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Archive for January 2019

The Governor’s Higher Education Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on January 28, 2019 at 8:20 am
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Over a decade ago, then-Governor George Pataki and the Legislature came to an agreement: undocumented immigrants living in New York and accepted to public college would be allowed to pay in-state tuition. But there was a catch: they would not be eligible for financial aid. Since then, advocates have been trying to eliminate that obstacle. Last week, the Legislature acted. It passed legislation to allow financial aid for those students.

In response to that financial shortfall for lower income undocumented students, legislation, dubbed the “DREAM Act,” was introduced. The DREAM Act makes financial aid, such as the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and other programs, available to eligible undocumented students. Passage of the DREAM Act last week, if it’s approved by the governor (who has said he supports it), fixes that financial aid problem.

Action on the legislation was the opening move to address the state’s support for higher education. This week a second move occurs; the Legislature holds hearings on the governor’s overall budget plan for higher education.

When the governor unveiled his proposals earlier this month, he recommended expansion of the state’s Excelsior Scholarship program. Excelsior is a program that offers financial aid for middle income college students as long as they meet certain criteria. These criteria are significant. Students must successfully receive 30 credits in one year; failure to do so could result in the student losing the scholarship and may mean that the student has to repay the scholarship.

Beyond expansion of Excelsior, the governor’s budget offers more pain than gain for college students and their families.

The governor’s budget hikes tuition at the State University of New York and the City University of New York. That increase is the latest installment of the state’s so-called “rational tuition” plan. The tuition plan was put in place as part of a bargain: tuition increases would be used to enhance the universities, not fill budget gaps. Yet, it looks like the pledge is being broken and tuition is being used to plug budget shortfalls.

The Legislature agrees. Both houses have approved an enhanced “maintenance of effort” to supplement state support for SUNY and CUNY to allow greater freedom to use tuition dollars for enhancements. However, the governor has blocked the measure, most recently vetoing it last month.

Limiting state support is not the only way that SUNY and CUNY get starved for funds. In years past, as public college tuition went up, New York would increase the maximum financial aid award so that the impact of a tuition hike would not impact the lowest income students. But that policy has changed. Instead, the local college campus is required to make up the difference between increasing tuition costs and the financial aid maximums which have not gone up. Now, for example, SUNY tuition is $6,870 for an academic year. The maximum TAP award covers $5,165, meaning that the local campus has to make up the $1,700 shortfall. That policy adds to the financial stress felt by public colleges and universities.

The governor’s budget also cuts back state spending for some financial aid programs. In this year’s budget, the governor proposes to cut spending for programs that aid college students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These programs – known as opportunity programs – have been successful in helping students graduate from college with a degree. In particular, the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program was highlighted by the Obama Administration as a model for the nation.

Yet, the governor’s budget zeros out state support for ASAP, a reduction of $2.5 million. And his cuts don’t stop there. For example, the governor’s budget calls for cuts to opportunity programs that total $28 million.

The next move in the budget process starts after the budget hearings and that’s when the Legislature acts. Hopefully, their review will lead to restorations of the governor’s proposed cuts and actions that ensure that these programs are expanded.

The Governor’s Budget Targets Lead Poisoning

Posted by NYPIRG on January 21, 2019 at 1:23 pm
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Lead is a metal found around the world and it is toxic to humans. For years, lead was used in paint, gasoline, plumbing and many other items. Lead can still be found in some products and, due to aging infrastructure, occasionally in drinking water supplies. As products containing lead are used and get worn down, say in paint, lead particles can get into the environment and pose a threat.

And the threat is most acute to children. As their bodies grow, they are looking for nutrients and can soak up lead instead of other, healthier, nutrients. A child can get lead poisoning by swallowing or breathing in lead. Often, lead poisoning is caused by lead you can’t even see. Dust from lead paint is still the number one source of childhood lead poisoning.

Young children spend a lot of time on the floor. They like to put hands, toys, and other things in their mouths. This raises their chances of swallowing lead dust and paint chips. Only a tiny amount of lead is needed to harm a young, growing child.

Lead poisoning can cause problems with a child’s growth, behavior, and ability to learn. Lead can also harm babies before they’re born. A child with lead poisoning usually does not look or feel sick. The only sure way to know is to get a blood lead test.

That’s why New York State enacted legislation to require that all children be screened for lead. Every child in New York must be tested at 1 year and again, at 2 years of age. There are about a half million kids in this age category.

According to the state Health Department, over the most recent three years nearly 500,000 children under the age of six were screened for lead poisoning. For the last year in which the Department has reported (2015), roughly 1,800 kids tested at levels that exceeded 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. This epidemic affects mostly young children of color from low-income communities who live in poorly maintained housing, where windows, doors, walls and ceilings produce invisible lead dust that is ingested by infants and toddlers through hand-to-mouth behavior and inhalation.

Unfortunately, New York’s housing puts children at elevated risk of lead poisoning. New York has both the nation’s greatest number (3.3 million) and the highest percentage (43.1%) of its housing stock built before 1950, the houses most likely to contain lead paint, the leading source of childhood lead poisoning.

Because lead harms children even in tiny concentrations—parts per million levels—small increases in the concentration of lead in a child’s blood level can have substantial cognitive impacts, with comparatively low blood lead levels correlating with significant IQ loss.

In 1970 when it banned lead in paint, New York was among the nation’s leaders in taking action—almost a decade before the national residential paint ban. However, in 2019 New York lags in childhood lead poisoning prevention in several key respects. As a result, thousands of New York’s children ingest dangerous levels of lead and could suffer permanently from this entirely preventable exposure.

Governor Cuomo’s budget proposes to respond to this public health crisis by lowering the acceptable blood lead level from 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dl) to 5 µg/dl. The governor also proposes to spend more on this problem by proposing an additional $9.4 million annually for state and local health departments to implement this plan. In addition, the governor proposes that residential rental properties statewide are maintained in a condition that protects children from the dangers associated with exposure to lead based paint hazards.

Lowering the “acceptable” lead level is a good move, but long overdue. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) took that step in 2012 and has since been enacted in several states, including, namely Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Vermont. All these states cite their decision to move towards the lower CDC guidelines as based on the evidence that supports early intervention as the primary way to prevent the serious health effects suffered by victims of lead poisoning. Even some localities in New York State have acted, including the cities of Buffalo and New York City. If the governor’s plan is approved, New York would join that list.

This is a matter of utmost importance to public health, social justice and investment in New York’s future, its children. 2019 should be the year New York gets the lead out.

New York’s Voting System Set for a Long Overdue Overhaul

Posted by NYPIRG on January 14, 2019 at 8:57 am
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We have all seen the grim voting statistics: New York – considered by many to be a progressive state – has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation.

The numbers tell the story. New York State had a voting eligible population of nearly 13.8 million in 2018. However, only 12.7 million New Yorkers were listed by the State Board of Elections as either active or inactive voters for the same time period. That means over one million eligible citizens were not registered to vote. Obstacles to registration are one reason why there is such a significant shortfall.

But voter registration obstacles aren’t the only problem, as the impact on voter participation shows. In the 2018 general election, a stunningly low percentage of registered New Yorkers – 45.2 percent –voted. A review of the U.S. Elections Project’s data showed New York to have one of the ten worst turnouts in the nation. And that ranking is consistent with New York’s voter performance over the recent decades.

When New York is near – or at – the back of the nation in voting, why hasn’t the state acted? One reason is that partisan differences on the issue have blocked needed reforms. Another reason is that incumbents get elected by those who do vote – incumbents may fear that reforms that bring in new voters may put them at risk.

Yet, the rest of the nation has moved ahead, even when faced with similar circumstances. And their successes show the path for New York to follow. For example, one way to modernize New York’s voting system is to allow busy voters the opportunity to cast their ballots early. In 38 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. No excuse or justification is required. In New York, in order to vote by mail, a voter needs to request a ballot in advance and provide an excuse.

In the modern age where parents may have to juggle work, child care, and other family obligations, allowing voters to vote early and not just on a Tuesday in November is reasonable and necessary.

Another reform option is to allow young people to register to vote prior to their 18th birthday. 18 year olds are adults and have the right to vote, but allowing 16 and 17 year olds the option of pre-registering helps get young people engaged in the civic process.

In a state with abysmally low voter participation rates, only slightly more than half of New York’s youngest citizens are registered to vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 47% of New York’s 18-24-year-old citizens were registered for the November 2016 Presidential election. However, once registered, large numbers of young people turn out at the polls. According to the Census Bureau, 75% of New York’s 18-24 year olds who were on the rolls voted that year.

It is common-sense to enable students to pre-register at 16 or 17 years of age—the age where school is still compulsory and many come in contact with the Department of Motor Vehicles for licenses or non-driver’s identification cards.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia permit preregistration beginning at 16 years old and four states permit preregistration beginning at 17 years old.

The most effective method for registering new voters would be to establish a system that allows voters to register and vote on Election Day. Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia offer “same-day registration” so any qualified resident of the state can go to register to vote and cast a ballot all in that day.

Each year, just as interest in elections and candidates begins to peak, potential voters find that the deadline for registering to vote has already passed. Here in New York, campaigns for statewide and local offices barely attract public attention before October. By the time voters begin to focus on the election, the deadline has already passed.

These reforms – and more – are expected to pass the Legislature this week. The package of voter reforms that will be taken up includes other changes to make voting easier, although more steps are necessary, particularly when it comes to automatic registration at government agencies and ensuring that those formerly incarcerated are able to register and vote.

For way too long, New Yorkers have had to endure obstacles to voting and a disgraceful pay-to-play campaign financing system. And to add insult to injury, for decades we’ve seen no movement for reform out of Albany. The new Senate Majority and their colleagues in the Assembly and the Governor’s mansion deserve credit for taking the first meaningful steps to strengthen New York’s democracy. This down payment on democracy should send a strong signal to New Yorkers that the days of voter frustration and cynicism may be coming to an end.

The New Year Boosts Momentum for Reform

Posted by NYPIRG on January 7, 2019 at 8:01 am
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The new Congressional House of Representatives announced last week that it would be advancing legislation to dramatically improve the nation’s democracy. The proposal, H.R. 1, (which has as yet not been introduced) would constitute a massive overhaul of how elections are run in America. Here are a few important ways that H.R. 1 improves America’s democracy:

H.R. 1 would improve voter registration by automatically registering citizens to vote any time they interact with a government agency. Currently, 15 states have programs that track the federal proposal. Experts predict that if H.R. 1 becomes law an additional 50 million new voters will be added to the rolls.

In addition, the bill would allow for same-day registration, which allows eligible voters to register at the polls on Election Day. Again, the Congressional plan is based on successful programs at the state level, offered in 16 states.

H.R. 1 would strengthen anti-discrimination powers in how voting is done. The bill would restore power to the 1965 Voting Rights Act by reversing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that gutted public oversight of the way elections are run in parts of the nation that have had a history of voting discrimination.

The bill would also ensure that all voters have at least two weeks of early voting before Election Day, including evening and weekend hours.

H.R. 1 also attacks problems in the nation’s campaign financing system. It would establish a voluntary, small-donor matching system of public financing for Congressional races and strengthen the existing public financing system for presidential elections.

The bill would reform the way in which legislative districts are redrawn during the redistricting process by mandating that states draw congressional districts using independent redistricting commissions and establishes that they use fair redistricting criteria.

Of course, the legislation still needs approval by the full House and then the U.S. Senate, as well as sign off from the President. However, the proposal sends a strong signal that improving elections, establishing fair redistricting processes, and reducing the corrupting influence of big money, must be at the top of policy debates nationwide.

In New York similar signals have been sent. The governor has said that he will propose campaign financing reforms that include a public financing program and measures to improve voter registration, and enhance ethics.

Unlike Washington, Albany can make these – and other important reforms – happen. The new state Senate, the state Assembly and the governor’s office are all now controlled by the same political party – Democratic. And they all appear to be on the same page – at least rhetorically – in terms of improving New York State’s democracy.

The key word is “rhetorically.” Up until now it has been easy to talk up and even pass reforms in one house of the legislature if you knew it faces certain political death in the other house. Now, such games will be more obvious. The argument that “partisan” differences squelched reform is a lot harder to make when the government is firmly controlled by one political party.

Albany’s bag of tricks also includes adopting reforms that are touted as “historic,” yet when the details emerge, the legislation is anything but that. Often the “historic” reforms are merely putting a shine on the status quo. That trick is something the public should watch out for.

All that being said, the climate for approval of state measures that are sweeping and significant is unprecedented. The reform legislation advanced in the U.S. House of Representatives sets the bar for how best to judge whatever Albany does.

New Yorkers have every right to expect that the governor and the legislature will come together to overhaul the way elections are run so that the state’s voter participation rate moves from the nation’s caboose to its engine. The public has every right to expect approval of corruption-busting measures in the areas of campaign finance (particularly with the creation of a voluntary system of public financing), government contracting, and ethics.

And New Yorkers should expect an improved system of redistricting that places the ultimate power to draw new legislative lines in the hands of an independent commission armed with fair criteria. The national census starts soon and the state needs to invest in that effort too to ensure a fair count, and redistricting will soon follow after that tally is done.

The list of needed reforms is long – largely due to the inaction of the past. But the time to act is now. It’s an historic opportunity. And unlike in the past, the political stars in New York finally align for real reform. The public must make sure that this generation of state political leadership doesn’t duck or squander this opportunity.