New York Needs a Full-Time Legislature

Constitutional amendment establishing one should be supported

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For many of us, it’s the dog days of summer. So it is too for the New York State Legislature.

Its members are back in their districts — some not too far from the regular duties of lawmaking, but all of them a far cry from the cold January day when they reconvene in Albany for another legislative session.

They’ll talk of their big plans. They’ll pass another budget in secret. They won’t pass ethics reform. They’ll end the session in June with a flurry of rushed bills and then proclaim it as the most productive session they’ve ever had.

It’s the same short six-month song and dance we’ve ever known. But there are many, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who believe that song and dance should change.

And change, it should.

Earlier this year, the governor proposed that the state establish a constitutional amendment that makes the New York Legislature a full-time job. How fortunate for us that the option for a constitutional convention in 2018 happens to be on voters’ ballots this fall.

Speaking of voters, they strongly support the idea of a full-time Legislature. A February 2016 Siena College poll found that 60 percent of people statewide are on board — with good reason.

Elected legislative jobs are currently considered part time, meaning many lawmakers have side jobs back in their home districts. Most of them are at law firms and insurance agencies, but some also hold positions as musicians and ministers. It is important to know this, since many have made quite a stink in the last year about not getting a pay raise. Each lawmaker receives an annual $79,500 net pay, which for many, includes stipends. They haven’t received a pay raise since 1998 — and let’s be honest — that is indeed a long time without one. But when that $79,500 is combined with outside income, it’s doubtful that any legislator is really struggling to get by and is in serious need of a 47 percent pay increase, which was preposterously proposed last summer. Indeed, six state senators earned at least $100,000 in outside income in 2015.

A full-time Legislature would put an easy end to the pay raise debate. And a reasonable payment for full-time work would diminish any need for outside income.

By banning outside income, we eliminate a lot of avenues that eventually lead to corrupt politicians. It doesn’t require much thought to realize that a system where lawmakers spend half the year in other types of work can easily lead to conflicts of interest in how they govern, and lead to less-than-good intentions that cross legal borders.

The scandal that disgraced former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was the result of his outside work. And he made a lot of money in that outside work, including $4 million in kickbacks after he funneled some $500,000 in state grants to a Columbia University doctor who, in return, sent his patients to Silver’s law firm — which then paid Silver for the referrals. Silver also voted for state tax breaks for a real estate company, which then steered business to a law firm, from which he also received referral fees.

Silver’s not alone. A good portion of the corruption that has plagued Albany for the last decade has been tied to legislators’ dealings outside of Albany. And while a full-time Legislature certainly wouldn’t cure corruption overall, it would be a significant step in the right direction to do so.

Once outside income is eliminated, a full-time Legislature can improve the actual governing process. Our state’s politics won’t be defined by leaders hammering out all of the details of major legislation behind closed doors. Our governing won’t revolve around what’s in the state budget every spring. The two months between budget negotiations and the end of sessions won’t be a wasteland of legislative action. Then we won’t follow that period of inactivity with crunching deadlines in June where lawmakers pass bills that haven’t been properly vetted, or at times, even read.

Then maybe we won’t need to waste taxpayer money having “extraordinary sessions” that are meant to finish business that should’ve been finished during the time legislators had, like the one we had in 2017. And while it was work that needed to be done, that extraordinary session New York had this year was anything but extraordinary.

We have the opportunity next year to fundamentally transform how our state operates, for the better. Our elected representatives in Albany are doing what they like to call “public service.” While we appreciate those who sacrifice their time and effort to do that, a government in New York that doesn’t concentrate all of its time and energy on the government in New York does not live up to “public service.” Indeed, it is actually the biggest disservice to the public that can be imagined.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/ WTVH CBS 5/ WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at http://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Trump’s Upstate New York Comments Are a Slap In the Face to His Voters

President’s supporters wanted him to change the region, not forget about it

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Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen at a campaign rally in Syracuse in April 2016.

During a recent visit by President Donald Trump to Youngstown, Ohio, Buzzfeed published an article with the headline “Youngstown Loves A Fighter, But Eventually Trump’s Spiritual Base Will Want Results.”

Although Trump didn’t actually win the city of Youngstown — despite his claim that he did — that region of the industrial heartland is really ground zero for his white working class support that propelled him to victory last fall. It’s an area that has been in economic decline for decades and has been slow to recover as the Great Recession fades further in the rearview mirror.

The same can be said for upstate New York. And just like the people in Youngstown, the people here who voted for the billionaire businessman because they thought he could revitalize the region expect him to follow through.

What they don’t want is to be told to leave.

That’s what the president said we should do during a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, in which he said we should move to Wisconsin and leave our houses behind.

“You’re going to need people to work in these massive plants,” Trump said. “I’m going to start explaining to people, when you have an area that just isn’t working like upper New York state, where people are getting very badly hurt, and then you’ll have another area 500 miles away where you can’t get people, I’m going to explain, you can leave. It’s OK. Don’t worry about your house.”

The “massive plants” he is referring to is his recent announcement that Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics giant and Apple product supplier, will build a liquid crystal display factory in southeastern Wisconsin. The company plans to hire 3,000 people and claims its workforce could eventually grow to 13,000.

Good for Wisconsin, but why does that mean New Yorkers should move away? This is the same man who just a year ago, said “don’t leave Rochester! I’m telling you, I will bring [jobs] back so fast,” a message that resonated in New York’s Rust Belt-type cities like Buffalo and Syracuse and even more so in more rural areas of the state.

The election results indicated as much. His Democratic opponent unsurprisingly won the state’s 29 electoral votes, but Trump dominated the upstate region, carrying all but ten counties north of Westchester, many with overwhelming margins. In Oswego County for instance, where Barack Obama won by a convincing eight points just four years ago, Trump won by 23 points in 2016. He also won Cayuga, Seneca, Cortland, Madison, Niagara, Saratoga and a slew of other counties that went for Obama twice. He even won Broome County, which includes the city of Binghamton, which hadn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Upstate residents didn’t vote for Trump in those numbers just to have him recommend they leave the region just seven months into his administration. They voted for him because they are indeed “getting very badly hurt” and agreed with him when he said repeatedly during the campaign that the region was a “war zone” and “death zone.” They voted for him because they saw real potential in someone, who was himself a New Yorker, who could drastically change the current conditions of the region and provide the kind of help many people here have demanded for quite some time. Essentially giving up and asking people to move somewhere else is definitely not the kind of solution that his voters were hoping for.

Indeed, it’s almost ironic, given the situation. There were several states and cities vying for the Foxconn factory that Wisconsin will get. One of them was Utica, in Oneida County, another location in upstate New York where Trump won by a 20-plus point margin.

An LCD plant in Utica could’ve brought enormous economic benefits to the area, and Trump could’ve actually made it happen. But consequently, it’s a city that doesn’t lie within a swing state. That’s not to say Wisconsin is a swing state, but it’s a recent reliably Democratic one that Trump was able to flip because of his promise to revive American manufacturing in an area where many white working class voters have been displaced by a changing economy.

It’s an intelligent political maneuver, but one factory in Wisconsin is not going to guarantee that Trump’s voters will remain faithful in the next election anymore than telling upstate New Yorkers to pack their bags will.

It’s not just that many of his supporters here don’t want to leave. They want a reason to stay. Just like the people in Youngstown — or in Erie, Pennsylvania or western Michigan for that matter — upstate New York residents want to see results from this new president in upstate New York. And Trump’s invitation to relocate to a different state is not going to do him any favors.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/ WTVH CBS 5/ WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at http://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Downtown Revitalization Is Not a Joking Matter

Gov. Cuomo’s jokes about awarding cities money aren’t funny or appropriate

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is good at raising money. He is also a master at backroom deal-making and pushing progressive legislation through a conservative-controlled chamber of the state Legislature. But it appears that as a comedian, the governor leaves much to be desired.

We were able to affirm that this week after Cuomo made comments about awarding more money to some of the state’s cities to fund revitalization efforts of their downtowns — comments that his office announced the next day were a joke.

Cuomo was in Hudson on Tuesday, a Columbia County city that will receive $10 million after being selected as the Capital Region Regional Economic Development Council’s winner of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, a statewide competition that awards $10 million grants to 10 municipalities — one in each of the state’s 10 regional economic development councils.

But while speaking, Cuomo then indicated his intention to sweeten the pot a little for cities that applied but weren’t included in the top 10 winners.

“What we’re going to do because we have so many good plans, we’re going to have just 10 first place winners that would receive $10 million,” he said. “We’re going to have second place winners also that win $5 million … We’re going to have third place winners that win $2.5 million, fourth place winners that win $1 million and a set of steak knives.”

Now, maybe the backend of that statement can help the argument that Cuomo was joking, but there were many, including The Associated Press in their initial report, that took the governor for his word that there would be runner-up prizes. In actuality, of the 104 communities that entered the competition, 94 will come away with no new funding.

Incredibly enough, this is not the first time Cuomo has made this “joke,” which may be why he thought people would receive it as one. Last year, when he was in Oswego to announce that the city had won the $10 million grant in the central New York council area, he said almost the same thing.

“There are second place winners that win $8 million. There are third place winners that win $6 million and a fourth place winner that wins a plaque and a set of steak knives,” Cuomo said. “You really don’t want to be the fourth place winner even though they are nice knives.”

According to The Auburn Citizen, the Cayuga County city briefly thought it still had a chance of receiving money even though Oswego had won the ultimate prize. Much to their disappointment, no doubt.

Even when clarified as a joke, it is still unclear just what Cuomo finds humorous about not handing out money that many towns and cities across upstate New York could probably really use for their aging downtowns.

Case and point: There’s a great recent article in The New York Times about Oneonta, a city that won the $10 million grant in that region during last year’s contest, and how officials there see revitalizing downtown as a way to keep young people from leaving for bigger cities to live in and work, among other reasons.

Oneonta, like Hudson, was lucky it won the grant, but there are many communities, both in those areas and across the state, that are suffering from the same problems and have the same objectives, and would gladly welcome any kind of state money to fulfil those objectives as much as can be done. Regenerating a downtown can help stimulate a city. Stimulating a city can help improve an entire region.

These contests were of the governor’s own making. He was well aware when he created them how valuable these grants would be to municipalities, so it is bewildering why he would treat them as if he’s teasing a bunch of dogs with different sizes of meat when only one will get meat at all.

If Cuomo is seriously considering a bid for the presidency in 2020, it would be ideal for him to wise up on what he finds amusing. It’s unlikely that many people in economically struggling small cities, particularly in upstate New York, would find an opportunity to breathe some life and blood back into their downtowns as something to joke about.

The only other thing New Yorkers should be seriously asking is this: Why does the governor seem to think all of these cities are in dire need of stellar steak knives?

Okay, that was a joke.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/ WTVH CBS 5/ WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at http://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

County Lawsuit Is a Good Start to Battling Opioid Epidemic

Other measures to combat problem in central New York should also be considered

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It has been long believed —and well confirmed by studies — that there is a distinct relationship between high drug use and regions of the country facing significant economic hardship. That would explain why central New York is not immune to the opioid crisis that has gripped so many parts of rural America in the last few years. But now, lawmakers have made a momentous step in combating one of the most troublesome problems in the area.

Last week, the Onondaga County Legislature announced their plans to file a lawsuit against major manufacturers and distributors of opioid drugs. They join Oswego, Erie, Broome, Schenectady and several other counties in upstate New York that have taken similar measures in the last few months.

The suit is based on big drug-makers’ deceptive marketing tactics, citing thorough evidence that drug companies have presented studies to doctors that downplayed the addictive nature of opioids, which include heroin, fentanyl and prescription drugs like oxycodone.

The suit specifically focuses on financial compensation, seeking to reimburse the county for any costs associated with opioid-related issues —which are mainly emergency medical services — but police departments, drug treatment centers, courts, foster care centers and others are also feeling the strain.

It is encouraging to see Onondaga County join the fight, and hopefully this action will incite more New York counties to start doing the same. They have to, because it’s a problem that has gone out of control in a very short amount of time and shows no signs of improving on its own. More than 3,000 people in New York died from drug overdoses in 2015, a 71 percent increase in just five years. And in the first three months of 2017, there were 29 deaths due to opioid drug overdoses in Onondaga County alone.

It’s time to hold someone accountable for all of that —and that’s what a lawsuit against big drug companies is an attempt of. These same companies were expected to generate more than $15 billion in revenue last year. We should demand some of that money be spent on curbing a crisis that they helped create.

Now, whether the Onondaga County lawsuit and others like it will be successful is different. We definitely face an uphill battle going against such powerful institutions, though it isn’t implausible. Just recently, Mallinckrodt LLC, one of the world’s largest makers of the painkiller oxycodone, agreed to a $35 million settlement in a Syracuse case where it was accused of supplying distributors, who then supplied pharmacies and pain clinics, with an increasingly “excessive amount” of oxycodone pills without properly notifying the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration over a three-year period.

It should be noted however, that while the settlement was a significant accomplishment in fighting the opioid epidemic, Mallinckrodt agreed to the settlement without admitting guilt. So the accomplishment was a morale boost and financial victory, but fell short of seriously addressing the main issue here.

To some extent, we could say the same about the Onondaga County lawsuit. As much as the action should be applauded, if it is successful, reimbursing the county for opioid-related expenses is merely something on paper. That by itself isn’t going to solve the problem of opioid addiction. That alone isn’t going to mend families that have been broken by overdose deaths.

It is also important to remember that drug companies don’t shoulder all of the blame for this epidemic, and therefore, aren’t the only ones responsible for stopping it. Different communities across the state are accepting that and coming up with solutions of their own. This spring, the city of Buffalo initiated its Opiate Crisis Intervention Court, the first of its kind in the country. It’s a system that offers more immediate help to those suffering from addiction, placing a bigger focus on saving lives than just punishment for a crime. Ithaca has been exploring the possibility of “supervised injection sites.” While that is highly controversial, it doesn’t hurt to explore what kind of options are out there.

It would be wise for Onondaga County and the entire central New York region to further explore different ways to address the opioid crisis in ways that are unique to the area’s specific needs. Sure, winning a lawsuit against drug companies would certainly be a helpful solution, one that cannot possibly be overstated. But that doesn’t mean that it is the only solution. Indeed, it is merely the beginning of one.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/ WTVH CBS 5/ WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at http://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88