Archive for January 2024

Governor Hochul’s Budget Plans for Democracy in NY

Posted by NYPIRG on January 29, 2024 at 8:35 am

Buried deep in Governor Hochul’s budget plans are measures that can have a big impact on democracy in New York.  While virtually anything in a budget can impact democracy, the governor’s budget plans offer measures to reduce the influence of special interests and impact public oversight.

Reducing the influence of big money donors in state elections will bolster democracy in New York.  In her budget, the governor proposed $100 million to provide money for the state’s new voluntary system of public financing for candidates running for state office.

Allowing a voluntary system of public financing – a system that rewards candidates who collect a large number of small contributions – has been long advocated by reformers in New York.  An early call came from a commission established by Governor Mario Cuomo in the 1980s.  That commission – known as the Feerick Commission after its chairman law school dean John Feerick – reviewed the state’s campaign financing system, ethics laws, and public accountability measures.  Their reviews, based on research and public hearings, led to the publication of over 20 reports released through the end of the Cuomo era in 1994. 

The Feerick Commission was more formally known as the Commission on Government Integrity and was established through the state’s Moreland Act, which grants the governor the authority to establish such an entity in order to root out corruption. 

The Feerick Commission’s judgment on New York’s campaign financing system was devastating:  The state system, it concluded, was a “disgrace” and an “embarrassment.”  The Commission then scolded state leaders for failing to act, “Instead partisan, personal and vested interests have been allowed to come before larger public interests.”

The Feerick Commission called for a voluntary system of public financing and that call had been echoed over the thirty-five years since.  In 2020, a new law was approved that instituted many (but not all) of the Feerick Commission recommendations.  No longer would New York have the highest campaign contribution limits of any state with limits.  Instead, lower contribution limits were approved (although still much higher than the national average) and a voluntary system of public financing was established.  The new law went into effect for the next state election cycle, right after the 2022 election.  So far, well over 100 candidates have joined the program.

At its core, the new program matches small donor contributions (up to $250) to candidates in state government races (governor, attorney general, comptroller, state legislature) with public resources.  For the legislative candidates, the smaller the contribution, the bigger the match. Thus, for the first $50 of a contribution, there is a $12 in public resources-to-$1 in contribution match.  Then it’s a ratio of $9-to-$1 for next $100, and finally $8-to-$1 match for the final $100.  As a result, a $250 contribution gets $2,300 public matching funds for a total of $2,550. 

The governor proposes that the state spend $100 million to provide the matching funds, which experts believe will be adequate for the upcoming legislative elections, if the Legislature agrees.

The governor’s budget plan also proposes spending boosts for the Board of Elections and the state’s new ethics watchdog, the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government. 

Unfortunately, the governor did not propose to close the lobbying loophole that allows special interests to secretly spend money to impact the state Senate’s decisions on gubernatorial appointees.  Under New York law, for example, spending money to influence the Public Service Commission’s decision on utility rates is considered lobbying, but spending money to influence who is chosen to head the Public Service Commission is not.  Such a distinction makes no sense, but it’s the law.  Legislation that would have closed that loophole was vetoed by Governor Hochul last year and it is expected that lawmakers will make another run at closing it again.

In one area, the governor’s budget plan cuts a funding request made by a state watchdog.  The state Commission on Judicial Conduct is the agency responsible for investigating complaints made against judges.  Facing an increasing workload, the Commission had requested $770,000 in additional funding.  Yet in her budget plan, the governor cut that request and instead proposed a $184,000 increase.

Similar reductions in the increase in state aid are found throughout the governor’s budget.  The Hochul Administration presented a budget that proposes to close a multi-billion-dollar budget gap without raising taxes.  Yet, given the world we live in, a world in which democracy is under constant attack, preserving the ability of agency watchdogs to do their jobs should be at – or near – the top of any budget plan.  Lawmakers will soon get their chance to finalize the state’s budget plan.  Keeping the good proposals, while rejecting the bad, will be a real test of their commitment to protecting New York’s democracy.

New York’s Budget Makers Examine Health Care

Posted by NYPIRG on January 22, 2024 at 8:39 am

“First do no harm.”  The Hippocratic Oath is a solemn ethics pledge historically taken by physicians.  It requires a new physician to swear to uphold specific ethical standards, most notably by ensuring patient safety. It is an oath that is the bedrock of appropriate medical care.

In Governor Hochul’s executive budget, tens of billions of dollars will be spent on health care. Health care groups have argued that the governor’s plan is simply not enough to cover the costs of programs, most notably Medicaid.

Yet, too little attention has been devoted to the quality of the medical care that the state, employers, and individuals pay for. There is considerable evidence that the quality of hospital care is too often substandard, and therefore it must be a priority of lawmakers to ensure that steps are taken to address the uneven quality of care as part of any final budget agreement.

Poorer quality of care can drive higher expenses.  A key measure in assessing the quality of hospital care, for example, is “readmission” rates.  Research from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) shows that hospital readmission costs were higher than initial admission costs for about two-thirds of common diagnoses in 2016. Thus, appropriately reducing hospital readmissions not only provides better care, but is less costly. 

The costs of substandard care are well-documented. In November 1999 the Institute of Medicine report, To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System, was released. It documented an epidemic of preventable deaths in United States hospitals. In September 2009, the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, wrote this about To Err Is Human: “Let me be clear: I am just as frustrated as my colleagues in the public and private sectors with our slow rate of progress in preventing and reducing medical errors.” A widely-covered study published in 2023 reported that 400,000 U.S. hospital patients experienced some type of preventable harm each year.  

The costs resulting from these patient injuries and deaths are enormous. According to one estimate, the annual cost of measurable medical errors that harm patients was $20 billion. Since New York State is approximately 6 percent of the nation’s population––and if the quality of care were universally distributed (which it is not) — the state’s additional costs could be roughly $1 billion. However, there is compelling evidence that the quality of health care in New York is worse than the rest of the nation.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services annually publishes, which reports the quality of the nation’s hospitals and other providers to the public. Researchers use that information to compare states. One organization, the “Leapfrog Group” (established by the nation’s large employers in 2000 in order to measure “hospital performance, empowering purchasers to find the highest-value care and giving consumers the lifesaving information they need to make informed decisions”) has issued annual reports on the quality of American hospital care for over 20 years.  Over those two decades New York has been consistently ranked poorly.

This past year’s Leapfrog Group report found that New York State ranked 42nd nationwide in terms of quality, with only 11.3 percent of hospitals receiving an “A” grade.

Why do New York hospitals perform comparatively so much worse?  In July 2019 the director of Leapfrog Group explained what she knew about New York’s hospital safety:

“The system as a whole didn’t seem to have emphasized safety. We’ve seen other states work together and look at what’s working well at other states and implement it. It just doesn’t seem to be happening in New York.” 

This week, state lawmakers will hold a hearing on the governor’s proposed health budget. New York hospitals’ consistent poor performance should be a top line of inquiry. Here are some questions that lawmakers should be asking of the state’s regulator of hospital safety, the New York State Department of Health: 

  • Why did New York State hospitals rank so poorly?
  • What has the New York Department of Health done to respond to the national rankings that have consistently found poor quality in state hospitals? 
  • What progress has New York State made in meeting its goal to reduce by half New York’s hospital patients’ injuries and deaths, a promise made 20 years ago?

When we go to the hospital, we should all expect that all is being done to make us better, not worse.  It seems too often clear that isn’t happening in New York.  State lawmakers should use the budget process to get to the bottom of why New York’s hospitals are falling short of the oath to “first do no harm.”

Albany’s Poetry and Prose

Posted by NYPIRG on January 15, 2024 at 8:55 am

Mario Cuomo once famously remarked, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” This metaphor, highlighting the shift from rhetoric to reality, applies to various contexts. A good example is the governor’s State of the State address.  The governor’s State of the State is a requirement of the job.  The state Constitution demands that “The governor shall communicate by message to the legislature at every session the condition of the state and recommend such matters to it as he or she shall judge expedient.”

In modern times the State of the State speech is delivered with much of the pomp found in the State of the Union address given by the President.  The State of the State is delivered before a joint session of the state Senate and the state Assembly and is covered by media outlets across the state.  The speech is typically delivered at the beginning of the legislative session and offers the governor’s vision and her plans to make the state better.  Usually the one hour or so speech comes with a detailed policy book that outlines initiatives that the governor will advance.

The State of the State is the “poetry” of the governor’s agenda.

Her “prose” shows up in her budget address.  Again, it is the state Constitution that requires that she submit “on or before the second Tuesday following the first day of the annual meeting of the legislature” a budget to the Legislature.  (In the first budget after a gubernatorial election, the governor has until February 1st to deliver the budget plan.) 

The budget presentation is where the rubber hits the road.  Given the necessary level of details in a budget, soaring rhetoric is insufficient.  The governor must make it clear what she proposes the state do, how much programs will cost, and how those programs will be funded. 

Last week, Governor Hochul offered poetry while covering a wide range of topics in her third State of the State address.  The media coverage tracked her overall vision:  She focused on fighting crime yet said virtually nothing about the migrant crisis that has overwhelmed New York City.  She cited the state’s need to build affordable housing but sketched out only a modest plan focusing on working with New York City.  She made little reference to how she intended to offset the state’s looming budget crisis – unless actions are taken, the state is projected to run deficits over the next three years.

Her poetry was more detailed in the policy book that accompanied the speech.  For example, she devoted a section to the worsening climate crisis and the need for a wide range of actions.  Yet, she ignored the huge and mounting costs and how to pay for them.  She’s not alone when it comes to ignoring the worsening climate crisis in New York and the staggering – and mounting – expenses to protect communities and to restore damaged infrastructure.

That topic, if it’s discussed at all, will be part of the governor’s proposed executive budget, due to be released on January 16th

It is the governor’s budget plan that will dominate the first few months of the legislative session.  Her plan is subject to public hearings for a month, then a largely secretive budget negotiation between the governor’s office and the leadership of the Senate and the Assembly.  The final budget is supposed to be approved by April 1st, but in recent years that deadline was ignored.  Last year, for example, the governor insisted that criminal justice changes be included in the budget, holding up the final deal and passage until the end of April.

There has been a lot of debate – correctly – that the state is facing a crisis that stems from the increase in migrants seeking new lives in New York.  Over the past 18 months, 140,000 migrants and asylum seekers have arrived in New York.  How the state handles these new arrivals – in terms of providing housing, food, and opportunity – is undoubtedly an enormous task.

Yet, recent storms have caused enormous damage across New York.  The two most recent storms have hit Long Island particularly hard causing incredible erosion of its south shore.  Of course, damage goes far beyond coastal erosion and includes extensive flooding and other structural damages. 

In the governor’s State of the State policy book, she devotes a section to “Protecting New Yorkers from Extreme Weather.”  In that section, the governor discusses plans to protect homes – including buying out properties that are at risk – to update homes and buildings for hotter temperatures, to address coastal erosion, and to tackle aging dams that will be handling stronger storm surges. 

Her plans, however, said little about how to pay for these – and other – proposals.  So far, the governor has saddled climate damages onto New York taxpayers.  But as these costs mount – and they will – the financial pressures will squeeze taxpayers as never before.  Unless the governor devises another way – like supporting legislation to make the largest oil companies pick up these costs – a new crisis is brewing and it’s one that is only going to get worse.  The prose in the governor’s budget plans may give policymakers a clue as to how she will tackle the climate cost crisis. 

More Bad News for NY Colleges

Posted by NYPIRG on January 8, 2024 at 10:02 am

The drumbeat of bad news for New York’s public and independent colleges continues. Last month it was the news that the Albany-based 103 year old College of Saint Rose would be closing its doors. This month, the bad news is from public colleges within the State University system. The well-regarded SUNY Geneseo announced that it was facing a $10 million “financial crisis.”

SUNY Fredonia, experiencing a 40% enrollment decline, plans to cut 13 degree programs to address a $10 million deficit, while SUNY Potsdam is set to cut nine degree programs over several years to address a $9 million structural deficit. Financial struggles extend beyond these institutions, with SUNY’s four-year public colleges and community colleges encountering serious financial difficulties in recent years.

A recent SUNY report indicates that, if current expense and revenue trends persist, the system will face an annual budget shortfall of over $1 billion in 10 years. Several SUNY colleges, including SUNY Maritime, Delhi, and Buffalo State, are grappling with deficits as well.

None of this should come as a surprise. In recent years the financial strain at SUNY has been increasingly evident. Even before the covid pandemic, SUNY had been hemorrhaging enrollments. Covid made it worse.

There is no single explanation as to why this situation has occurred, but public policies seem to have been a contributing factor. The Cuomo Administration had perhaps the biggest impact with its so-called “SUNY 2020” plan. That plan instituted regular tuition hikes at public colleges and universities and also severed the relationship between increasing college student financial assistance through the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and the now rising costs of SUNY tuition.

It was that second aspect of SUNY 2020 that hurt colleges. Prior to the Cuomo plan, the maximum TAP award would go up every time SUNY tuition increased. This ensured that the poorest public college students would see their tuition costs covered. It had also helped boost independent (private) colleges by adding state support to those schools to cover a portion of their tuition costs as well.

The damage came when the Cuomo plan severed that relationship and froze TAP awards while public college tuition went up. That impacted public colleges since the state was not required to cover the difference between the maximum TAP award and the rising SUNY tuition. That “gap” swelled over time and became known as the “TAP gap.”

The TAP gap eroded public colleges’ finances as they were regularly being asked to cover rising tuition costs for their poorest students. Independent colleges were hit too. Since TAP awards were frozen, they too had to figure out ways to cover the financial assistance that would normally have come from the state’s TAP.

Rising costs coupled with restrained financial assistance contributed to a drop in enrollments. Fewer students equal less money for colleges that were already seeing reductions in state assistance. That “one-two” punch surely accelerated the weakening financial situations at SUNY – and smaller independent colleges – and the results are clearer every day.

Demographic trends have hurt too and the experience in New York is consistent with the national experience. Yet, pointing to the national demographic trends to explain the problem doesn’t lead to a policy response.

The knee-jerk reaction is to do more of the same: Shift increasing costs onto college students and their families. Instead, policymakers should be looking at the issue in a different way.

Colleges and universities have important jobs: they train the next generation of workers and help them to better understand civic life. In addition, they are economic engines that create jobs that stimulate and anchor local economies. They offer a stimulus to local economies that are virtually guaranteed to succeed.

Policymakers too often look at the newest “shiny object” when it comes to economic development policies. In New York, we have seen very expensive plans fail and in some cases even trigger corruption.

Why not view public investments in colleges and universities as the cornerstone to economic development instead of a pay-as-you-go experience for college students and their families?

Governor Hochul will soon unveil her budget plans. Will she follow the well-trod path of soaking college students and their families for the costs of higher education? Or will she look at the issue differently and view public investments in institutions of higher education as a social and economic good worthy of such support? Time will tell. Students, parents and college communities across the state will be paying close attention.

The Biggest Issue of 2023

Posted by NYPIRG on January 1, 2024 at 9:15 am

As we bid farewell to 2023, a year marked by global upheavals such as conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, and internal threats to democracy, the task of pinpointing the most pressing issue becomes a formidable challenge. Yet, when evaluating the threat that affects the largest swathes of humanity, the accelerating climate crisis emerges as the paramount concern.

The past eight years are already the hottest on record.  It is expected that 2023 will be the hottest in human recorded history.  The hotter climate drove extremes around the world in 2023.  For example, Phoenix Arizona saw 54 days of 110 degree temperatures or more, a new record.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t only the Southwest that endured brutal heat waves:  China, southern Europe and Latin America also saw intense heat.  There were also the devastating wildfires in Hawaii.

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Africa, Asia and South America all had their warmest Novembers on record.  North America had its second-warmest November, while Pacific Island nations comprising Oceania had their fifth-warmest November.

The toll of climate change wasn’t confined to far-flung areas; the northeastern United States faced its own share of climate-related disasters. New York was plagued with terrible air quality, at one point air that turned orange kept many indoors, thanks to unprecedented Canadian wildfires.

Deadly storms rocked the state; with serious flooding upstate, including the Adirondacks, and downstate, including Long Island and New York City.  There can be no doubt that as the climate warms, these types of storms will worsen.

The escalation of such storms is an undeniable consequence of a warming climate.

Here in New York, the economic ramifications are substantial.  A study by New York State Comptroller DiNapoli revealed that over a ten-year span, more than half of New York localities’ municipal spending outside of New York City was or will be linked to climate change. New York City may need to spend around $100 billion to upgrade its sewer systems to withstand intensified storms. And those costs are on top of the $52 billion that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated it will cost to protect New York Harbor from rising sea levels and storms.  Estimates suggest that Long Island alone could incur up to $100 billion in climate-related costs.

These financial burdens are projected to escalate, potentially reaching $10 billion annually for New Yorkers by the middle of the century.

Recognizing the untenable situation, 100 local elected officials in New York recently advocated for a legislative measure compelling major oil companies to contribute to climate-related expenses. This proposed legislation would demand these companies, responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions, to pay apportioned fees totaling $3 billion annually. The legislation aims to prevent these costs from being shifted onto the public, as confirmed by an independent think tank’s analysis.

However, despite these concerns, the Hochul Administration appears inclined to pass climate-related costs onto the taxpayers, with over $2 billion pledged for climate projects over the past year.

There are forces that are doing all they can to undermine the steps needed to address the worsening climate crisis.  They slavishly followed the lead of the fossil fuel industry and for years argued that climate change was a hoax.  We now know that the oil industry knew for years that the burning of fossil fuels would lead to a climate catastrophe, but they chose to mislead the public instead of helping the world to avoid the situation that we’re in now. 

Their supporters have now started to shed the “hoax” argument instead describing science-based environmental measures as “radical” and “unaffordable.”  Inaction in this area equals maintaining a disastrous – and worsening – status quo.  The urgency of the climate crisis calls for decisive action and dismissing environmental measures as “radical” or “unaffordable” perpetuates a perilous status quo.

As we step into the new year, we all must hope that among Governor Hochul’s resolutions is a commitment to maintaining New York’s leadership in transitioning to a renewable energy-powered economy and to also hold corporate climate polluters accountable for the mess they have contributed to.