Adirondack Daily Enterprise. April 14, 2021.
Editorial: Not the time to burn
It’s pretty dry out there — so dry that a forecast of rain early this week dried up.
National Weather Service meteorologists in Burlington, Vermont, still say our area might get rain Wednesday through Friday — possibly mixed with snow Friday — but in a tweet Monday they said it probably won’t put much of a dent in the dry conditions.
Our local volunteer fire departments have already responded to several wildfires.
And here we wondered a month ago about floods, since we hadn’t had thaws this winter to shrink the snowpack. So much for that.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s online map shows fire danger is low statewide, but DEC Region 5 spokesperson Erin Hanczyk said that can be a bit misleading. There is still a lot of dead fuel on the ground, and it’s getting dryer every day. It could ignite easily.
As you clean up your property for spring, please don’t be tempted to burn brush or other debris. It’s against the law, and for good reason.
In all Adirondack towns, open burning of brush is prohibited unless you get a permit from the DEC. And those permits are unlikely to be approved at this time of year because a residential burn ban is in place all over New York from March to May, as it has been every spring since 2009.
There are other ways to get rid of brush. If you must burn it and are willing to seek a DEC permit, wait until after the burn ban ends on May 14. (Burning leaves or garbage is prohibited year-round in New York, by the way.)
“Open burning of debris is the largest single cause of spring wildfires in New York state,” the DEC said in a March 9 press release. “In 2020, DEC Forest Rangers extinguished 192 wildfires that burned a total of more than 1,122 acres. In addition, local fire departments, many of which are volunteer, all too often have to leave their jobs and families to respond to wildfires caused by illegal debris fires.”
Campfires are not prohibited, but the DEC urges caution and offers these guidelines:
— Use existing campfire rings when possible.
— Build campfires away from overhanging branches, steep slopes, rotten stumps, logs, dry grass and leaves. Pile any extra wood away from the fire.
— Campfires must be less than 3 feet in height and 4 feet in diameter. Only charcoal or untreated wood can be used as fuel. A good bed of coals or a small fire surrounded by rocks gives plenty of heat. Scrape away litter, duff, and any burnable material within a 10-foot-diameter circle. This will keep the campfire from spreading.
— Be sure your match is out. Hold it until it is cold.
— Never leave a campfire unattended. Even a small breeze could cause the fire to spread quickly.
— Drown the fire with water. Make sure all embers, coals and sticks are wet. Move rocks as there may be burning embers underneath.
— Stir the remains, add more water, and stir again. If you do not have water use dirt. Do not bury your coals as they can smolder and break out.
— Consider using a small stove for cooking in remote areas vs. making a campfire.
Our advice: You probably don’t NEED a fire this time of year, not really. Wait until summer.
To everything there is a season.
Advance Media New York. April 11, 2021.
Editorial: Albany shouldn’t raise taxes when it’s rolling in federal dough
New York state took a beating from the coronavirus. The record-setting $212 billion state budget enacted last week, fattened with billions in federal relief, will go a long way to repairing the damage to education, small businesses, restaurants, the arts, renters, landlords and local governments.
A once-a-century pandemic merits a robust response. A 10% increase in spending, some of it based on one-shot revenues from the feds, is not sustainable.
Lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo missed a chance to put the state on a firmer financial footing once the federal money runs out. They had $22 billion more to spend over the next two years than when Cuomo proposed the budget in January. Yet they still raised $4 billion in taxes on businesses and the wealthiest New Yorkers. That decision will make our state less competitive and easier to leave.
Lawmakers also legalized mobile sports betting and, in separate legislation, recreational marijuana. We supported both policies but are skeptical of Cuomo’s revenue estimates. The budget also includes $800 million for the long-awaited transformation of Interstate 81 in Syracuse. In a fit of progressive largesse, legislators showered $2 billion on immigrants without legal status who were excluded from previous pandemic relief programs. That was double the relief provided to small businesses, Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, pointed out.
We’ll get to budget winners and losers, but first a few words about the budget process. It was uglier than usual.
Even in the best of times, three-way budget negotiations among the governor, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins are opaque. In COVID times, with media and the public barred from the Capitol, budget deals were struck in total secrecy and after the April 1 deadline. Legislators had little or no time to vet them before voting into the wee hours Thursday. Journalists and policy wonks are still combing through the bills to figure out what’s in them. So much for transparency.
Here are our top budget takeaways, so far.
— Kids (and parents). The budget rains $29.5 billion on K-12 schools, an increase of $3 billion (or 11%) compared to last fiscal year. It boosts Foundation Aid for the state’s poorest districts by $1.4 billion, resolving a lawsuit over funding for low-wealth districts. Syracuse city schools will receive tens of millions of dollars more, according to Sen. Rachel May. But the Legislature failed to fix the underlying formula that bakes in school funding inequities. The budget also funds pre-K for 200 more school districts ($90 million) and channels federal aid to expand childcare ($2.3 billion). Public and private colleges and students who receive financial aid also got more money.
— Local governments. The budget restores proposed cuts to state aid to municipalities. Road and bridge funding to local governments will exceed $1 billion.
— Nursing home residents. The budget requires nursing homes to spend 70% of their revenue on direct patient care, and 40% of that on resident-facing staffing. The Attorney General’s investigation into the state’s 15,000 nursing home deaths due to Covid-19 drew a straight line between inadequate staffing and higher death rates in care facilities.
— Middle-class taxpayers. The budget funds the fourth year of personal income tax cuts and creates a property tax relief credit of up to $350 for one-fourth of the state’s 4 million homeowners.
— Wealthy taxpayers. Progressives realized their longstanding goal of raising taxes on millionaires and the super-rich. Cuomo’s political weakness due a sexual harassment scandal helped. New York’s top income tax rates will be the highest in the country when city and MTA taxes are added in. It’s a risky move when state revenues already are so dependent on rich people. What’s the tipping point that drives them — and their money — out of New York? We don’t want to find out.
— Businesses earning more than $5 million. They’ll pay higher corporate taxes, reducing their competitiveness and hurting consumers if they choose to pass on those costs. On the positive side, the budget targets aid to small businesses most harmed by the pandemic, such as restaurants and the performing arts.
— Republicans. They could not stop the Democratic-controlled Legislature from raising taxes and advancing police reform, gun measures and other progressive priorities.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of this “Robin Hood budget” that takes from the rich and gives to … government agencies. So much money sloshing around state and local governments and school districts raises New Yorkers’ expectations that things will get significantly better. Unless they waste it, that is. The windfall can lift New York out of its pandemic troubles only if it’s spent wisely and well.
Albany Times Union. April 13, 2021.
Editorial: Mr. Cuomo’s latest abuse
Staffers for Gov. Andrew Cuomo worked on a private poll conducted for a super PAC.
No public official, no matter how powerful, should use public resources for personal or political gain.
Staffers in the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo worked on a private poll while on the taxpayer dime.
So reports Times Union investigative reporter Chris Bragg, who obtained emails showing that Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to the governor, and others in his office helped with explicitly political polling being conducted on behalf of Jobs of New York, a super PAC funded by billionaire New York City landlords.
A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo notes there’s nothing wrong with the governor’s office seeking to gauge public opinion, which is true as far as it goes. But state law prohibits the use of public resources for an elected official’s personal benefit, including to help political campaigns.
And it’s hard to give Mr. Cuomo the benefit of the doubt when the revelation is only the latest in a long train of ethical abuses.
New Yorkers recently learned, for example, that taxpayer-funded employees in the governor’s office were tasked with helping to produce and publicize a book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” for which Mr. Cuomo was handsomely paid.
New Yorkers also recently learned that public resources and officials from the state Department of Health were used to provide prioritized coronavirus testing for Mr. Cuomo’s family members and associates. While less-influential New Yorkers often waited weeks for tests and results, if not longer, Mr. Cuomo’s preferred group got their results within hours.
Those and other many examples show that in Mr. Cuomo’s universe, the political, personal and governmental are thoroughly and inappropriately blended. The good-government guardrails are down, and the long list of his abuses of the public trust keeps growing.
An investigation into how public resources are being used to benefit Mr. Cuomo would be a fine way for the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics to prove its worth and independence, especially since having employees work on his book violated an agreement the governor had made with JCOPE. But time and again, the commission has shown it’s an inadequate ethics watchdog, more loyal to Mr. Cuomo than taxpayers.
Such an investigation could also be taken up by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who has rarely focused his spotlight on dark corners within the governor’s office. Mr. DiNapoli wouldn’t need to look far for a model: In 2019, then-Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners released an audit showing widespread payroll abuses in county government, including the use of public resources in the reelection efforts of County Executive Dan McCoy.
But absent action by JCOPE or Mr. DiNapoli, the task may fall to the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which has a long list of controversies to investigate as it weighs whether Mr. Cuomo should be impeached. One could almost wonder if the governor keeps generating new scandals to keep the investigation from ending.
The more likely explanation is a simpler one: Mr. Cuomo doesn’t believe ethics rules apply to him.
Dunkirk Evening Observer. April 14, 2021.
Editorial: Budget proves loss of Cuomo’s clout
The biggest takeaway from this year’s state budget isn’t the record spending, the legalization of mobile sports betting or the $2.1 billion the state will spend for those who weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits during the pandemic.
What should be striking to everyone in the state — from the most conservative to the most liberal — is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s weakened position.
For the past several weeks Cuomo had said taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents didn’t need to be increased because the state’s budget deficit had disappeared through a combination of stronger-than-anticipated tax receipts and the federal government’s generosity.
Cuomo has also said consistently for the past several years that the state needs to be careful raising tax rates on the state’s wealthiest residents because those residents could move from New York state and leave the state’s finances in shambles.
For years, Cuomo has been able to hold the line on taxes on the wealthy. That is no longer the case.
It’s a rare case that removing a speed bump makes a ride bumpier, but that is exactly what is happening in New York state. Consider further that Cuomo lost out to legislative Democrats over language that would strengthen Kendra’s Law.
Cuomo supported the changes in his executive budget, but those changes were rejected by Democrats in the Assembly and Senate to the chagrin of local state Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay.
If Cuomo can’t stand up to the whims of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, state residents of all political persuasions are in for a bumpy ride.
New York Times. April 11, 2021.
Editorial: You’ve Heard About Gerrymandering. What Happens When It Involves Prisons?
Counting people where they’re imprisoned takes political power away from cities and transfers it to rural areas.
Where do you live? For most people, that’s an easy question to answer when the census comes around. It’s much harder for those locked up in a state or federal prison, often hundreds or even thousands of miles from the place they last called home.
Longstanding Census Bureau policy is to count people as residing wherever they usually eat and sleep, known as the “usual residence” rule. For prisoners, that means being counted in the legislative districts where they are incarcerated.
But that makes no sense, because virtually everyone who goes to prison comes from somewhere else, and almost all will return there after being released. While they are behind bars, they can’t vote, nor do they have any attachment to the local community or its elected officials. They are counted, even though they can’t hold their representatives accountable.
The result is one of the more persistent and pernicious distortions in the redistricting process, known as “prison gerrymandering.” Now that the 2020 census count is over, and the nation begins its decennial struggle over how to draw new congressional and other legislative district lines — and who gains or loses political power as a result — it’s a good time to talk about how we can get rid of prison gerrymandering at last.
A healthy representative democracy needs an accurate picture of who lives where in order to allocate the proper number of lawmakers to represent their interests. It’s why the census is the first job the Constitution gives Congress.
Prison gerrymandering distorts this picture in two ways: by artificially inflating the population of places where prisons are, and artificially decreasing the population of the places where prisoners come from.
Add to that the constitutional principle of one person, one vote, which requires all legislative districts to be roughly the same size. If large groups of people are counted in the wrong place, the result is a government skewed in favor of some and against others.
When it comes to prisoners, the skew follows a clear pattern: Prisoners are disproportionately Black and brown people from urban areas, and prisons are disproportionately built in more rural areas. So counting people where they’re imprisoned takes political power away from racial minorities in cities and transfers it to whites in rural areas.
In one Rhode Island House district, for instance, prisoners account for nearly 16% of the population, even though only 4% of them are from that district.
In Juneau County, Wis., it’s even worse: Prisoners account for 80 percent of the entire population of one district.
In Connecticut, a redistricting expert calculated that nine of the 151 state House districts are able to meet the required minimum population only thanks to prisons within their borders, and that eight of those nine districts encompass predominantly white communities. If the state stopped counting prisoners where they are locked up, the expert said, 22 districts would need to be redrawn.
For most of American history the distortions caused by prison gerrymandering didn’t make much difference. There weren’t that many people behind bars. That changed with the incarceration boom that began in the 1980s. Today, more than two million people are held in state and federal prisons and local jails, with concrete consequences for politics and policy.
In New York, the harsh Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated absurdly long sentences that fell on many young men and women of color, were consistently unpopular with the public. They survived largely because they were defended by legislators who came from districts that benefited from prison gerrymandering. At the height of the prison-building boom in New York, 28 of 29 new prisons were built in upstate and often rural districts, providing a reliable cash flow for those districts even as the inmates they housed were overwhelmingly from the big cities.
Sometimes lawmakers are forthright about the benefits of exploiting prisoners for political gain. In 2015, Janet Adkins, a Republican Florida state representative, told party activists that the best way to oust a Democratic incumbent was to pack her district full of prisoners. Draw it “in such a fashion so perhaps, a majority, or maybe not a majority, but a number of them will live in the prisons, thereby not being able to vote,” Ms. Adkins said.
The best solution to all this is for the Census Bureau, which provides the data for congressional and state districting, to change the “usual residence” rule: that is, stop counting prisoners where they are locked up and start counting them in the place they call home, or at least in the last place they lived before going to prison. That would be consistent with a line of Supreme Court cases holding that a person’s residence isn’t necessarily where she happens to be found at the moment the census occurs, but the place to which she has some “allegiance or enduring tie.”
In 2018, the bureau asked for public comment on the usual residence rule. Of the 77,887 comments it received about prisoners, 77,863 — 99.97% — said they should be counted at their home address. Despite the virtually unanimous consensus, the bureau didn’t change the rule, although it agreed to provide states with access to data that make it easier for those that want to reduce the impact of prison gerrymanders.
Many states have grown tired of waiting, and have begun outlawing prison gerrymandering on their own, by incorporating their own data on their prison populations into the census data. Ten states now ban the practice outright — including California, New York and Virginia — together representing 30 percent of the U.S. population. Bills are on the table in four more states, and roughly 200 local jurisdictions have stopped counting prisoners where they are locked up. This is progress, but it’s piecemeal.
Democrats in Congress are trying to force the issue by including it in H.R. 1, the omnibus democracy-reform bill also known as the For the People Act. The bill would require the Census Bureau to count prisoners at their last known address. But even if H.R. 1 becomes law — which is far from assured at this point — it can’t fix the problem for the 2020 redistricting cycle, because the count is already done.
Rather than wait another decade, states without a ban already in place can take action now. With the help of the newly detailed data from the Census Bureau, they can divide up their inmate populations among multiple districts, essentially diluting the impact of prison gerrymandering by ensuring that no one district gets to claim too many prisoners. It’s not a perfect solution, but it may be the best way to fight this anti-democratic, racially biased practice until it can be eliminated for good.