Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:

The Supreme Court’s Pennsylvania Cleanup

The Wall Street Journal

Nov. 10

For a few days last week, it looked as if the 2020 election might play out as a gloomy opera of recounts and lawsuits, possibly upstaging Florida in 2000. We can thank the fates for sparing us, since nobody else can claim credit. The task ahead, starting in the Supreme Court, is to prevent a similar shadow from falling next time.

Joe Biden’s lead in Pennsylvania has plodded upward to about 49,000 votes, at last check. That’s a modest margin of 0.73 percentage point, but it’s enough to avoid a recount cataclysm. The potential, though, was there. Pennsylvania law says absentee votes must be returned by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Two months ago, the state’s highest court nonetheless yelled abracadabra and changed the deadline to Nov. 6, while making postmarks optional.

Those straggling ballots remain subject to litigation, and Justice Samuel Alito has ordered local officials to keep them separate. The precise number of late votes hasn’t been released, but a state official said Tuesday that it’s “approximately 10,000.” If Mr. Biden were winning by 537 votes, which was George W. Bush’s final margin in Florida, all hell would break loose. The Court’s decision to invalidate the ballots, or to count them, might well pick the next President.

Now the temptation for the Justices, since Mr. Biden appears to have won Pennsylvania and the White House, will be to call this case moot and walk away from the controversy. That would be a missed opportunity.

First, it matters for posterity whether Mr. Biden won the state by 49,000 or something closer to 43,000, or whatever. Settling the issue would remove one of Donald Trump’s claims of electoral shenanigans. Most important, however, is straightening out all the lower judges who see the Constitution’s elections clauses as useless inkblots.

In recent cases, state and federal courts across the country ignored black-letter election law. With Nov. 3 looming, judges extended the statutory ballot deadlines by three days in Georgia, six in Wisconsin and 14 in Michigan. Those orders were halted on appeal. After Minnesota progressives sued, a Democratic official agreed to bump the ballot deadline by a week, state law be damned. An appeals court responded, five days before the election, by ordering that Minnesota’s late ballots be kept separate, leaving a second batch of votes in limbo.

The Supreme Court has already yanked the reins on the federal judiciary. Last month it restored South Carolina’s witness requirement for absentee ballots, which a federal judge had suspended. Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s opinion there was cited days later, when an appeals court halted the Wisconsin deadline extension.

It’s trickier, in a federalist system, to correct state judges on a question of state law. But Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court doesn’t have free rein, especially given how far it strayed. The U.S. Constitution vests state legislatures with authority over elections, and Pennsylvania lawmakers set an unequivocal ballot deadline.

Where did the state judges find the power to overrule it? They gestured at a provision of the state constitution, which vaguely says that elections “shall be free and equal.”

Liberals say it would be a watershed for the Justices to overrule a state court’s interpretation of an election code in this way. But intervening here would not obligate the Supreme Court to wade into state election disputes that involve genuine ambiguity. It would merely put state judges on notice that they can’t outright stomp on clear election rules that were duly passed by legislatures accountable to the people.

Uncertainty is unavoidable when running an election during a pandemic. Yet rewriting the rules at the last minute made this election a much riskier proposition than it needed to be. Candidates and voters went into Nov. 3 knowing that the ballot requirements in Pennsylvania and other states might be changed after the fact. If it had rained in Philadelphia last week, making Mr. Biden’s turnout soggy, the country might be on the brink of a Bush v. Gore redux over those thousands of late ballots, with an outcome that half the country would call illegitimate.

This is no way to run an election for junior-high student council, much less the world’s oldest functioning democracy. A Supreme Court decision in the Pennsylvania case might not determine the outcome in this election. But the country deserves better in the years to come than a repeat of 2020’s last-minute, arbitrary rule changes. The Justices can help by making the Constitution’s commands clear to judges and politicians.



Affordable Housing for SoHo

The New York Times

Nov. 10

For generations, affordable housing has been built in lower-income neighborhoods. Across the United States for more than a half century, that practice deepened residential segregation and income inequality.

In New York City alone, more than 50,000 new affordable housing units have been built or financed since 2014, according to city officials, the overwhelming majority in lower-income neighborhoods, like East New York.

Now, though, the city is ready to take a different approach.

One promising plan would rezone SoHo, bringing thousands of new apartments to the cobblestone-lined area of Lower Manhattan that makes up one of the wealthiest areas of the city.

Of the roughly 3,200 new apartments, at least 25 percent of the housing will be set aside for lower income New Yorkers as part of the city’s affordable housing program, according to city officials. That number can and should be negotiated upward over the coming months. Mayor Bill de Blasio supports the plan, as do several of the candidates vying to succeed him. That’s crucial since the City Council isn’t likely to vote on the rezoning until next year, and the political capital of Mr. de Blasio, who is term-limited, is waning.

Similar rezonings are being considered at the southern tip of Manhattan and in Gowanus, a once industrial Brooklyn neighborhood that gentrified years ago. The proposal in southern Manhattan, in the Seaport area, would smartly build new housing, including affordable housing, on a site that is currently used as a parking lot. City officials can serve New York by securing more affordable housing at lower rents from developers, since the market-rate apartments will generate a far greater profit than in lower-income areas.

These rezonings are good for several reasons. First, building affordable units in wealthier areas costs taxpayers less, because the market units are priced higher, subsidizing more affordable units. Those are dollars the city will need in the long years of economic recovery ahead.

Second, building more affordable housing in wealthier neighborhoods can help ease residential segregation patterns in New York. Just 1.7 percent of people who live in SoHo and adjoining Greenwich Village identify as Black, for example, according to a 2018 study by the Furman Center at New York University.

For years, the city has set aside half of new affordable housing units for New Yorkers who already lived in the local community district where the housing was being built. In 2015, the Anti-Discrimination Center, a fair housing group, sued the city, arguing that Mr. de Blasio’s plan worsened segregation and violated the Fair Housing Act.

In SoHo, and in any rezonings moving forward, the city should consider setting aside those units for people who live or work in the Council district, which is larger and generally more diverse than the local community district. They could also remove the set-aside altogether. New Yorkers need affordable housing in every neighborhood, not as an afterthought at the end of a long subway line. Making that a reality would go a long way toward building a fairer, healthier city.

The SoHo rezoning would also make it easier for small businesses to operate by removing antiquated restrictions, like an ordinance prohibiting bars, restaurants and retail from the ground floor. Opening those businesses in SoHo requires an owner to seek special permission from the city, a lengthy and expensive process.

Unsurprisingly, there has been opposition to the SoHo rezoning from preservationists, and some residents. Many of these New Yorkers argue that taller buildings would harm the character of the neighborhood.

Before dismissing the concerns of preservationists out of hand, consider the role they played in the middle of the previous century when they helped block the planner Robert Moses from building a highway directly through the neighborhood.

The SoHo rezoning presents no such existential threat. Housing here can be built in a way that fits the needs of a city with a dire housing shortage, making richer, not destroying, the existing life of the neighborhood. The rezoning can also ease the way for businesses and restaurants in the coming years, both of which have taken a hard hit during the pandemic.

After all, SoHo has seen many iterations. In the 1800s, it was home to manufacturing. In the 1960s, it became a mecca for artists, who found inexpensive housing there. In the past several decades, it has become a shopping destination.

In a growing city, change is a constant.



LiteracyCNY’s fate signals trouble ahead for NY nonprofits

Syracuse Post Standard

Nov. 8

After six decades of teaching many thousands of adults how to read, the nonprofit LiteracyCNY will suspend operations at the end of this month. The agency became a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, New York’s cratering finances and the state’s bureaucratic indifference to paying its bills on time.

New York state owed roughly $100,000 to LiteracyCNY, some from last year and most from this year’s contract payments that were suspended under a pandemic executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Unable to raise that kind of money, unsure when the state would come through with what it owed and uncertain about what next year would bring, the agency’s board decided it had no choice but to wind down operations.

It is a profound loss for the adult literacy movement that flowered in Syracuse, and a cruel blow to Ruth J. Colvin, the 103-year-old dynamo who founded its precursor, Literacy Volunteers of Greater Syracuse, in her basement in 1962.

Colvin had read in the newspaper that 11,000 adults in our community could not read and decided to do something about it. She later incorporated Literacy Volunteers of America, producing literacy materials in many languages and instructing teachers across the globe well into her 90s.

Local pride aside, we fear LiteracyCNY’s fate awaits other nonprofits, with harmful consequences for the people and communities they serve.

In a July letter to the governor, 700 nonprofits warned of their rapidly deteriorating finances as the state froze contract payments and the executive order suspended prompt payment laws. “Many nonprofits entered this pandemic at a breaking point caused by underfunded and late contracts, late payments, high staff turnover, stagnant wages, fully tapped-out credit lines, and limited or nonexistent cash reserves,” the letter stated.

Late payments were a chronic problem long before the pandemic. A recent audit by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli showed 50% of the contracts between nonprofits and the state in 2019 were executed after the start date. That means agencies were providing services for six months without payment – essentially providing a no-interest loan to the state. That created cash-flow problems and forced them to borrow to pay the bills.

These contracts are not charitable contributions. State and local governments pay nonprofits to provide essential services, such as health care, care for the disabled, education, social services and homeless services. Such contracts often are the main source of revenue for nonprofits. The sector employed 1.3 million people in the state (pre-pandemic), about 18% of the state’s workforce, and generated $260 billion in annual revenue, according to the New York Council of Nonprofits, the group behind the letter to the governor.

One widely cited analysis of the economic fragility of the nonprofit sector predicted that more than 1,800 nonprofit agencies in New York state could close due to the pandemic. The closure of just one, LiteracyCNY, will send ripples across our community.

Three full-time staff and two contract teachers will lose their jobs. Roughly 400 students per year, many of them new Americans learning English as a second language, will no longer receive literacy instruction. Not being able to read proficiently will hamper their ability to participate in civic life, help their children in school and seek education and higher-paying jobs for themselves.

Adult literacy work will continue along other avenues. ProLiteracy, the agency formed by the 2002 merger of Literacy Volunteers of America and Laubach Literacy International, is still going strong and still headquartered in Syracuse.

The indomitable Ruth Colvin hopes to continue LiteracyCNY’s mission on an all-volunteer basis, just as she began it in 1962. She will need a lot of help.

LiteracyCNY’s sudden closure seemed to catch local state legislators flat-footed. Their last-minute interventions could not shake loose enough of what the state owed to sustain it. What’s happening with other nonprofits in the community? What will become of the vital services they provide? Let’s not wait until they go dark to find out.

Once again, we look to Washington for a comprehensive coronavirus relief package, with aid to state and local governments that often finds its way to the nonprofits providing essential services for Americans in a time of great suffering and need.



Start unification with the fight against COVID-19

The Auburn Citizen

Nov. 8

During the long process of counting an unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots in battleground states that ultimately brought Joe Biden the presidential election victory, political observers filled much of the waiting time with discussions about how to heal the deep divide in this nation.

Restoring some semblance of bipartisanship is something President-elect Biden has vowed to do, and to a certain degree, it’s a goal that will take a long time to achieve.

But on one vital issue, Democrats and Republicans can and should come together swiftly and with badly needed urgency: the COVID-19 response.

As America’s attention was consumed by the election last week, public health data continued pouring in that shows we are once again being hit by a severe wave of this virus. It’s a wave that, as hard as it is to fathom, could throw us back into the darkest days when the pandemic first hit the United States last spring.

On the national level, public health agencies in the United States reported single-day records for newly confirmed cases on three straight days, culminating with 132,700 new cases on Friday.

Locally, a surge has been building for the past month and a half. It took 190 days for there to be 200 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Cayuga County. It then took 43 days to get to 500.

These numbers are alarming, and they can’t be dismissed. That’s the very bad news.

The good news is that the nation is now in a position to turn the tide.

Unlike the first big national coronavirus wave in the spring, there is now a solid testing and tracing infrastructure in place (although it still needs to be improved). Treatments have been become more effective and work toward a safe and effective vaccine marches on. We also know much more about the behavioral practices that are most effective at preventing spread.

The other reason for optimism is that the presidential election is over, and with that comes a huge opportunity to knock down false information about the pandemic via a bipartisan educational effort. Our deeply divided politics likely fostered coronavirus spread because large segments of the population have believed that this pandemic was just a political creation.

But now everyone can see: The voting has taken place, and the virus still rages on. It didn’t disappear with an election.

President-elect Biden needs to reach out to Republican leaders who are willing to stand up with him and build a united front against COVID-19.

There will certainly be continued debate about economic restrictions connected to the virus. That’s understandable — and it can even be a good thing that results in the most effective policy responses that are based on sound science.

A more immediate and crucial step that the president-elect must take is to launch a bipartisan and a highly visible education effort that urges all Americans to take this pandemic seriously. It means wearing masks. It means maintaining physical distance with other people. It means keeping social circles small, and avoiding large gatherings. It means being smart, calm and safe.

That’s a message with the power to unite. That’s a message America needs.



We Honor, Thank Those Who Serve And Have Served

The Post-Journal

Nov. 11

How fortuitous it is that this week, while the attention of millions of Americans seems focused on controversy, we take time out to honor those about whom we are in complete agreement: veterans of military service.

No matter how we view politics, we are united in revering the men and women who have served and do serve us in uniform. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard are the solid wall behind which our freedoms rest.

They serve us not as Democrats, Republicans, Independents or adherents to any particular political philosophy. They serve us simply as Americans.

It is their steadfast, pure patriotism that we celebrate this Veterans Day.

Even during peacetime, they make enormous sacrifices for us. In effect, they take years off from their lives to go where they are asked to go and do what they are asked to do.

Sometimes that takes them to foreign lands. Sometimes it places them aboard ships on lengthy cruises. Sometimes it means their posts are right here in the United States, but far from their homes. Families, friends, old school chums and former co-workers are seen only infrequently.

Their families become their brothers and sisters in arms.

Because the military must be on guard constantly, the jobs they do come with inherent risk. The regularity of reports that servicemen and women are killed or injured in training accidents or even during the course of normal duties reminds us of that.

During times of conflict, be they full-scale wars or armed confrontations that may not even make news, of course, everything changes. It is then that our foes learn, invariably, why the American military is respected and usually feared throughout the world.

And it is then that we whose liberties are being safeguarded are reminded just how important our men and women in uniform are to us.

There are fewer veterans among us this year than last, simply because of the number who served during World War II. This Veterans Day, we have among us an estimated 17.4 million who wear or once wore the uniform. That is about 1.4 million fewer than last year.

Expressing our gratitude to them grows more important by the day.

This week, we do just that. We honor — and thank, from the bottoms of our hearts — those who served and have served.

And this Veterans Day, we pray that God will watch over and keep them with same kind of steadfastness they showed for us.