in the short term – the ethics agency’s investigation and may have blown up ethics oversight in New York.  

Before a look into that decision, here is some background.

The former governor was widely praised for his presentations on the COVID pandemic – presentations that stood in stark contrast to the too often incoherent and inaccurate messages that came out of the Trump Administration.

Cuomo’s daily COVID briefings became must-see TV for Americans starved for information on the pandemic and how they could best protect themselves.  At the height of his popularity, Mr. Cuomo made a decision to write a book and cash in on his national celebrity.

New York’s governor is the best paid in the nation and is considered a full-time employee – one that cannot have outside income, unless reviewed and approved by the ethics agency.

Apparently after initiating the publishing deal, the governor had his government staff seek approval from the state’s ethics agency, then known as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).  The governor’s staff, using official state letterhead and during the workday reached out to JCOPE and quickly obtained permission for the deal.  There is more to the story than this, but that agreement was based on a key restriction: that Governor Cuomo could not use public resources – including staff – to write the book.  (The book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, was published in 2021.)

It was that provision that a JCOPE investigation found the governor had violated.  According to the investigation, the former governor used staff to work on the book, and negotiate with the publisher, and used state resources to assemble the manuscript.

JCOPE had hired an outside law firm to review the situation and that firm agreed with the agency’s previous conclusion: that Governor Cuomo “misused the power and authority of his office to create, market and promote for enormous personal profit a work that not only was derivative of his official duties but could only have been brought into existence and completed on schedule through the . . . assistance of a group of Executive Chamber and other state officials.”

Mr. Cuomo has argued that any staff involvement was done “voluntarily.”  The JCOPE investigation found otherwise and it began proceedings to claw back the $5 million Cuomo pocketed from the book agreement.  The first round of litigation went to the former governor when a court ruled that JCOPE had violated due process procedures in determining the former governor violated the ethics laws. 

After Cuomo resigned, Governor Hochul replaced JCOPE with a new ethics agency, the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (COELIG).  That Commission revived the book deal investigation, and the former governor filed a suit to challenge the authority of the new agency. 

Last week’s decision was regarding Cuomo’s challenge to the new agency.

As part of the new ethics commission structure, Governor Hochul made a laudatory attempt to make the entity more independent. One key measure was to allow the deans of New York’s law schools to review ethics commission candidates in order to ensure that they met certain qualifications.  As part of his decision, the judge found that the new ethics law’s reliance on those deans to review the qualifications of nominees was an unconstitutional ceding of the governor’s authority.  In essence, the judge decided that the state constitution forbids the governor from approving the selection of “independent” ethics commission members and that, when it comes to state ethics enforcement, the governor must police herself.

If the judge’s ruling holds up, it will be back to the drawing board for ethics enforcement in New York.  The judge held that the state constitution must be amended for the governor’s appointees to be independent and for the governor to cede ethics enforcement to a state agency. 

It has been reported that the state will appeal the decision which will likely keep the status quo in place, but if that appeal upholds the decision, New York’s ethics enforcement law will be vaporized.  And if the state’s appeal fails, it may undermine other laws that require governmental appointees to be independent of the governor’s influence.  Remember, all these changes were made because of scandals and corruption in New York’s recent political past.

Reformers have long argued that the key to adequate ethics enforcement hinges on the independence of the responsible agency.  In addition, previous reforms have required that political appointees pledge they will always put the interests of the public ahead of the interests of the appointing authority.  Those reforms now hinge on an appeal.  The former governor’s efforts to protect his book-deal millions may make the risk of corruption greater.  Time will tell.

Taking Action to Avoid Climate Catastrophe

Posted by NYPIRG on September 11, 2023 at 9:10 am

When it comes to climate, this year has been horrendous.  Wildfires across Canada were so bad that the air in New York City turned orange; there was massive flooding in New York, Europe, Brazil, and China (among others); “heat domes” made life miserable in the United States and nearly impossible in the Middle East; and there were the rising sea levels and melting polar caps.  All in all, it’s hard not to be depressed about the fate of the planet.

Our political debates are almost as bad as the deteriorating climate.  The oil, coal and gas industries are pulling back their “green” investments and battling legislation to protect the planet from a worsening environment.  They have been so successful that leading candidates for President are saying that an appropriate response to greenhouse gas warming is to push the pedal to the metal and rely more heavily on fossil fuels, despite the overwhelming science that says to do the opposite.

That fossil fuel industry’s public relations jiu-jitsu brings to mind Chico Marx in the movie “Duck Soup” when he gets caught red handed and says “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

In the last year alone our eyes have seen it all – floods, wildfires, deadly heat and pollution.  Obviously, something must be done, not anti-science flim flam, but tangible steps to avoid climate catastrophe.

Luckily, the scientific consensus that the planet is heating up largely due to the burning of fossil fuels points to an obvious response – wean the world off those fuels and shift to a green economy.  But those options have been well known for years, with little policy actions.  The power of Big Oil and their political henchmen have been successful in blocking needed changes, all the while making enormous profits

So, what can you do?

It’s pretty clear that despite the overwhelming scientific conclusion that the burning of fossil fuels is a key driver in the planet heating up and that we are seeing the impacts with our own eyes, the problem of climate catastrophe is a political one – and one that needs a political response.

It’s time to take it to the streets.

This Sunday is an opportunity for individuals to stand up to the oil lobby and push the political establishment toward meaningful action.  On September 20th, the United Nations Secretary-General is convening a Climate Ambition Summit at United Nations Headquarters in New York.  The UN Secretary-General called for a global climate action summit in New York City and the “ticket to entry” for countries will be tangible action to keep fossil fuels in the ground – in the form of policies, and not just empty declarations.

The Summit presents a critical milestone for demonstrating politically that there is collective global will to accelerate the pace and scale of a just transition to a more equitable renewable-energy based, climate-resilient global economy.

To show the world’s leaders that there is widespread, potent public support for climate action, concerned individuals are organizing a “March to End Fossil Fuels” that will take place on Sunday, September 17th in New York City.

The march will start on Broadway, between 54th and 57th Streets in Manhattan and proceed on 52nd Street and end with a rally at 1st Ave and 50th St.  For those of you who are familiar with New York City, that route is flat and about 1.5 miles.

There are coordinated transportation options for those who want to attend, including for travel from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, and upstate New York. 

Of course, participation in one rally doesn’t win the day.  It will take consistent, fierce advocacy to shift the political dynamic toward protecting the planet.  But this Sunday is one way to show your determination, either by showing up for the march, or by calling your Congressional representatives to tell them that you support climate action, not inaction.

New York’s Premier College Financial Aid Program Is Wrapping up Its 50th Year

Posted by NYPIRG on September 4, 2023 at 9:57 am

New York colleges and universities have opened and with it comes the excitement of new educational and personal experiences for the students.  But for nearly all, the escalating cost of attending college and the resulting student debt looms.

By now it is well established that getting a college degree can be extremely costly. 

The cost of college has steadily increased at a pace that exceeds the nation’s inflation rate.  Nationally, over the past 20 years the average cost of college tuition and fees at public four-year institutions has risen 9% annually on average.  The rise in tuition between public institutions and independent (private) ones is different, but the conclusion is the same – the costs of attending college have been rising for decades and are increasing at a rate faster than overall inflation.

With college costs rising at a rate faster than the incomes of most Americans, college students and their families took out loans to make up the difference.  As costs rose, so did the amount borrowed.  The impact has been well documented.  The data paint a troubling picture:

  • Nearly 44 million Americans have federal student debt.
  • In total, the U.S. has over $1.77 trillion in outstanding student debt.
  • Student loans are the second-largest type of consumer-generated debt behind mortgages, accounting for 9.5 percent of the nation’s consumer debt.
  • Over half (54 percent) of college undergraduates finish college with student loan debt.

The debate over how to address this enormous debt burden has been among the top domestic concerns for the Biden Administration.  Yet, the underlying discussion over how best to reduce the initial costs of attending college has been more directly a state issue.

New York, like the rest of the nation, has for decades shifted the costs of higher education from the public to the families of college students.  During that time, the shift was largely done out of sight, during last minute state budget deals.  The burden-shift policy became most explicit during the Cuomo Administration.  The former governor made a big deal out of the need for “predictable tuition” increases and drove the state toward adopting that approach starting in 2011.  For the next decade nearly constant hikes raised tuition rates by more than 42%, yet direct state aid to colleges was largely stagnant.

For five decades, New York has helped to offset the costs of attending college through its Tuition Assistance Program, known as “TAP.”  TAP was established in the early 1970s as the way of directing financial aid to the neediest students in both the public and independent college sectors.  In its first academic year (1974), the program offered $1,500 for the neediest students to cover tuition.  While the $1,500 was in excess of the maximum public tuition charged at the State University and the City University of New York, the goal at that time also was to help stabilize the costs of attending college in the independent (private) college sector.  At that time, the existing state support for independent colleges and universities covered only 22% of private tuition (the maximum state financial aid award to a private college student prior to TAP was $600).  The goal of the then-new TAP assistance was to boost that support to cover half of independent college tuition for the neediest students. 

Today, the maximum TAP award does not cover public college tuition and comes nowhere near half of the costs of tuition costs for independent colleges.  Add to that the significant additional fees charged at public institutions, which are not covered by TAP, and books and housing, it’s easy to see how college has become increasingly unaffordable – unless loans are taken out. 

A lot has changed on college campuses since the early 1970s.  A college degree is far more necessary than it was five decades ago.  Today’s college students are older, more likely to be female, and far more diverse than in 1974.  Also, a lot more students have to work to afford college (in addition to the increased debts).

In one of the more bizarre policy decisions, despite an increased need for more students to go into graduate programs, in 2010, the state ended TAP assistance for graduate programs.

With the fifty-year anniversary of TAP, it makes sense for Governor Hochul and state lawmakers to modernize the program to fit the needs of today’s college students – both undergraduate and graduate – and to do it in a way that will help stabilize both public and independent colleges in New York. 

Educating the state’s future workforce and citizens is not only a powerful rationale for making college more affordable, but investments in higher education also pay dividends as an economic strategy – every dollar of public investment gets paid back in multiple dollars of economic activity.  The governor and the Legislature can act to make sure TAP’s 50th anniversary is a golden one that lays the foundation to meet the needs of students over the next half century.