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Keeping the Holiday Season Safe for Children

Posted by NYPIRG on November 26, 2018 at 10:46 am
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Thanksgiving was the kick off of the holiday shopping season.  It’s a time when many adults look for gifts for children.  And while the holidays are a time for fun and giving, it is important that it be a safe time as well.

A recent survey of toys found that some posed health and safety threats to children.  Among the toys surveyed were examples of choking and excessive noise hazards and toys with potentially hazardous concentrations of toxins.  The continued presence of these hazards in toys highlights the need for constant vigilance on the part of government agencies and the public to ensure that children do not end up playing with unsafe toys.

For more than 30 years, the United States Public Interest Research Group’s (USPIRG) Trouble in Toyland has issued toy safety guidelines and has provided examples of toys currently on store shelves that pose potential safety hazards to small children.  Key findings from this year’s report include:

  1. Hazardous Slime: A number of popular ‘slimes’ had toxic levels of boron, likely in the form of borax, up to fifteen times the European Union’s limit. According to the EPA, ingesting boron can cause nausea, vomiting, long-term reproductive health issues and can even be fatal. There are currently no limits on boron in children’s toys in the U.S.
  2. Missing Online Choking Warnings: In a survey of five search pages for balloons sold on Amazon, U.S. PIRG found no choking hazard labels on 87 percent of the latex balloons marketed to parents of children under 2, an apparent violation of the law. Among children’s products, balloons are the leading cause of suffocation death.
  3. Privacy-Invasive Smart Toys: The report also highlights two smart toys, a robot toy and a tablet, with privacy concerns discovered through an investigation by the Mozilla Foundation. Every year, the potential for smart toys to expose private data becomes a more significant concern.

While there are currently no limits on boron in children’s toys in the U.S., the advocacy organization is calling for warning labels to be placed on products and a full public hearing to determine safe levels of boron.

Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a warning to consumers to “consider cyber security prior to introducing smart, interactive, internet-connected toys into their homes.”

Despite recent progress in making toys safer, the report highlighted the need for continued attention to shortcomings in existing standards and vigilance on the part of the shopping public. To keep children safe from potentially hazardous toys, there is still more to do.

  • Examine toys carefully for hazards before purchase – and don’t trust that they are safe just because they are on a store shelf or available on-line.
  • Report unsafe toys or toy-related injuries to the CPSC at saferproducts.gov.
  • Subscribe to government announcements of recalled products at recalls.gov.

For toys already owned:

  • Remove small batteries if there is any question over their security or accessibility and keep them out of reach of children;
  • Remove batteries from or tape over the speakers of toys you already own that are too loud; and
  • Put small parts, or toys broken into small parts, out of reach. Regularly check that toys appropriate for your older children are not left within reach of children who still put things in their mouths.

View our full Trouble in Toyland report at www.nypirg.org. Parents can find our list of unsafe toys, as well as tips for safe toy shopping this holiday season, at toysafetytips.org.

Policymakers must do more to protect children from dangerous toys.  But until actions are taken, adults should take care in the gifts that they purchase.  Smarter choices can help keep this holiday season safe.

The Campaign Season Ends, Governing Begins

Posted by NYPIRG on November 19, 2018 at 7:30 am
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The dust has largely settled from the 2018 election season.  Across the nation, the work of governing begins.  And when Governor Cuomo is sworn in for his third consecutive term, he will be the second longest-serving governor in office (Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert being the longest, he was elected in 2009).

The governor will have his work cut out for him.  According to the state Comptroller, the state faces a possible $17.9 billion deficit over the next three years, if spending levels stayed the same and adjusted for inflation.  The governor’s office says that it can manage those shortfalls by keeping a cap on state spending to no more than 2 percent.

But keeping to that cap will be difficult.  During the governor’s tenure, spending on health care and education – the two biggest components of the budget – have exceeded that cap, so there have to be cuts in other areas.

And that doesn’t factor in possible changes in the federal budget or a downturn in the economy.

Moreover, the governor will want to spend more in certain areas.  During the election campaign, the governor stated that he wanted to maintain – and expand – the state’s support for public health insurance.  Since the President still seems hell-bent on destroying the federal health insurance program that provides coverage for tens of millions of Americans, states like New York will be stuck trying to provide protection.

There are other issues that the governor continues to stand behind.  Higher education is one such issue.  For example, the Excelsior Scholarship, in combination with other student financial aid programs, allows students to attend a SUNY or CUNY college tuition-free.  A recipient of an Excelsior Scholarship may receive up to $5,500.  The Scholarship is available to eligible college students.

To be eligible an applicant must have a combined federal adjusted gross income of $110,000 or less; be enrolled in at least 30 credits each year (successively); if attended college prior to the 2018-19 academic year, have earned at least 30 credits each year; and agree to reside and be employed in the state for the length of time the award is received.

Unfortunately, the program’s requirements dramatically limit participation.  The Scholarship, which was advertised as an option for hundreds of thousands of public college students, was only awarded to 20,000 students.  The State University and City University systems have over 630,000 college students; thus, the Excelsior Program was awarded to only 3 percent of the student population.

Does that mean that the Scholarship failed?  Not at all.  For those 20,000 students and their families, the program is an important component of paying for college.

But the program’s potential impact was excessively hyped.

New York State law requires that the program expand eligibility next year and this is one of the governor’s signature policies.  Despite a tight budget, the governor will be tested to not only expand the program to higher income students, but to figure out ways to ensure that other needy, qualified students have access to the Scholarship.

First, the governor should change Excelsior so that it requires that students meet the same full-time requirement as the Tuition Assistance Program: 12 credits per semester or 24 credits a year, instead of 30 credits.

Second, help part-time students.  Making college attainable for all New Yorkers means expanding affordability for part-time students, too.

Third, provide non-financial aid to needy students.  Lower income students often need other economic and counseling assistance in order to succeed.  Programs such as the City University’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) are proven successes with graduation rates that exceed the general student population.

The Excelsior Program is a laudable program, but it is only a first step.  Despite all the other troubles the governor faces, strengthening the state’s financial assistance to college students should be an important goal.

Election 2018: New York Turns Blue

Posted by NYPIRG on November 12, 2018 at 12:16 pm
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Despite somewhat mixed national results, New York voters moved state politics firmly into the deep blue as Democrats had a remarkably strong showing in last week’s election.  On the Congressional level, results were good for New York – a number of senior New York members of Congress will be moving up into powerful leadership posts, the U.S. Senate Minority leader is from New York, and the state has two elected officials, U.S. Senator Gillibrand and Governor Cuomo, who are mentioned as serious candidates for President in 2020.

But it was at the state Capitol that the biggest changes occurred.  While Democrats running for statewide office cruised to massive victories, Democrats surprised Republicans by picking up eight seats to give them a solid majority in control of the state Senate.  This means for the first time in a decade, one party controls both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office.

The election represents a sea change in the state Senate.  A total of 16 new Senators were elected, with 14 of them Democrats.  Those changes gave the Democrats the biggest Senate majority – of either political party – in decades.  And while Democrats now have a solid majority, the composition of that conference will take time to coalesce.  Fourteen of the Democrats are new, 14 Democrats are based outside of the City of New York, the leadership and its staff have not yet been tested, and the governor will play a big role.  The governor not only had a huge electoral victory in his own right, he also played a powerful force in the success of Senate Democrats, thus giving him significant influence among members of their conference.

With all of that being said, Democratic control of the state government will likely mean that the 2019 legislative session will see significant movement on policies.  It appears that the governor and the two houses are in agreement over strengthening state laws dealing with abortion, gun control, voter registration and election law changes, additional legal rights for individuals who claim to have been abused as children, more money to fund New York City’s crumbling mass transit system, state financial aid for undocumented college students, and changes in the rules for setting bail for criminal defendants.

It is likely that additional issues will be at the forefront of the legislative debate, even if it’s not yet clear whether there is a consensus for action.  For example, the state’s rent control law expires this year—a major concern for tenants and the powerful landlord lobby.   The real estate industry has always banked its strategies on the Senate Republican Majority.  What happens now?

The governor’s Health Department issued a report that appears to show support for decriminalizing the use of marijuana, coupled with legislative support.  Will there be action?

Corruption in state government has been an ongoing, serious problem.  The governor has stated that he wants changes in ethics laws, yet his proposals have been vague.  The incoming legislative leadership has been even vaguer on what they want.  Will changes be made that actually reduce the risk of corruption and establish meaningful independent oversight?

Lastly, there are other issues that were raised during the campaign that are expected to be hotly debated, even though it is unclear if there is sufficient support from leadership.  For instance, while there is consensus that the state must protect its program that offers coverage to those who do not either qualify for health insurance from their employers or through state government programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, how the state will expand coverage for these New Yorkers is not at all clear.  While the issue of “single payer” health insurance has broad appeal within the Democratic Party, Governor Cuomo rejected the idea as too expensive.  Even with the state facing a budget deficit this year, expect that the issue of expanding coverage to be near the top of the legislative debates during the budget.

Similarly, Democrats have long supported establishing a voluntary system of public financing for candidates running for elective office.  Yet now that they are in the majority, the political leadership has not mentioned the idea among the items that they expect to tackle.  However, New Yorkers will likely see action to close the campaign finance loophole that allows Limited Liability Companies to make contributions that far exceed the amount allowed for other businesses.

But whether the debate focuses on more fundamental changes – such as establishing a system of public financing – will turn on whether New Yorkers demand action to change a system described by the former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara as a “cauldron of corruption.”

And what to do to protect the state’s imperiled drinking water supplies, how to combat climate change, and how to dispose of mounting garbage?  These issues were all but ignored during the campaigns and as a result have not been mentioned as top legislative action items by the state’s political leadership.

Those issues will undoubtedly force their way onto the list of legislative action items at some point, but what will happen is, as of now, murky.

And, of course, there are many more issues that need to be addressed.

What is clear though is that the era of finger pointing and blaming the other political party for inaction has passed.  Democrats fought hard to achieve their electoral victories.  Now they must begin the hard work of actually solving New York’s problems.

Election Day 2018: Will New York Lag in Voter Turnout Again?

Posted by NYPIRG on November 5, 2018 at 12:11 pm
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What will Election Day 2018 bring to America?  And how will New York’s democracy perform?

While questions abound, we do know that there appears to be enormous interest in the midterm election.  In addition to polling data, there is evidence that many voters have already cast their ballots.  Media reports in states where early voting is allowed show solid evidence that voters are keenly interested.

In Georgia, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution early voting turnout has been huge.  On the first day of early voting this month, turnout was more than triple the early vote of 2014: 69,049 people cast ballots, up from 20,898.

In Florida, more than 2.7 million have already voted in person or by absentee ballot, a record high for a midterm, according to Politico.  That means more than a fifth of active voters in the state have already cast their ballot.

In the Lone Star State, about 2.4 million people cast ballots in the first days of Texas’s early voting in the state’s 30 biggest counties – more than the total number of early and absentee votes in the entire voting period in 2014, according to the United States Elections Project.

Research by the U.S. Elections Project found that 22 million votes have been cast nationwide so far. In 11 states, there are more early votes already recorded with a week left to Election Day than early votes recorded in total in 2014.

There is enormous energy in the electorate.  When the counting is done, whether that will be the case in New York remains to be seen.

Looking at New York’s performance over the years, our democracy has been in a sorry state.

For example, according to the U.S. Elections Project, in 2016 New York had 13.6 million eligible voters.  The Project subtracts from the total adult population those individuals who are either non-citizens, incarcerated, on parole, or living overseas.  According to the New York State Board of Elections, the state had as many as 12.5 million voters on the rolls – meaning that there could be at least 1 million eligible voters not registered to vote.

Not only were eligible voters not registered – and thus unable to vote – many registered voters in New York don’t cast their ballots.  The last time New York’s voting rate exceeded the national average was in the year 2000.  In the Presidential election of 2016, New York was near the bottom of the barrel—one of the six states with the worst voter turnout in the election.

Enthusiasm may exist at the national level, but it doesn’t always show itself in New York.  And the last time it did was almost 20 years ago.

Why does it matter?  If voters don’t turn out at the polls, candidates can win by just appealing to a portion of the electorate.  Voters with the lowest turnout rates are usually the young, lower income, new Americans, or voters of color.

Why does New York perform so poorly?  Part of it is that election races in the state tend not to be very competitive.  A key reason is the way that political boundaries are often rigged by the incumbent parties.  The last time state legislative districts were redrawn, they were perhaps the most rigged to benefit incumbents ever.

Another reason is that New York’s system of elections has not kept up with the times.  As noted, over 22 million Americans were allowed to cast their votes early.  In modern America – with its two income households and hectic schedules – making it easier to vote helps boost the number of people who actually cast a ballot.  New York doesn’t allow early voting.

New York’s failure to modernize its elections has meant that we are not benefitting from new voting innovations of other states.  For example, among the states with the highest turnouts are states that allow eligible adults to register and vote on Election Day.  In New York, a voter must be registered at least 25 days before an election.

Other states use an “automatic voter registration system,” meaning that any time a citizen interacts with a state agency they are automatically registered, unless they affirmatively choose not to.

Only time will tell whether the nation’s seemingly intense interest in the election will be reflected in New York’s performance.  But whatever that outcome, one thing is sure, for those elected to state office, modernizing New York’s antiquated voting system must be Job 1 when they take their seats.