Archive for November 2017

American Democracy Hits a New Low

Posted by NYPIRG on November 27, 2017 at 9:04 am
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There has been a palpable decline in political ethics in America.  What was once suspected – that elected officials could their trade policy positions for campaign contributions – has become more and more openly discussed.  It’s as if elected officials no longer see themselves as servants to the public, but instead as servants to the rich and powerful.

Americans long suspected that this has been the case.   Poll after poll has shown that Democrats and Republicans agree on this key point.  A poll in 2015 found that 84 percent of Americans think money has too much influence in political campaigns. Criticism of the role of political money cuts across party lines – large majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents all think money has too much influence.

But now, to some extent as a result of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have eroded prosecutors’ ability to enforce anti-corruption laws, coupled with the obvious disdain that the President shows toward acceptable ethical standards, members of Congress are now openly admitting that their policy positions are directly connected to the wishes of their campaign donors, even if the public disagrees.

Earlier in the year, the evidence was based on the effort to repeal federal health insurance coverage.  Key Republican operatives concerned about their party’s midterm re-election push were warned that donors were refusing to contribute until the Congressional majorities produced victories.  In one private meeting, it was reported that “Donors are furious.”  These donors were not concerned that millions of Americans would lose their health care coverage and that some would get unnecessarily sick, instead they were “furious” because Congressional Republicans haven’t kept their promise to eliminate insurance coverage.

In another reported example, a prominent Republican donor stated that the “Dallas piggy bank” was closed until there is progress on health care repeal and tax cuts. The donor was reported as saying, “Get [health care repeal and tax reform] done and we’ll open [fundraising] back up.”

Now it’s the so-called tax reform bill.  After a private meeting of Republican Senators, Sen. Lindsey Graham told an NBC reporter “financial contributions will stop” if tax reform does not pass.

Even one of New York’s Congressional Republicans, Representative Collins from the Buffalo area was reported to have said, “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get [tax reform] done or don’t ever call me again.”’

While it’s no surprise that campaign contributors expect that their donations will influence elected officials, it is nothing short of shocking that public officials are being so open about how they transact policymaking.

Reports that the various tax reform plans are nothing more than tax cuts for wealthy individuals and large businesses, have eroded the popularity of the plan.  A poll released by the Wall Street Journal/NBC News found that only 25 percent of Americans said the tax reform/cut plan was “good idea.” (A solid majority of American also support the Affordable Care Act.)

But the eroding popularity of these ideas hasn’t reduced the pressure from the donor class.  Instead the political calculus appears to be to deliver for the political contributors now, raise big bucks for campaign warchests and try to take some of the sting out of these moves in advance of the midterm elections next year.

The nasty – and transactional nature – of American politics is taking its toll.  Recent polls find Americans increasingly unhappy with the direction of the country.  In one, 70 percent said the nation is facing its widest political divide since the Vietnam War.

This month’s Washington Post-University of Maryland poll revealed voters’ deeply depressing view of U.S. politics, widespread distrust of the nation’s political leaders and their ability to compromise, and an erosion of pride in the way democracy works in America.

What has become clear is that elected officials’ disregard for ethics, their increasingly brazen actions to transact policy for campaign donations, and public demands from the rich and powerful for action is taking its toll – not only on unpopular Congressional actions, but an erosion of public support for democracy itself.

That has to change and soon.



Climate Change: Failing to Act?

Posted by NYPIRG on November 20, 2017 at 11:13 am
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There can be no doubt that the planet is warming; 2016 was the fifth time in the 21st century a new record high annual temperature has been set (along with 2005, 2010, 2014, and 2015) and also marks the 40th consecutive year (since 1977) that the annual temperature has been above the 20th century average.  To date, all 16 years of the 21st century rank among the seventeen warmest on record (1998 is currently the eighth warmest).  The five warmest years have all occurred since 2010.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that from the environmentally catastrophic policies of the Trump Administration and its allies in Congress.  The Trump Administration has been busy rolling back the already inadequate programs of the former Obama Administration and advancing measures to stimulate the use of coal in energy production – arguably the worst fossil fuel in terms of heating the planet.

Despite the stunningly dangerous policies of the Trump Administration, the world has long known of the dangers posed by the burning of oil, gas and coal.

Twenty-five years ago, more than 1700 independent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” The Warning urged that the world must take measures to curtail environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

This month on the twenty-fifth anniversary of that call, scientists looked back to evaluate the world’s responses.  What they found, though not surprising, was disturbing: since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, the world has failed to make sufficient progress in solving the environmental challenges and, in fact, most of them are getting far worse.

Their review specifically identified the rapidly increasing threat of catastrophic climate change resulting from the rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural production.

That warning was released just as the 23rd conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23) was meeting in Bonn, Germany.  The Convention was meeting to take steps to implement the 2015 Paris agreement and to set the stage for next year’s draft rules to fully implement the Paris agreement.

Under the Paris agreement, nearly 200 nations submitted individual pledges to curb their greenhouse-gas emissions.  Under the agreement, nations vowed to limit the rise in global temperatures since the industrial revolution to “well below” 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

At this year’s meeting, the goal was to develop rules to verify whether the nations are actually reducing emissions consistent with the goals of the agreement.  Reportedly, the negotiators made progress toward that goal and the rules are supposed to be in place in time for next year’s climate conference in Katowice, Poland.

Those measurements are critical.  Goals that reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are supposed to hit goals for the year 2030, for example, need to have established, measureable annual mileposts in order to know whether environmental policies will be met and nations are meeting their pledge goals.

Given the Trump Administration’s callous disregard for the suffering that is, and will be, from climate changes, states have argued that they will follow the Paris accord.  New York to its credit is one of those states.

And the Cuomo Administration has set aggressive goals to meet the Paris Agreement:

  • A reduction in New York’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050;
  • Half of those reductions will come by the year 2030; and
  • 50% of the state’s electricity will come from renewable energy sources.

But like the Paris accord itself, a clear public reporting system should be put in place.  In January, Governor Cuomo will offer his State of the State address.  During that speech, the governor will outline both the successes of his Administration and his roadmap for future plans.  He should use that address as a way to hold himself publicly accountable by laying out what has been done to meet the state’s climate change-fighting agenda.  In that way, New York can show the world how to succeed in tackling the single most daunting problem facing humanity.

Of course, success in New York does not solve the problem.  Americans must insist that the Trump Administration and its allies in the Congress embrace aggressive climate change fighting efforts.  Failure to do so will result in catastrophic consequences.  When it comes to a dangerously warming planet, there are no alternative facts.

We must insist that governments at every level take immediate action; it is a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life.


Whither Reform?

Posted by NYPIRG on November 13, 2017 at 10:36 am
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Last week, New Yorkers turned down an opportunity to call a constitutional convention.  If it had been approved, delegates would have been elected and given the mandate to propose changes to New York State’s governmental blueprint.

But as it had in 1997, voters overwhelmingly rejected the option.  Advocates for the convention argued that state government is a mess – plagued by corruption, its processes too inefficient and cumbersome, and one which relies far too heavily on secrecy in its decision-making.  And polling said that New Yorkers wanted reform.  According to a recent Siena Research Institute poll, New York voters – “regardless of party, geography, gender, race, income, or ideology – overwhelmingly support term limits for legislators and state elected officials, eliminating the LLC loophole, creating a system of initiative and referendum, and making the State Legislature full-time, with a ban on outside employment for legislators.”

So New Yorkers want reforms, but yet voted down the convention option with over 80 percent voting no.  Why?

The opposition’s arguments were strongly focused on a key weakness of the convention process – how delegates would be selected.  Under a process set in the state constitution, delegates would have been elected in a manner more or less the same as anyone else running for office.  Opponents made the reasonable argument that who else but those in the political class could get enough petition signatures to get on the ballot, raise the necessary campaign contributions to successfully run, and then have the free time to serve in a convention?

Opponents argued that it would be redundant to what happens in Albany now, so why waste the money?  It’s possible that things could get even worse.

Of course, a convention is a different venue than the legislative process, but nevertheless, voters were more concerned that bad things were more likely to come out of a convention, and said no.

Unfortunately, the current process hasn’t been responsive to the public’s demands for reforms, in fact quite the opposite.

So now what?

The critique offered by supporters of the convention – that Albany is a mess, is one shared by national experts.  According to the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, “it’s fair to say that New York remains one of the most corrupt states if not the most corrupt state.”

2018 will see a number of high level corruption cases coming to a head.  Former top aides to the governor are scheduled to have their corruption trials heard in the first half of the year and the retrials of the former leaders of the Assembly and Senate are likely to also be heard during that time.

Just as lawmakers are in session, the glare from these high profile cases may shine intensely on the governor and the state legislature.  And 2018 is an election year, for all 213 lawmakers, the governor, the comptroller and the attorney general.  All have run with a promise to clean up Albany, a promise that can be described charitably as one that is as yet unfulfilled.

Reformers, both inside government and outside of it, must roll up their sleeves and get back to work.  It’s pretty clear that left to its own devices, the executive and legislature will advance proposals that sound good, but do little to achieve the cultural change that Albany needs.

Instead, an aggressive reform package must be advanced.  A plan that includes:

  • New strict accountability measures that would result in an open, ethical, and efficient way to award government contracts, an area which was identified as a key problem in the indictments of the governor’s top aides.
  • Significant changes to the state’s campaign finance system, one which eliminates the advantages granted to Limited Liability Companies, advantages that are far more generous than ones granted to other businesses. LLCs have also been at the heart of some of Albany’s most troubling scandals.
  • Real limits on the outside income for legislators and the executive. Moonlighting by top legislative leaders and top members of the executive branch have triggered indictments by the federal prosecutors.
  • And the creation of a truly independent ethics enforcement.

Voters must hold their elected representatives accountable for what they do, not what they say, when it comes to battling corruption in state government. Next election day, New Yorkers should expect to have seen concrete changes to fix Albany’s ethics.


Three Questions for Election Day

Posted by NYPIRG on November 6, 2017 at 11:23 am
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This year’s Election Day offers voters a range of candidates for local office.  In addition, New Yorkers will have three questions on the ballot that could impact the state’s constitution.

Since New York does not have a process for citizens to directly change the constitution, the only way that the constitution can be changed is either by an amendment approved by two successive legislatures and then put to voters for approval, or through a constitutional convention at which elected delegates develop changes to submit to voters for approval.

The three questions will appear on the back side of this year’s paper ballot.  The questions each have a number, one, two or three.  Here are the questions being put to voters.

Question 1 may be the question which, if approved, could have the biggest impact on the future of the state.  Question 1 is the proposal for voters to decide whether they want to convene a constitutional convention.

Under the state constitution, every twenty years voters have the opportunity to decide if they want to convene a convention at which the current constitution could be re-written.  If voters approve the creation of a convention, then delegates would be elected the following year.  Those delegates could propose revisions to the constitution in any way they wanted.  The changes proposed by the delegates would then be forwarded to voters in the following election to decide whether they want to approve the changes.

Proponents argue that Albany’s a mess – corrupt, operating in secret, costing too much and that only a convention can fix it. In addition, they argue that the State’s basic document is old, anachronistic, and contains provisions that are now considered unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution.  A convention could modernize the state constitution.

Opponents argue that the current State Constitution includes provisions that protect the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, require a sound, basic education for children, require that the poor are protected, and enshrines protections for workers in the state. And, they contend, those protections should not be put at risk.

Question 2 amends the constitution to allow judges to reduce or revoke the state pension of a public officer convicted of corruption, defined as a felony conviction stemming from a corrupt act that occurred during his or her official duties.

Under current law, public officials can put their pension at risk if they are convicted of corruption and they took office after 2010.  Under New York’s state constitution, public pensions cannot be altered once the individual is in the system.  Changes can only be made for future public employees.

Question 2 would make a constitutional change that would allow for the reduction or removal of a public pension from a public official who was in the system prior to 2011.

Question 3 is a proposal to amend the state constitution to allow for the creation of a 250-acre land bank to be used in the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves.  If approved, the land bank would allow local governments to request the use of the land in the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserve for projects in exchange for the state acquiring 250 acres to be designated for the Parks.

The reason that this question is on the ballot is that the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves are protected under the “Forever Wild” clause of the New York State Constitution.  As a result, the Parks are protected as wild forest land, thus prohibiting the lease, sale, exchange, or taking of any forest preserve land.

Question 3 would allow counties and townships of certain regions that have no viable alternative to using forest preserve land to address specific public health and safety concerns.  In order to offset such uses, the proposal requires that the state obtain another 250 acres of land that will be added to the forest preserve, subject to legislative approval. The proposed amendment also will allow bicycle trails and certain public utility lines to be located within the width of specified highways that cross the forest preserve while minimizing removal of trees and vegetation.

If you’re not sure if you are registered, or where you should vote, or who the candidates are, you can find out by going to the state Board of elections website at

Off year elections are usually marked by low voter turnouts. Many voters are simply disinterested in voting on candidates for local offices.  But this year is different, there are two proposals to change the state constitution and a once-in-two-decades chance to vote on whether to convene a convention to alter the blueprint for government in New York.  Let your voice be heard, vote.