Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:
Stop Dawdling. People Need Money.
The New York Times
The economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus has left a growing number of American families desperately short of money. Images of hundreds of cars waiting in long lines at food banks across the country have become a symbol of the crisis, a contemporary equivalent of the old black-and-white images of Americans standing in bread lines during the Great Depression.
To ease the pain, at least a little, Congress voted in late March to send $1,200 each to most American adults. In this era of high-speed trading, digital wallets and instant payments, one might have imagined that the federal stimulus payments would be distributed quickly, too.
Instead, the first large wave of payments is only landing in bank accounts on Wednesday.
And tens of millions of Americans won’t get their stimulus payments until May — or later.
The slow pace is the result of a combination of outdated financial infrastructure and a remarkable lack of urgency. The mass distribution of stimulus payments has become a standard feature of the government’s response to economic downturns. Payments went out in 2001, and again in 2008, and now for the third time this century. Yet the government has not constructed a system to ensure that everyone gets money quickly.
That’s a particularly consequential failure in this downturn, because of the rapidity of the collapse. Job losses in the last month are likely to exceed job gains over the last decade.
The government has made matters worse by dawdling. Thanks to outdated Federal Reserve regulations that let banks delay deposits, the money that reached Americans on Wednesday was dispatched from Washington on Friday. That’s barely faster than the Pony Express.
President Trump, meanwhile, has insisted on putting his name on each of the tens of millions of checks that will be mailed to households that don’t get direct deposits — a self-indulgence no previous president ever demanded. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the decision could delay mailings by a few days. The administration denies it, but redesigning the checks is certainly not helping to expedite payments.
The problems begin with the basic challenge of reaching every eligible household. The first round of payments is being deposited directly into the bank accounts of the roughly 80 million American families who provided account information to the Internal Revenue Service on their tax returns for 2018 or 2019. A second round of payments, this time paper checks, will be mailed over the next few months to the roughly 70 million American families that filed tax returns without account information. A final group of several million low-income families that did not file tax returns are also eligible, but they need to apply to get the money.
As a general rule, the process is likely to deliver aid first to those who need it least — and many of those with the greatest need may never see a dime.
The government could improve this process significantly by establishing a bank account for every American at the Federal Reserve. House Democrats floated the idea in their version of the legislation authorizing the stimulus payments, but it didn’t make the final draft. Sweden actually launched its own version in February. The premise is simple: If everyone has a Fed account, with none of the fees or minimum balance restrictions that discourage millions of Americans from opening accounts at commercial banks, then it would be easier to distribute stimulus payments — particularly to those who are both most in need and hardest to reach. The government could deposit funds directly; people could withdraw the money at ATMs, make payments with debit cards or move the money to a bank.
Under the current system, even the fastest payments — direct deposits — move much more slowly in the United States than in many other developed nations.
The Treasury initiated the payments on Friday afternoon by instructing the Fed to remove money from the government’s account and transfer it to individual accounts at banks across the country. The Fed, however, doesn’t work on weekends, so banks were not notified of the deposits until Monday. Furthermore, the Fed allows banks to wait at least one business day before making the full amount of a federal deposit available for withdrawal.
A handful of banks voluntarily provided the money early; most waited until Wednesday.
Such a waiting period once was unavoidable. A bank presented with a check from another bank needed time to confirm that the check was real and that the funds were available, and then for the money to move. The waiting period still exists, however, because the Fed, which operates the system used for most of those confirmations and transfers, has been dragging its feet.
Japan has required real-time payments since the 1990s. Mexico mandated instant transfers in 2004. The United Kingdom joined the club in 2008. And last year, the Fed announced that it, too, finally was developing a real-time payment system, but it wouldn’t come online before 2023.
The banking industry doesn’t mind the wait. Banks have developed a lucrative business in allowing customers — particularly those waiting for a check to clear — to withdraw more money than is legally available, and then charging a hefty fee for the overdraft. Aaron Klein, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, calculates delayed deposits have cost consumers more than $100 billion since 2008 — a combination of bank overdraft fees plus fees collected by check-cashing companies that offer an alternative to waiting, at a high price.
The effect is a transfer of wealth from poor customers to rich shareholders. Some 75 percent of overdraft fees are paid by 8 percent of customers, according to a study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. These are lower-income customers with low balances. Meanwhile, the chief executive of a Minnesota bank named his boat the “Overdraft.”
The long-term solution is for the Fed to expedite construction of a real-time payment system.
But even with current technology, the Fed could expedite payments: It could require banks to make payments from the government available immediately. Banks have no need to fear that the checks will bounce; the Fed has the authority. But it has not used it.
The Trump administration also has informed banks that they can withhold a portion of the federal payments from customers to cover unpaid fees and debts. Congress gave the Trump administration the authority to prohibit banks from doing so, and senators from both parties have urged the administration to act. But the Treasury quietly informed banks last week that it would not tie their hands, according to a recording obtained by The American Prospect. As a result, some of the stimulus payments will go to cover old overdrafts.
The administration is taking great care in deciding what will appear on the front of the stimulus checks. Americans would be better off if the government put similar effort into getting out as much money to as many people as quickly as possible.
Joe Biden’s #MeToo Moment
Wall Street Journal
If there is a silver lining to the ugly #MeToo accusation against Joe Biden, it is that the reluctance of the left and the media to pursue it as vigorously as charges against other men suggests they may have discovered that principles such as due process and the presumption of innocence still matter in America. Or so we can hope.
The accusation against the presumptive Democratic nominee for President comes from Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer for Mr. Biden. In 1993, she says, then-Sen. Biden pinned her to a wall, put his hand under her skirt and digitally penetrated her. On Sunday The New York Times carried a story that cited a friend who said Ms. Reade told her about the incident right after it is alleged to have happened. It also cited her brother and another friend who said she’d told them over the years. The friends were anonymous.
Mr. Biden denies the accusation, unequivocally. But here’s the complication. Mr. Biden has long embraced the view that women must be believed on sexual assault. Except, apparently, for Ms. Reade.
Mr. Biden has a long and convoluted history here. When Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her, Mr. Biden, as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, insisted she would have to make her case publicly so Mr. Thomas could answer the charges. In 1994, for their book “Strange Justice,” he told Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson that he acted with “fairness to Thomas, which in retrospect he didn’t deserve,” and he later apologized to Ms. Hill. Now he wants the fairness standard for himself.
Mr. Biden has long painted himself as a champion for victims of abuse and harassment, saying his proudest legislative achievement was the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. As Vice President he appointed the first White House Adviser on Violence Against Women and served as point man for the Obama Administration’s effort to change the “culture on campus” toward sexual assault and harassment. This turned out to mean throwing protections for accused students out the window and allowing the minimum standard of evidence to conclude guilt.
After Mr. Biden had left office, Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, was accused by Christine Blasey Ford of sexually assaulting her when the two were in high school. Mr. Biden spoke generally at the time about these kind of he-said, she-said cases involving a public figure.
“For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally,” he told reporters, “you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time.” Again, except for now.
The accusation against Mr. Biden has also exposed the double standards of the media. When Mr. Kavanaugh was the target, for example, the New York Times reported Julie Swetnick’s charges—including that she’d seen Mr. Kavanaugh at high school parties where women were “gang raped”—the same day she made them. They were smears backed up by no evidence. There’s been much less media appetite to report on Ms. Reade’s claims.
Times editor Dean Baquet waited 19 days to report her allegation and was asked by his own media columnist why Mr. Kavanaugh was treated differently. His answer: “So I thought in (Ms. Reade’s) case, if The New York Times was going to introduce this to readers, we needed to introduce it with some reporting and perspective. Kavanaugh was in a very different situation. It was a live, ongoing story that had become the biggest political story in the country. It was just a different news judgment moment.” It sure was.
We said at the time that we didn’t know if Ms. Blasey Ford was telling the truth, and we don’t know whether Ms. Reade is now. When women make serious charges they deserve to be taken seriously, but that shouldn’t mean assuming an accused man must be lying. The right way to proceed is to decline to make a judgment and examine the claims and supporting evidence. In the case of Ms. Blasey Ford, no corroboration was forthcoming.
All of this is called due process and the presumption of innocence. These protections apply to everyone—including those who would deny them to others. Such as Mr. Biden.
Snowbirds, Second Home Owners Should Quarantine When Arriving Here
Dr. Donald Yealey, UPMC emergency medicine department chairman, hasn’t seen COVID-19 hotspots erupt in his hospitals’ service territories. The best way to keep it that way is for residents in UPMC’s service territory, which includes Jamestown, to keep doing what they’re doing.
While there are some models that say the pandemic’s peak may have hit late last week, the truth is no one knows if COVID-19 has indeed hit its apex point. And, relaxing our behavior too soon could mean the virus surges again.
“There are lots of models and everyone is right and everyone is wrong at the same moment in time,” Yealey said during a news conference last week. “And so I don’t actually know when the peak will happen, how long the peak will be and how high it will be. And no one who has a model knows the answer to that question yet. … I think keep doing the same things that you’re doing right now, which is continuing the isolation, adhering to the simple things — distance, hand hygiene, a mask when you’re around others. The simple things still drive prevention of illness and recovery from illness. It’s not any more complicated than that. This is not the time to stop any of that because our peak hasn’t been so high or many of the people that we’re caring for are going back home. This is the time to stay the course.”
Part of that course, we might add for travelers, is self-quarantining for at least two weeks. Dr. Christine Schuyler, county health and human services director, reiterated the travelers’ quarantine recommendation last week during a news conference. While it would be ideal for snowbirds or those for whom Chautauqua County provides a summer home to simply stay where they are until the pandemic ends, that isn’t always possible. Quarantining, with as little contact as possible with the outside world, is the best way to make sure that COVID-19 doesn’t spread into areas where the virus is relatively limited. This is particularly true for those traveling from areas where COVID-19 is rampant, like downstate New York.
Chautauqua County hasn’t been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 yet, but that doesn’t mean we are out of the woods yet. Travelers who arrive in Chautauqua County and immediately run to Wegmans or Home Depot are putting those workers at risk of taking COVID-19 home to their families. Such behavior means the risk of Chautauqua County becoming a hot spot magnifies exponentially.
We don’t blame those who travel here right now for traveling — but they must do it safely, as Sue and Greg Jones did. After an arduous trip from their winter home in Mexico to Bemus Point, the Joneses had their groceries delivered and are waiting two weeks before resuming their busy philanthropic lives. They are an example that all of our snowbirds or second home owners should follow.
New York Legislature should continue session remotely
The Auburn Citizen
Adjusting to a new way of working during this time of social distancing should also apply to the New York state Legislature.
The legislative session in Albany came to an abrupt halt in March as the widespread effects of the coronavirus pandemic became more evident and members of the Legislature were among those testing positive for the disease.
In the resulting rush to get out of town, Assembly and Senate leaders gave Gov. Andrew Cuomo wide latitude to essentially proceed however he saw fit, leading to a state budge process that E.J. McMahon, research director for the good-government group Empire Center, called as secretive “as I’ve ever seen in 30 or 40 years.”
Cuomo said that the legislative session was “effectively over” after the budget was passed, but the session still has an adjournment date of June 2, and we agree with lawmakers and others calling for the session to continue remotely.
Policy issues left to discuss this spring include expanding absentee and early voting, tenants’ rights and drug policies in addition to myriad legislation necessary to address the pandemic, one being a request by business advocates to increase liability protections for companies, employees and contractors involved in manufacturing and other relief efforts related to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
The Assembly and Senate already approved remote voting before the budget was passed, and lawmakers have been given guidance and technical expertise on how a virtual session can function, so there is nothing stopping them from continuing to do their jobs. Businesses, schools and public and private agencies are finding ways to be productive without meeting face to face. The Legislature should too. Bills can be introduced, made public, debated and vote on.
There’s no question that COVID-19 has prevented things from continuing as they had before, but the new normal is to carry on as best as possible. State policy decisions still need to be made, and the executive branch alone must not be the final arbiter. That means having our representatives remaining involved in governing the state at this critical time.
Transparency takes a hit in New York
With COVID-19 dominating news coverage of state issues of late, some “line items” in New York’s new $177 billion budget have been overlooked or underreported.
One of those items involves an increase in the ability of state agencies to shift away from traditional bidding practices in taxpayer-financed public works projects.
That strikes another blow to transparency in state government, and it carries the potential to inflict even more harm on the bottom line of New York’s already struggling newspaper industry.
For decades, state law required state agencies and local governments to place paid newspaper legal notices when seeking bidders for public works projects.
In 2011, the state authorized the Infrastructure Investment Act, which triggered a pilot program aimed at enabling a handful of state agencies to use a variety of alternate contracting methods for large projects, including the $3 billion Tappan Zee Bridge construction. Under this program, authorized agencies were allowed to forego the traditional “design-bid-build” method when soliciting bids for contracts.
In recent years, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration has pushed for an expansion of the list of agencies authorized to use non-traditional bidding practices.
Up until this year, the move was not embraced by a majority of state lawmakers.
Sadly, at a time when so much attention was paid to the state’s response to the global pandemic, the provision won approval from the state legislature, which granted Cuomo’s request.
The 2011 law applied to highways and bridges. The new legislation covers public buildings as well, and added SUNY Construction Fund, New York State Dormitory Authority, Urban Development Corp., Battery Park City, Office of General Services and Olympic Regional Development Agency to the list of entities that are allowed to forego publication of bid solicitation notices in newspapers. Instead, they can publish notices in publications distributed by state agencies that are not always accessible by members of the general public, or are largely unknown to citizens.
This strikes a major blow to transparency in state spending as it allows for the selection of contractors to perform most public works projects almost entirely without guidance or accountability.
“Elimination of public notice of proposed public works while consolidating the process by which taxpayer funded projects are conducted fosters a climate of secrecy that can enable corruption,” said Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association. “The lack of true notification to members of the community also forecloses potential opportunities for local companies to seek to participate in public projects, and for citizens to be aware that a project is planned in their neighborhoods.”
New York State suffered yet another blow to its already sketchy reputation when it became mired in the recent Buffalo Billion bid-rigging fiasco.
For the state, under Cuomo’s leadership, to further curtail transparency in taxpayer-funded public works projects underscores the reasons why New York leads the nation in high business costs, population loss and other indicators of decline.