Archive for December 2023

Governor Hochul Has a Busy Week

Posted by NYPIRG on December 25, 2023 at 11:57 am

New York’s 2023 legislative session is nearly complete – six months after lawmakers left Albany. The state Legislature normally meets during the first six months of the year. During that time, they approve a budget and typically pass hundreds of bills covering a wide range of topics.

This year, lawmakers approved nearly 900 bills, of which more than 600 were approved in June, the last month of the session. The fact that the vast bulk of legislation was approved at the end of session is not unusual, it is typical.

Under the state Constitution, once the bills have passed both houses, they are sent to the governor for her approval. The rules that you learned in civics class are clear to that point, but in Albany things get murkier when it comes to how approved legislation is managed once the Legislature acts.

In New York, the legislative house that approved the legislation first controls when it goes to the governor. In order to keep the governor’s office from being overwhelmed, there is an informal agreement that the governor requests batches of bills when her staff is ready to review them. Under the law, all approved legislation must go to the governor by the end of the calendar year.

As a practical matter, the governor’s office often holds back on its requests for legislation to be sent if her staff are concerned about aspects of the legislation, or they expect that they will have to veto a bill that has popular support.

Thus, December is the big month for gubernatorial action. Vetoing popular legislation is best done when the public is not paying attention – like during the holiday season.

As of December 1st, 728 of the 896 bills that were approved had been acted upon – approved or vetoed – by the governor. It became clear that December would once again be the critical month for important action. So far, that has been the case.

During the past week, the governor has been busy. She approved 46 bills, some noteworthy. Governor Hochul approved legislation to move election day for some local offices from odd-numbered years to even-numbered ones. Her justification was that voters are more likely to go to the polls in even-numbered years and therefore making the switch would boost voter participation in local races (she’s right). The governor also approved a bill that establishes the New York State

Community Commission on Reparations Remedies to examine New York’s history with the institution of slavery, the subsequent racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, and to make recommendations on appropriate remedies.

The governor also approved the so-called “birds and bees protection act,” which limits the use of a certain insecticide that can cause harm to bees, birds, and other pollinators. She also approved legislation that requires the disclosure of the “beneficial owners” of limited liability companies (LLCs). Currently, those LLCs are businesses whose owners are often secret. The legislation requires that the LLCs disclose those entities who own the companies. Both of those last two bills were approved by the governor, but only after she secured promises of significant revisions to the legislation. For example, under the LLC legislation approved by the Legislature, the information about the owners would be made publicly available in a searchable database. The governor insisted that the requirement be removed. As part of the agreements, the changes will have to be approved during the next legislative session.

During that same week, the governor vetoed 43 bills. She vetoed a bill that would have prohibited “non-compete agreements and certain restrictive covenants.” Non-compete agreements are sometimes required by employers, and they prohibit or restrict employees from getting jobs with businesses that compete with the company they work for. The governor also vetoed legislation that would have restricted state agencies from purchasing tropical hardwoods, since such purchasing leads to the destruction of important natural resources. The governor cited cost concerns. She also vetoed a bill that would have required the reporting of lobbying to influence the appointment of public officials subject to state Senate approval. Ironically, that last veto was framed as a way to protect those who were spending the money to influence gubernatorial appointments while the governor stated her commitment to transparency.

As the year draws to a close, there are only four bills left, the most notable is legislation to change New York State’s “wrongful death” law, which has been on the books with little change since 1847. Wrongful death cases are what they sound like: lawsuits brought after someone dies due to the negligence of another. The bill modernizes the definition of family to one more consistent with that found in 2023 and allows recovery for the emotional losses of surviving loved ones, as is the case in 48 other states. In addition, the governor hasn’t yet acted on legislation to change the new voluntary system of public financing for elections. This bill makes changes in the program that just started last year. The legislation has been roundly criticized by civic groups who are urging a veto.

With a handful of bills left, the governor’s work will be done – just in time. Lawmakers return in two weeks. And the process will start all over again.

New York’s Highest Court Allows a Redistricting “Do Over”

Posted by NYPIRG on December 18, 2023 at 8:15 am

December is usually a quiet time in Albany. The Capitol is buzzing, but most of the activity flies below the public’s radar. Usually, the only visible stirring is around decisions by the governor to veto popular legislation that she doesn’t like. December is a good time to do that since most New Yorkers are focused on the holidays, not the antics at the state Capitol.

Yet, last week big news was made by the state’s highest court, sending shockwaves through New York’s political establishment and reverberating nationally.

In a split decision, the Court of Appeals decided that the political boundaries of New York’s Congressional districts can be redrawn by the state’s so-called Independent Redistricting Commission. The IRC was established in 2014 as part of the state Constitution and was charged with establishing the political boundaries of the state Senate, Assembly, and New York Congressional districts. Usually drawing district lines takes place once a decade after the U.S. census is released – thereby adjusting political boundaries to account for population shifts.

The IRC was the brainchild of former Governor Cuomo. Its structure allows for equal representation of Democrats and Republicans on its 10-member board, making it a bipartisan commission, not an independent one. In simplest terms, the Commission develops the maps for federal and state offices and then the Legislature and the governor approve or reject them.

Under the redistricting rules, the IRC develops maps and the Legislature then approves them with no changes or rejects them. If rejected, the IRC then develops a second set of maps, also subject to thumbs up or thumbs down vote by the Legislature. If the second set of maps fails to get approval, the Legislature is allowed to draft maps of its own subject to the governor’s approval.

The lines drawn after the 2020 census were the first under this new system. Critics had argued that the bipartisan nature of the IRC would lend itself to gridlock unless the two major political parties could come to an agreement – unlikely when faced with consequential political decisions.

In the debate over the maps for the 2022 elections, gridlock occurred. The IRC could not agree on maps, so the Democratic and Republican members of the IRC sent separate maps to the Democrat-dominated Legislature, which rejected them. Then the IRC could not agree on advancing a second set of maps, so the Legislature stepped in and approved one of their own.

Republicans challenged that decision and in the litigation that followed, the Court of Appeals rejected the Legislatively-drawn maps, saying that they had acted unconstitutionally since they had not received the second set of maps from the IRC. Instead, the court drafted maps of its own for Congress and the Legislature for the 2022 election.

Those court-drawn maps helped Republican candidates in New York and contributed to the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in Washington.

After that election, Democrats challenged those lines in advance of the 2024 election arguing that the court-drawn lines were only for that one election cycle and that the court should allow the IRC another chance to draw lines as required under the state Constitution.

Last week, the court sided with the Democrats and the IRC now has the responsibility to get its plan approved before the end of February in order to ensure that primary campaigns and elections can run smoothly at the end of June.

This is no small matter: Those new lines could have a profound impact on the future of the nation – and the world.

Right now, Republicans have a 4-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives (N.Y. Republican Congressman Santos was recently kicked out). According to the Cook Political Report, New York has six incumbents that are considered vulnerable, five Republicans and one Democrat (who is in a district that “leans” Democrat).

All of those incumbents won their 2022 races with razor-thin majorities. Thus, whichever political party dominates those races may well control the House in 2025. Control of the House has obvious national implications, but it also may determine world history. For example, the current Republican House majority has blocked U.S. support for Ukraine as it defends itself from the unprovoked Russian invasion. Democrats see that matter otherwise. Control of the House may determine the outcome of that war.

Given the high stakes in redistricting, it should not be overlooked that the “do over” of Congressional map drawing is the result of the fatally flawed redistricting change in 2014. Allowing the two major political parties to decide political boundaries is like allowing the “fox to guard the henhouse.” That the foxes could not agree is no surprise.

Unfortunately, across the nation partisan actions like in New York are the rule – not the exception. In far too many states, partisan considerations drive the decisions about political boundaries, not what’s best for the public.

Changes are needed both in New York and in the nation. Independent, professionally-run, competent commissions using stringent criteria should be developing the political boundaries of the nation, not those appointed by the political parties. Until that system is put in place, we will all suffer under the current savageries that are the hallmark of the modern American political system.

Governor Hochul Vetoes Lobbying Reform

Posted by NYPIRG on December 11, 2023 at 10:40 am

Under New York’s Constitution, legislation approved by both the Senate and Assembly must be delivered to the governor for her approval before the end of the calendar year. Under those rules, the Chamber that approved the legislation first “controls” when the legislation is sent to the governor. The governor then has 10 business days to sign or veto the legislation. If the governor vetoes the legislation, the Legislature can override her action with two-thirds majority votes in each house.

Under those rules, technically one house could overwhelm the governor’s office by submitting hundreds of bills at one time and forcing the governor’s staff to work around the clock to review those approved bills. Under those circumstances big mistakes could be made. In order to avoid such a mess, there is an informal agreement between the executive and the Legislature to send legislatively-approved bills in batches. Those batches are requested by the governor’s office when they are ready to review the bills.

Once December gets underway, there are lots of bills whose fate hangs in the balance. Frequently, the governor’s office requests bills that they don’t like – but are publicly popular – during the holiday season and acts on them when few are paying attention.

Late last week, Governor Hochul announced her veto of legislation that would have expanded the definition of lobbying to include efforts to influence the state Senate’s deliberations over confirming gubernatorial appointees.

Under New York law, attempts to influence many state and local governmental decisions are considered lobbying if the advocates spend $5,000 or more in their overall efforts. If such advocacy is considered lobbying, those entities are required to report their activities to the state’s ethics agency, the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (COELIG). Under current law, efforts to influence legislation, legislative resolutions, executive orders, agency rules or regulations, government purchasing, or utility rates, are considered lobbying.

Thus, under New York law, lobbying to influence the appointment of a member of the state Board of Regents (which oversees education) is considered lobbying since the appointment is done through a joint resolution of the Senate and Assembly. However, attempts to influence the state Senate’s confirmation of gubernatorial appointees – such as membership of the Public Service Commission, or heads of agencies, or judicial appointments to the top court – are not considered lobbying, since none require the use of a resolution. Ironically, attempts to influence utility rates is lobbying, but attempts to influence the commissioners who set those rates are not.

These loopholes in the state’s lobbying law were thrown into stark relief in the recent fight over Governor Hochul’s nomination of a chief judge to oversee the state’s top court, the Court of Appeals.

As reported, lots of money was spent both in advancing and opposing the candidacy of Hochul’s pick. But because of the loophole, the exact spending remains a mystery.

Legislation was approved with bipartisan support by both the Senate (introduced by Senate Deputy Majority Leader Gianaris) and in the Assembly (introduced by Assemblymember McDonald who chairs the Governmental Operations Committee). The vote in the Senate was 46-16 and in the Assembly it passed unanimously. It was that legislation that the governor vetoed last week. Both houses appear to have the two-thirds votes to override the governor’s veto if they chose to do so.

The governor’s rationale for her veto was two-fold: she argued that the legislation would add new costs for oversight to the state’s ethics agency, and that the legislation was written to go into effect on January 1st of this year (2023), which would mean that those who did not report their advocacy on the chief judge pick would retroactively have to do so.

Both are pretty weak arguments. In terms of costs, it’s the advocates who would have to comply, the COELIG simply receives the information and then publishes it. The second complaint is trickier, in that it is true that those who spent money to influence the judicial nomination expected their efforts to remain secret and now it would become public.

Yet, doesn’t the public deserve to know that information? After all, a big bucks public campaign to swing a Senate vote for the state’s top judge is a big deal, the outcome of which would surely impact the public. Moreover, what’s the harm in reporting that spending?

So, now what? The sponsors will decide how they wish to proceed: override or re-pass the legislation next year. It is expected that there will be some activity in the area of lobbying and ethics reform since earlier this month the ethics agency has advanced its legislative recommendations.

While there are limits over how advocacy efforts should be disclosed, surely efforts to influence the state Senate’s consideration of gubernatorial appointments should be within the bounds of reporting. In her veto message, the governor cited her commitment to “transparency” in government. Let’s hope that one year from now, that commitment shows itself through a stronger lobbying reporting program.

New York State’s Higher Education Policies Are Again in the Spotlight

Posted by NYPIRG on December 4, 2023 at 9:03 am

A week after the state Assembly Higher Education Committee held a hearing on the state’s student financial assistance programs, the impact of New York’s higher education fiscal policies came under renewed scrutiny.

The attention is the result of the decision of the College of Saint Rose, a hundred-year-old college based in Albany N.Y., to close its doors after the Spring 2024 academic semester. The private college’s finances had eroded significantly since 2014 and its last-minute decision to seek a government bailout was not timely enough to forestall its closure.

That another independent (private) college was closing its doors, unfortunately, is not news. Over the past few years, ten New York State schools that confer degrees have closed and three more (in addition to Saint Rose) have announced their closures.

The college identified a drop in enrollment and the impact of the COVID pandemic as the bases for its financial collapse.

The reasons for the closure will undoubtedly be investigated to tease out what other issues, such as poor management decisions (the campus was deeply in debt for example), that contributed to Saint Rose’s failure. After all, there are plenty of colleges in New York – including two dozen public colleges – with declining enrollments and all had to deal with the pandemic.

But for the students and employees of Saint Rose, the news is devastating. The college’s students will have to find a new college to attend – and hope that they can afford the new college and transfer their credits. Hundreds of CSR employees face unemployment as of May of 2024. For the community at large, it’s bad news too. The College owned nearly 90 properties right in the middle of the City of Albany. Unless those parcels get purchased, the closure will be like the financial equivalent of a “neutron bomb” hitting the City, and property values could plummet. Small businesses that serve the college’s students and staff will also take a huge hit.

 Saint Rose is just the latest casualty in New York’s higher education system. The financial failures of private colleges are not just a New York State phenomenon. Colleges across the nation are struggling, reportedly for similar reasons: dropping enrollments and the disruption caused by the COVID pandemic.

There is little that the state can do about pandemics and not much it can do to help boost enrollments at private colleges, but New York’s fiscal policies have contributed to the financial stress of smaller private colleges – as well as the finances of four-year and two-year public colleges.

Until the middle of the 20th Century, New York’s system of higher education was based in the private sector. That changed with the creation of the State University of New York in 1948. At that time, lawmakers stipulated that SUNY “would only supplement the private institutions and not compete with them.” That changed when former Governor Nelson Rockefeller turbocharged SUNY to one of the largest public institutions in the nation. Seventy-five years later, public and private colleges have educated millions of students and are economic and cultural anchors for communities across the state.

There are two recent changes to the state’s assistance to private colleges that have contributed to the current crisis. The first is the state’s reduction in aid through its Bundy Aid program.

Bundy Aid is the state’s only unrestricted aid to private colleges to help ensure assistance in providing financial and institutional help to college students. The program was started in the late 1960s at the same time as state support for SUNY was increasing.

Starting in the early 1990s, state support was cut to Bundy Aid and today is funded at $35 million, which is just 18 percent of statutory levels, meaning that the state should be spending some $200 million.

In addition to the cuts to the state’s unrestricted assistance to private colleges, under former Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York also curtailed direct financial assistance to college students, which further impacted state support. As part of the Cuomo-driven “SUNY 2020” initiative, New York severed the informal agreement that the maximum award under the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) would match the tuition charged at SUNY. Since TAP is available to both public and private college students, severing that relationship and then freezing the size of the maximum TAP award not only hurt public colleges (creating the now infamous “TAP gap,” which undermined SUNY college finances) it also hurt private colleges. Nearly one third of all college students in New York receiving TAP attend private colleges; thus freezing TAP awards financially impacted private colleges as well.

Undermining college finances not only impacts students and employees, as seen by the plight of the College of Saint Rose, it hurts communities. Many of the colleges in upstate New York are the economic engines of their communities. When they shut down, those communities are devastated. In terms of the state’s assistance policies, curtailing support for colleges harms economic development by cutting jobs and pummeling local economies.

As Albany considers what should and can be done about its weakening higher education sector, it should stack up college support against its current $10 billion spending on economic development programs. Investing in higher education always results in positive economic returns, which cannot be said for some other state development programs.