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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Fixing State Support for Public Colleges

Posted by NYPIRG on December 10, 2018 at 7:40 am
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In the first year of the Cuomo Administration a deal was struck:  every year, for five years, the cost of attending a public college or university would go up no more than $300 and the state would ensure that the tuition hikes would be used to enhance the State University of New York and the City University of New York systems.

As part of the bargain, the state pledged not to use the tuition hikes to fill budget holes resulting from cuts.  The tuition hikes, called “rational tuition,” were rational enough – costs did go up every year for the next five years at the maximum allowed — $300 per year.

Recently, the plan was renewed and the tuition hikes lowered, but the impacts of New York’s policy has become clearer.

On top of mounting textbook and housing expenses, the state’s tuition policy jacked-up the cost of tuition at public colleges by over 38% since 2011.

Moreover, the promise of no state budget cuts evaporated due to loopholes written in the law.  For example, the promise ignored the costs due to rising inflation, or energy costs, or the result of agreements to raise faculty salaries.

Flat funding from the state has left CUNY and SUNY on the hook for mandatory cost increases like electricity needs, and staff contracts.  New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer testified that there is a $700 million budget shortfall across CUNY.

This July, the Baruch College President released a statement that they expect a $5 million budget shortfall and are implementing across the board department budget cuts.  The announcement also made clear that the increased tuition revenue from the latest tuition hike would cover mandatory collective-bargaining costs.

According to SUNY New Paltz Vice President for Administration and Finance, revenues are simply not keeping pace with necessary increases in expenditure. One factor among others cited was no increases in direct state support since 2012.

The increased tuition costs borne by students and their families at CUNY and SUNY has not resulted in rising quality as promised.  As mentioned earlier, the promise was that the tuition hikes would be earmarked for an expansion of support services, course offerings and infrastructural improvements, not to fill in budget gaps as the state pulled back its resources.

Binghamton University is experiencing a 4% budget cut at their libraries in addition to a hiring freeze on all staff positions aside from Adjuncts and Teaching Assistants.  As a result, the university is not replacing two retiring faculty members in the Department of Art and Design and are putting a temporary suspension on the graphic design minor.

Stony Brook University has enacted a hiring freeze as well, citing an $18.5 million budget shortfall.  To save money, this year they eliminated their undergraduate pharmacology program.

SUNY Plattsburgh has seen a 3 percent budget cut this year, resulting in the suspension of the Center for Community Engagement, a program that brought community members onto the campus for cultural events, despite a petition campaign led by students to save the program.

Without improvements in student services, graduating on-time has become more difficult.

Since the state’s main method of offering assistance, the Tuition Assistance Program, is only available for eight semesters, a delay in graduation can cost low- and middle-income students thousands of dollars. According to a CUNY survey, over a third of CUNY students reported not being able to register for a course they needed for their major.  Of those students, half couldn’t register because there were not enough seats available.

Why does it matter?  Investing New York’s tax dollars into public higher education is a win for individual New Yorkers and a win for the state’s economy, even amid a climate of budget-tightening.  A study on the value of SUNY found that for every $1 spent on education, the economy reaps $5 in benefits.  College-educated workers earn more than their high-school educated peers – by an average of $17,500 per year for millennials, as found by the Pew Research Center.   As wages increase, so do tax revenues which support any number of public services.

Both houses of the Legislature know that the state has been inadequately funding SUNY and CUNY.  They have unanimously approved legislation to close the loopholes in state law and enhance funding of SUNY and CUNY.  That legislation goes to the governor’s desk this month.  With its overwhelming support – college administrators, faculty, students and unanimous approval by both houses of the Legislature – all eyes turn to the governor to fix the state’s funding of public colleges.

Pay Raises for State Officials

Posted by NYPIRG on December 3, 2018 at 8:00 am
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Last week, a panel charged with making decisions on the compensation levels for state legislators and top agency officials held two public hearings.  The idea of jacking up public officials’ salaries is as popular as a skunk at an outdoor party.

What makes the conversation worse, however, is the staggering number of controversies and scandals that have plagued the Capitol in recent years and the refusal by the state’s political leadership to address it.

Currently, New York pays its state elected officials well in comparison to other states:  New York’s governor is the third highest paid state executive and lawmakers get the third highest base salary of any legislature.  In addition, the vast majority of lawmakers are allowed to receive stipends on top of their base pay.  Thus, the “salary” of most lawmakers is considerably higher than the base salary of $79,500.

A simple Consumer Price Index (CPI) adjustment going back to the 1999 pay raise would boost legislative salaries to over $122,364.  However, CPI alone does not adequately capture how well the average New Yorker has fared.

An earlier pay raise panel in New York City noted that a “deeper analysis uncovered that New Yorkers’ median household income in the same time period rose only 14.02 percent,” less than the amount it would have increased if it kept up with the consumer index.

In addition to most current legislators being paid far more than the base salary, elected officials can accept outside income.  The scandals that toppled the previous legislative leaders have highlighted the problems with allowing lawmakers to serve two masters.

Over the past eighteen years, over 30 New York State elected officials have been sanctioned for some misconduct.

So, what’s the argument for an increase in compensation?

The argument stems from the fact that state elected officials haven’t had a pay increase in nearly 20 years.  And when that decision was made, then-Governor Pataki linked his approval of pay increases to non-related policy changes—that is, horse trading in exchange for lawmakers’ pay.

This time around, the governor and the legislature agreed to create a compensation panel to independently review compensation levels.  The panel has the power to set appropriate compensation rates without additional legislative approval.

The panel idea makes sense – lawmakers shouldn’t have to face linkages between appropriate pay and policies advanced by the governor and vice versa.  But given Albany’s unending series of political scandals, how will a pay raise sit with the public who must pay for it?  How will the public feel about a pay raise for Albany when the governor and the legislature are not tackling the biggest scandals in New York’s modern political history?  New Yorkers will not be happy.

Of course, that does not argue that public officials don’t deserve a pay raise; that’s up to the panel to independently and publicly discuss.  However, if the governor and the legislature can’t agree on cleaning out Albany’s political stables, then the public has every right to be angry.

Recognizing this, the enacting legislation connects any phased-in increase in compensation to approval of a “timely” legislative budget and “performance.”  “Timely” is not defined but understood to be tied to the state’s fiscal year, which starts April 1st; “performance” on the other hand is not defined and is subject to interpretation.

Thus, if there are any increases in compensation, it must be linked to improvements in the “performance of the executive and legislature” by tying any such changes to measures to reduce the risk of corruption in state government.

Real corruption-busting measures should include: (1) independent oversight of agency contracting and better disclosures, (2) independent oversight of ethics administration and enforcement, (3) restricting outside income for lawmakers and members of the executive branch, (4) restricting campaign contributions from those seeking or receiving contracts, (5) more disclosures for those who “bundle” campaign contributions, as well as (6) new changes to the state’s campaign financing system – such as limits on LLCs and a voluntary system of public financing.

Fixing what ails Albany – namely appropriate responses to the incredible number of controversies, scandals, and convictions – is an important goal, the type of “performance” that New Yorkers deserve.

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.