Lawmakers Should Legislate Disclosure of Trump’s Tax Returns

Those in Albany should support bill to make
president’s tax information public

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U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin all but confirmed to all of us last week that President Donald Trump would never be publicly releasing his tax returns, which every president and most presidential candidates have done for more than 40 years.

“The president has no intention,” Mnuchin said at a press conference, of releasing his returns. “The president has released plenty of information and I think has given more financial disclosure than anybody else.”

What?

So, Mr. Mnuchin is going to stand there and tell us that Trump isn’t going to follow one of the norms of presidential transparency, one that Trump promised on multiple occasions he would comply with during the campaign, and then say the administration has given more information than anybody else?

Clearly, the fact that Trump hasn’t released his returns disqualifies him from coming even close to that claim.

But it’s not just about a campaign promise anymore. Without Trump’s tax returns, we have absolutely no idea just how much he makes, how much he pays in taxes, whether he has foreign bank accounts or pays taxes to governments abroad, or most importantly, if his proposed sweeping tax reform legislation would financially benefit him or his business empire, and if so, by how much.

It’s clear by now he’s never going to release them willingly. And there is no statute requiring him to do so.

That needs to change. And there are those who want to make that change.

Several downstate Democrats in the New York state Legislature introduced a bill last week that would require the Department of Taxation and Finance to release five years of state tax returns of major elected officials who file in New York. That would include not only Trump, as it is his home state, but of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and New York’s two U.S. senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Minus Trump, all of them have made their 2016 returns public in recent weeks — voluntarily.

Under this bill, the Department of Taxation and Finance would have 30 days to post state returns from anyone holding either of those high offices. We would only be provided with state returns, as federal returns are protected for privacy by law. We would know more with Trump’s federal returns, but the state ones would still give us a lot of specifics we don’t know, like salary, dividends, capital gains and rental real estate income.

The bill wouldn’t apply to state lawmakers, but the four Democrats who introduced it all said they would be willing to release theirs if they had to. And that may not be so bad an idea either.

It is sad that we have to come to this. After the embarrassment of the Watergate scandal and numerous reminders of a hyper-secretive federal government since then, high-ranking public officials releasing their tax information has gone without saying. We haven’t needed to require it because lawmakers know releasing them is the right thing to do — both morally and politically.

Trump has changed that. And his continued battle to keep his returns secret is all the more reason they need to be seen.

Sadly, this legislation is unlikely to make it through Albany. State Senate Republicans have already voiced their opposition, with Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif suggesting the bill “sounds like a P.R. stunt.”

And yes, in many ways it is. But Republicans would more than likely feel the same way right now if a Democratic president or governor wasn’t making their returns public.

Which after Trump, is a distinct possibility. Once a precedent is broken with no consequences, it’s difficult to continue it. So there’s absolutely no reason for Republicans to oppose such a measure.

It’s clearly what constituents want. A Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll found 53 percent of voters say Trump should be forced to release his tax returns, 51 percent say Trump’s taxes are either very or somewhat important to them and 45 percent say Trump’s taxes are relevant to his job in the White House.

Of course, not all future presidents will come from New York. Trump is the first president since Franklin Roosevelt to do so. Luckily, other states are introducing similar legislation of their own. Bills in Hawaii, California, Massachusetts, New Mexico and 15 other states would require anyone running for president to release the previous five years of returns in order to appear on the ballot. However, the success of most of those becoming law is a longshot at best.

And that is greatly disappointing. We would hope that our representatives in Albany would not only require transparency from any president from any party, but demand it. We have the right to know if our commander-in-chief has conflicts of interest with foreign nations that may put our national security at risk. We have the right to know if our president is using the most powerful office in the world as merely a way to further fill his already deep pockets.

And we shouldn’t assume Trump is, either. But until we see his tax returns, we don’t have a reason to assume he isn’t. That uncertainty will surely plague Trump as long as he holds the office. Our state legislators in Albany have the ability, and arguably, the responsibility to put that uncertainty to rest for the entire nation. They should take advantage of the opportunity.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Free College Tuition Plan Imprisons Graduates in New York

No former student should be financially obligated to stay in the state

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It has been just about two years since I completed a college degree and was handed a diploma. Immediately afterward, I moved to eastern New York state for work. Several of my college friends and associates settled in Syracuse, Albany, Buffalo, New York City and places in between.

But there were also many who left for other places like Oregon, Idaho, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Florida. Several went overseas.

They worked just as hard as I did, fulfilled all the same requirements as I did and followed all of the same rules. And like me, they went where the opportunities were. But had we graduated a few years later, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be paying for my tuition costs. They, on the other hand, would be.

That’s the scenario many college graduates will experience in the coming years when New York’s first-in-the-nation free tuition initiative goes into effect. The Excelsior Scholarship program covers in-state public college tuition for full-time students whose families earn $125,000 a year or less.

It is undoubtedly a political victory for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who many speculate will make a run for the White House in 2020, but it comes with an abundance of flaws that puts its effectiveness in question — like how it covers only tuition when textbooks and room and board costs represent a significant portion of the financial burden.

But the primary provision that has turned the most heads is the condition that graduates can only reap the benefits if they stay and work in New York for as long as they received the assistance. If they got four years of tuition paid for, they must remain in the state for four years after graduation. If they move, they will have to repay it.

Now, many instantly scream that the requirement is ridiculous. But upfront, I actually find that healthy. It ensures that state taxpayer money being spent on students’ education is recycled back into the state economy once they join the workforce, or at least, repaid in full. And SUNY officials estimate around 83 percent of students stay in New York following graduation anyway.

But remember, I said “upfront.” If we want to be frank, the requirement is imprisoning young people in this state — with a sentence of up to four years.

This provision was forced into the measure by Senate Republicans, many of them from upstate districts, a region many people, particularly young people, are moving out of. Between July 2015 and July 2016, 191,000 people moved out of New York state. According to United Van Lines, 46 percent of those who relocated cited jobs as their reason for leaving. And 18 percent of those who left were between the ages of 18 and 34. Each year those rates are about the same.

It would be different if upstate was booming economically or if the Excelsior Scholarship also provided economic development funds for the promise of job security, but as of right now, neither of those are the case.

What this does is create a paradox in the system that may make the groundbreaking program useless to thousands of students — it makes getting into college easier but into the workplace harder.

I don’t have to tell you that the job market for many fields in upstate New York isn’t exactly where we’d like it to be. And many don’t offer a salary that can afford skyrocketing rent costs downstate. So, young professionals are looking elsewhere.

Take those who major in video game design for example, a small field still but with ever-growing horizons in the digital age. Several schools in New York, including SUNY Poly and Canton, have or are in the process of adopting programs for game design and development. Rochester Institute of Technology’s program is actually ranked in the top two programs in the field by the Princeton Review.

But many of those graduates find themselves on the West Coast after graduation because jobs are more plentiful there.

Suppose a promising young graduate from SUNY Poly with great potential in that field is offered a well-paying job in a growing field on the other side of the country. Many would probably jump at the chance. But others might hesitate, knowing that decision would come with a $6,400 per-year price tag — which is the average tuition cost at a SUNY or CUNY school — a price that up to now they hadn’t planned on having to pay.

I know that’s a decision I would never want to have to make.

We would literally be punishing young people for being successful. And that’s not what free college plans are supposed to be about. Think about all of the futures that could be interfered with and all the accomplishments that could be hindered.

Again, a clear majority of graduates remain in-state anyhow, so is this requirement really necessary to begin with? If lawmakers really want to curb the mass exodus of young people from this state, they should concentrate on policies that ease the burden of costly housing downstate and re-invent the economic system to provide more opportunities upstate.

New York state is a wonderful place to live. And like anyone else, I would like young people to be able to remain here and prosper. But I certainly don’t blame anyone for leaving. Many of the people fleeing New York do so because of a financial ball and chain. This tuition plan might be the first occasion where people cite the same reason to stay.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Government Transparency May Very Well Be in Peril

Trump’s secretive way of governing should concern us all

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A year ago, I wrote a piece about the enormous lack of transparency in President Barack Obama’s administration. At the time, The Associated Press had recently released a report calling it the most secret administration out of any recent president.

Three years prior to that, The Washington Post Vice President Leonard Downie Jr., who worked at the newspaper during the Watergate investigation, said that Obama’s “escalating war on leaks is the most militant I have seen since the Nixon administration.”

And just one month ago, the AP revealed that in its final year, the Obama White House spent a record $36.2 million on legal costs defending its refusal to turn over federal records under the Freedom of Information Act.

But there’s a new plumber in town.

President Donald Trump, who in 2012 tweeted that Obama was “the least transparent President — ever,” is now taking flack for the same criticism — and rightfully so.

At the very least, Trump is already the least transparent president in more than 40 years for one simple reason: He has yet to release his tax returns — a precedent every presidential candidate has done since Jimmy Carter. He did promise to release them during the campaign but never did because he claimed he couldn’t due to an audit. Tax experts have said repeatedly that has no effect.

And there’s little reason to believe he’ll ever release them. He seems to think the only ones that care about them are reporters, even though a CBS News poll found that 56 percent of Americans think he should release them and thousands around the country rallied on April 15 to show their disdain that he hasn’t done so.

Without those returns, we can’t say for certain just how much he is worth or what he owes.

Why should we care? Well, the president has the largest overhaul of the tax system since 1985 atop his legislative agenda. Do you believe members of Congress should vote on a tax reform bill if they have absolutely no clue how that bill might affect Trump?

Of course, it’s not just his taxes. The president has done little to assure us that his former business interests or those of his children aren’t interfering with governing. Indeed, Ivanka Trump and her husband had dinner with Chinese President Xi Jingping on the same day her businesses earned three trademark approvals in China.

Trump has also suspended a regulation aimed at protecting whistleblowers who work for Department of Energy contractors, meaning it could now be harder for them to report wrongdoing.

His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has been traveling without journalists, which those in his position have done for half a century.

There isn’t even transparency on golf, of all things. Trump has visited several golf courses since taking office but his administration refuses to confirm or deny that he is actually golfing.

Most recently, the administration decided to keep all White House visitor logs secret, undoing a measure formed under Obama. Though it was hardly created solely out of good intentions by Trump’s predecessor, it was there nonetheless. And Trump press secretary Sean Spicer’s argument that withholding the logs is okay because it returns to a former presidential normality is ridiculous.

It is true, the Obama administration withheld some names on the logs for sensitive reasons, but it still provided 6 million names of people who visited. The Trump White House will provide zero. That means we’ll have absolutely no idea who is lobbying the president on future national policy.

Perhaps what’s most frightening here isn’t just that Trump is better at slamming doors than Obama. It’s that Trump could be creating a new standard that we hadn’t anticipated. Anyone running for president now can argue that they don’t have to release their tax returns and win. Anyone who becomes president can prevent us from knowing just what characters are visiting the president.

“Trump did it, so why can’t I?” they’ll argue.

It’s incredibly sad. With all of the disclosure laws, moral responsibilities and technology we have now, government transparency is still something that is not evolving. Hell, it’s not even stagnant. It’s going back decades in time, taking the office of president back to a darker place we were sure it would never return to.

And what will that do to us as individuals? Well, listen to what Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism and former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told National Public Radio in the early days of Trump’s presidency, after he had won using transparency as a weapon against Hillary Clinton, attacking her for her private email server, sealed Wall Street speeches and financial workings with foreign nations.

“I think we’re going to be seeing some real out-of-the-box moves here,” she said. “It’ll be more along the lines of the president’s standing up at a rally somewhere and saying, ‘Who needs this information? It’s the evil media that wants to know this information, you don’t need it. No!’ And I think he’s going to try to persuade the public, overtly, that they’re better off ignorant.”

Please let us not come to that.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Trump Budget Puts Lake Ontario, Area Waterways At Risk

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An aerial view of Little Sodus Bay, an inlet of Lake Ontario, is seen in Fair Haven, New York.

Its very name originates from the Iroquois word for “lake of shining waters.”

But it’s been difficult for Lake Ontario to live up to that name in recent years. In 2012, a study by the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project classified it as the most threatened of the Great Lakes, due to invasive species like zebra mussels and sea lampreys, nitrogen runoff that feeds harmful algae blooms, and pollution from mercury and PCBs.

Fortunately, we have made a lot of progress in first identifying these problems and then finding solutions to make Lake Ontario and its many tributaries cleaner, safer places. But proposals in President Donald Trump’s federal budget could take that all away.

Part of his proposed $2 billion in cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency includes slashing $300 million that funds the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) was created in 2010 to clean up toxins, combat invasive species, protect watersheds from polluted run-off and restore nearby wetlands. Since then, $2.2 billion has funded more than 2,000 projects across the eight states that border the lakes and the waterways that flow to them, many in New York.

That includes the fight against invasives like the water chestnut in Lake Ontario that has made its way to the Oswego and St. Lawrence rivers. Clumping together, water chestnuts create large floating mats of vegetation that can restrict recreational shoreline and limit penetration of sunlight, affecting the growth of native plants on the lake bottom and disrupting the area ecosystem.

Joseph Chairvolotti, executive director of the Oswego County Soil and Water conservation District, told Oswego News that recent efforts to control the spread of water chestnuts has seen some success and new treatments are beginning this year.

The GLRI also helps aquatic species that are supposed to be here. One project is conducting surveys for bog turtles in approximately 130 wetlands in Wayne and Cayuga counties, which is a federally threatened animal.

Many projects have obviously focused on the safety of all-too-important fish in the lake, like identifying fish pathogens and finding proper remedies, including prevention measures of a new outbreak of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), which killed off a lot of fish in Lake Ontario a few years ago.

The GLRI has allowed the U.S. Geological Survey to take on a mission restoring native fish to Lake Ontario like the Atlantic salmon. At one time, Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario represented the largest freshwater population of salmon in the world. Reintroducing them will help restore a natural balance of the food web. Reintroducing sturgeon, which has been nearly extinct in Lake Ontario for a hundred years, is also softening the blow of invasives like zebra mussels, which sturgeon consume.

More and healthier fish means more fishermen, a sport that contributes significantly to the economies of lake shore towns. In 2011, spending on hunting and fishing related activities totaled over $5 billion in New York state. In Oswego County alone, the overall economic impact of sport fishing is estimated to be around $42 million.

And speaking of local economies, so many small towns and villages depend on the water to be clean not just for fishing, but for other types of recreation like swimming and boating. Areas from the Niagara River to the Thousand Islands depend on summer tourists to take part in these activities. There are more than 100 beaches along Lake Ontario and the GLRI has funded several efforts to improve the water quality of those beaches, which keeps them open. The initiative has put a lot of work into Rochester area beaches, which have one of the thickest green algae beds in the Great Lakes, fed by phosphorus that gets into the water from fertilizers and detergents. The slimy, smelly organism has clogged area beaches in recent years, keeping swimmers away or closing beaches entirely.

The GLRI helps reduce toxic contamination from household cleaning products and supports workshops promoting the use of nontoxic products and sustainable practices in several communities along the lake. It also monitors levels of bacteria in the water from sewage and supports dredging efforts to remove contaminated sediment. Let’s not forget that the Great Lakes is the largest supplier of freshwater drinking water in the world. Lake Ontario alone provides drinking water for nine million people.

Let’s also not forget that, as Gordon Lightfoot said, “further below, Lake Ontario takes in what Lake Erie can send her.” Many toxins that originate from the shores of Wisconsin and Michigan can make their way here eventually on their way to the ocean. And there’s no border in the middle of the lake either. Our neighbors on the Canadian shore are also concerned about the proposed cuts to the GLRI.

Thankfully, there are many in Congress, which actually determines the budget, who oppose Trump’s cuts, including Rep. John Katko and even Rep. Chris Collins, one of Trump’s earliest supporters. Indeed, funding the GLRI has seen overwhelming bipartisan support over the years.

It’s not difficult to see why. Our Great Lakes are a national treasure and we have to be good stewards to them. The GLRI helps us to be so. Like water itself, its benefits are fluid and apparent on just about every level, from the ecosystem to the economy. GLRI projects help us keep the lake of shining waters shining as best we can.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Enough With All of the Hitler References

Infamous dictator cannot be compared to modern people

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White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is seen at a press briefing in Washington.

Now, there’s a headline I never thought I would write.

Nor did I ever think I would get an email from my boss a few months ago about how editorial cartoons depicting Adolf Hitler or Nazi references “might be best avoided” in newspapers.

But I really didn’t think the name of one of time’s most notorious fascists would be brought up by Sean Spicer — in a positive light.

The White House press secretary’s unintentional but poorly-organized argument that even Hitler wasn’t as bad as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent waves of disbelief throughout the nation.

“You had someone who was despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said during a briefing last week, referring to Assad’s chemical attack on Syrian civilians two weeks ago.

Yes, Hitler never used chemical weapons on the battlefield, but he used them to exterminate 6 million Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and disabled people in inhumane concentration camps.

Oops.

Spicer was quickly corrected by the press pool and, amazingly, still tried to create a point out of that reference, even though he knew he was too far gone for any logic to come out of it. He has apologized repeatedly for the comments since.

Yes, one of the world’s most evil men has had an odd presence in the current political climate. During the rise of Donald Trump, many have foolishly labeled him as the second coming of Hitler, attempting to connect dots between his words and actions and that of Germany’s most brutal dictator as a way of providing context.

For whatever reason, we love to make a habit of using distinctive figures or images from history to illustrate current ones. We do it all the time. We think that really good young basketball player is going to be “the next” Michael Jordan or that president is going to be “the next” Ronald Reagan.

Given Hitler’s extreme name recognition, it makes it easy to compare him to any person even slightly viewed as an ambitious strongman.

But we need to give it a rest. We currently have no reason to make any comparisons between Hitler and Trump or Assad or anyone. Until Trump tries to violently overthrow the government, spends time in prison for it, grants himself power to act without constitutional limitations, revokes citizenship of a significant portion of the nation’s population, enforces martial law in the streets, attempts to extinguish an entire religion and begins a world war that kills 60 million people, I think it’s safe to say he is not Hitler. You can argue he is a demagogue. You can even argue that he is a fascist. But he is not Hitler.

Some might admit that much, but acknowledge that even any signals of similarities between the two are terrifying. Trump’s attempts at an immigration ban on six Muslim countries is entirely un-American, had absolutely no warrant to even be considered and should be condemned. But that simply doesn’t equate to building camps solely for the purpose of sending millions of innocent people to to die. We are not living in 1939 Germany.

For his part, the Syrian president is clearly a member of the modern bad guy club, but declaring that any action he takes is worse than Hitler, as Spicer did, is as absurd as can be. Assad doesn’t need to be compared to anyone. Just like Hitler, he exists on his own plane of maliciousness.

But using Hitler as a comparison isn’t just absurd. It’s dangerous.

We all know the popular saying from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While not repeating history is undoubtedly the most important reason for why we study it in the first place, perhaps the second most important reason is so we do not repeat it incorrectly.

And that’s what we do when we use Hitler to describe anything, save for Hitler himself. While being cautious about another Hitler-type figure — or anything close  — coming to power in this world is absolutely justified and necessary, we must also be careful not to overuse the token of Hitler, and what he stood for, to the point that it becomes diluted over time.

We can’t have children generations from now growing up first learning about Hitler as the name their parents used to describe a U.S. president. That kind of distortion could arguably make the emergence of another Hitler more likely. It’s not good enough that we simply remember the past. We have to understand it.

It’s no different than when in 2006, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton said that the Republicans were operating the House of Representatives “like a plantation.”

That is, of course, preposterous.

And like Spicer, Clinton realized very quickly how much of a mistake that was.

As we all must. We need to understand that the correlations we make to Hitler or plantations are simply inappropiate, wrong, arrogant and merely academic. They are both their own dark and unfortunate chapters in the human race that we don’t have the luxury of tossing around repeatedly like a game of Dodgeball. It is important history. And in cases like these, it is best to keep history as such.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Albany Keeps Giving Us Reasons to Vote in November

Referendum on pension forfeiture is essential
to cleaning up state government

Albany

Yes, there is an election this fall.

Several local offices are up for grabs, including Syracuse mayor.

But there will also be one incredibly crucial thing on the ballot — a state referendum that demands the special attention of all New Yorkers. We will decide whether state officials who have been convicted of public corruption can be stripped of their pensions.

Current rules only allow for such action with those who joined the retirement system after 2011, but this referendum would make it apply to anyone currently serving in government.

Former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who were both convicted in 2015 of corruption and have yet to begin their prison sentences, are both poised to receive $79,224 and $95,832 a year respectively in annual pensions while behind bars.

Will you ever see a pension like that? As a law-abiding citizen?

Oh and by the way, you’re paying for it. As of last year, $682,000 a year in taxpayer money goes to 16 former state lawmakers who have been convicted of a felony and have since filed for their retirement, according to a Gannett analysis of data from the state Comptroller’s Office.

That alone should be enough reason to go the polls and vote “yes” on the referendum. But in case it isn’t…

Silver and Skelos’ convictions were indeed momentous, but they were merely the pinnacle of a streak of state corruption in recent years. More than 30 current or former state lawmakers have been accused or convicted of illegal activities since 2000, ranging from corruption and bribery to burglary and DWI. Just weeks ago, we came across the 40th.

State Sen. Robert Ortt, of Niagara County, was charged at the end of March with violating election law, alleging that he arranged a no-show job for his wife to offset his salary, for which she pocketed over $21,000 over four years. Ortt’s predecessor, former Sen. George Maziarz, was also charged with using campaign money to pay an ex-staffer accused of sexual harassment. Both have pleaded not guilty.

We have grown numb when news breaks of another state official’s indictment. Unfortunately, our government has too. There used to be at least some noise from legislators about a need for ethics reform — mainly convenient talking points during an election year. But following Ortt’s arrest, there’s been barely a peep. Heck, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan hardly seemed phased about it.

“I’m going to continue to work with Rob,” he told reporters. “I’m sure he’s going to be back here tomorrow.”

Now it’s true, Ortt is innocent until proven guilty, but his situation is just another reason the Legislature needs to pass concrete ethics reform. Yet it’s also just another case the Legislature will ignore. If the convictions of Silver and Skelos, the second and third most powerful men in the state, weren’t enough to convince lawmakers otherwise, why would the arrest of a one-term legislator from western New York be any different?

According to Flanagan, “in the last five or six years there’s been very, very significant ethics reforms in the state of New York in ways that people don’t even realize yet.”

Mr. Flanagan seems to think that state officials being arrested, convicted and jailed one after the other is the result of “very significant ethics reform.”

For his part, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose own aides have been tainted with corruption charges, makes a lot of noise about his plans for ethics reform in his executive budget every January, but then remains almost silent on it afterward.

He did so again this past January, proposing measures that are completely sound, like putting restrictions on outside income for lawmakers, initiating term limits and closing the LLC loophole, which allows big donors and special interests to circumvent the state’s campaign finance limits and funnel millions of dollars to the candidates of their choice.

Even though he has significant power leverage when negotiating the budget with the Legislature, Cuomo continues to put ethics on the back burner in exchange for other priorities. This time, he is more concerned with ending the state’s policy of trying 16-and 17-year old defendants in adult courtrooms.

Last year, when significant ethics reform wasn’t included in the budget, we were promised that it would come before the legislative session ended in June. It didn’t. There’s little reason to believe this year will be any different.

This is why you need to vote in November. It is now painfully clear that when it comes to something as simple as weeding out dirty politics in Albany, our government is more or less incapable of implementing thorough solutions.

They were, however, able to twice pass a resolution that now puts the issue in our hands.

The referendum on pension forfeiture provides us the opportunity to go where our legislators won’t. It finally gives us a chance to take action on an issue we have wanted for a long time.

It’s passage sounds like a no-brainer, but unfortunately we are very good at disappointing ourselves. Despite all our frustrations with those in Albany and our constant talk of the need to “clean house,” almost all incumbents won re-election last fall. In 2004, Roger Green, an assemblyman from Brooklyn, pleaded guilty to petty larceny in connection with filing false claims for travel reimbursement and was sentenced to three years of probation. Then he ran for re-election — and won. In 2014, the late Sen. Thomas Libous from Binghamton was indicted and later convicted for lying to the FBI about how he arranged a cushy job for his son, then ran for re-election — and won. Voting “no” on the pension forfeiture referendum this year, or not voting at all, would be the equivalent of such a mistake. Let’s not take this opportunity and blow it.

Of course, the referendum isn’t the perfect remedy. More proactive measures like closing the LLC loophole will help prevent corruption, whereas this resolution only helps us deal with it after it happens. But it’s an enormous step in the right direction. All it needs is our approval.

If you need any more convincing, listen to what this legislator thinks about pension forfeiture as part of ethics reform.

“This has to be a part of it. All these plans should be a part of it, but the pension forfeiture piece specifically, I think it’s something that the public demands at this point.”

Those words were spoken a year ago by none other than Sen. Robert Ortt. Yes, the one mentioned above who is currently facing corruption charges.

We wouldn’t want to disappoint him. So go vote this fall. Vote to keep hard-earned money for a well-worked career out of the pockets of those who deserve neither. If this referendum fails, Albany will continue full speed as business as usual. And this time, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Lessons From World War I Echo Still

One hundred years later, the world still depends on our leadership

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President Woodrow Wilson addresses Congress on April 2, 1917, asking for a declaration of war against Germany, which brought the U.S. into World War I.

It was an interesting time for the United States. A swath of new immigrants were struggling to find a route to acceptance in the American dream. Technology and innovation were transforming daily life forever. The gap between the super wealthy and poor was growing ever wider. Terrorist attacks were targeting Europe and the Middle East. Conflicts were spewing abroad that much of the U.S. population wanted nothing to do with. And a Supreme Court justice died during a presidential election year in which sent a man with the slogan “America first” to the White House.

Sounds a lot like 2017, doesn’t it? Actually, I’m talking about what was going on in 1917.

Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I, ending a lifelong isolationist foreign policy, a precedent set by George Washington himself. On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war, insisting that our involvement would help “make the world itself at last free.” On April 6, Congress complied. After two and a half years on the sidelines, we reluctantly sent our troops and supplies to our weary allies on the Western Front where the fighting had stalemated. We turned the tide of the war, defeated the Central Powers and led the peace negotiations that followed.

Wilson understood afterward that the U.S. needed to be a leader on the global stage and that’s why in high school we learn about his vision for the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, and why he thought it so vital we be a part of it. The league was created following World War I but Congress rejected our membership. Our absence helped bring about another larger world war just a generation later.

The greatest lesson from the 20th century is simple: The world needs us. We confirmed that in 1945, but we first realized it in 1917.

One hundred years later, the world itself is still not free. We saw as much last week when the Assad regime in Syria unleashed an attack of poison gas upon its civilians, a horror first introduced in World War I and banned ever since. The Syrian attack killed about 70 people, including children, choking to death on toxic fumes. In retaliation, President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat Air Base, the first attack of its kind against the Syrian government itself.

It was a dramatic about face for Trump, who just three years ago told Barack Obama on Twitter that the U.S. should “stay the hell out of Syria” in the wake of the last chemical attack there, not all too dissimilar to Wilson’s firm stance on neutrality to World War I before a sudden change of heart.

The Syrian attack is just another reminder of our urge for isolationism that’s in the American DNA, and that we are occasionally tested by that feeling. Back then, we felt that involvement in what goes on in the Balkans and western Europe did nothing for our interests, just like many of us today are frustrated in finding a purpose for our continuous presence in the Middle East.

But let’s remember that we are time and again very good at failing that test. World War I was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” Because we retreated to our own borders at its conclusion, we’re all aware it did no such thing. We like to associate the atrocities of the Holocaust with the phrase “never again,” when there have been several genocides since then, and we spent years waiting and hesitating to take action while they were going on.

And while we’d like to think the days of global wars are behind us, it’s difficult to say for certain when we put our position in the world into question. Russia is resurgent, hungrily overlooking an increasingly fragile Europe. China is becoming more ambitious and North Korea is on its way to being a nuclear-armed state. And yes, Syria has and is not afraid to use chemical weapons. We are facing dangerous times and our guidance is needed now as much as it ever was.

Many countries are facing the same problems — nuclear proliferation, economic struggles, climate change and immigration. They’re looking to us for solutions to those problems. We need to find them. And we still need to fight for the same causes, the same American values that we have attempted to spread to the world since World War I — good, not evil; democracy, not fascism; freedom, not slavery. Sadly, even in the 21st century, there are too many parts of the world that are living on the wrong end of each of those.

But we instinctively want to close the door on the world, saying we have our own problems. The current administration has proposed banning several groups of people from this country and said repeatedly we need to take care of our own first. 

But we weren’t meant to be isolationists. We can’t turn our backs on the world. We’ve done it before and the result wasn’t a good one.

But the times are different now, aren’t they? Europe isn’t in the trenches and passenger ships aren’t being torpedoed by submarines, right?

That’s why I earlier listed the conditions of early 20th century America that sounded present-day. History is never as distant as we often think it is.

It is unfortunate that such a momentous chapter in our story as a nation like our role in World War I is often overshadowed and labeled as “the forgotten war.” The very souls who took part have become as much a member of history as the war itself. The last U.S. veteran of the war died in 2011.

But as time passes, we must certainly not allow ourselves to forget what we decided on April 6, 1917. We decided two oceans on our borders don’t confine us from the world’s problems. We decided that we cannot be merely a symbol of peace and prosperity, but the beacon for it.

It’s not the job we chose. But it’s the job we have. And we have to live with it because we’ve learned from history that we cannot live without it.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

What’s ‘In Store’ For Malls?

Shopping centers need to redefine themselves if they are to survive

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If there’s one thing we can always be assured of, it’s that we’ll always have to wait in a long line whenever we pay a visit to the DMV. But it’s hard to say we’d have to do the same at a place like Sears at Great Northern Mall, an establishment struggling to fill its stores with people.

The 895,000 square-feet mall in Clay was recently purchased by Kohan Real Estate Investment Group, a Long Island company that “sees the future of aging malls as a place of mixed use that is more than just for shopping,” according to its website.

Great Northern, which opened in 1988, is in better economic standing than neighbor ShoppingTown Mall in Dewitt, but all it takes is one visit inside either of them to know the commercial centers are facing tenacious times. Both are their own chapter in a larger story that is taking part all over the country: Malls as we know them are dying.

A product of the post-war economic boom and suburbia, malls have been the symbol of our commercial culture for more than half a century. But their foot traffic has been on the decline since the early 1990s. The Great Recession and sluggish recovery have amplified that decline over the last 10 years. According to the real-estate research firm Cushman and Wakefield, mall visits have plummeted an astounding 50 percent just between 2010 and 2013. About 15 percent of the country’s malls are expected to fail or be converted to something else within the next 10 years.

By now, we’re aware it’s the digital age that is the slow-death killer of malls, since shopping has become a primal part of the online world. Why get bundled up on a cold winter day to drive miles to the mall to look for something when you can do it on your couch in your pajamas, right? But online shopping is still the vast minority, as it amounts for less than 10 percent of retail sales, yet that grows substantially each year.

But that’s still enough to keep a large number of people at home instead of going to so-called “anchor stores,” the big outlets that draw the most customers to malls. As a result, many have closed their mall locations, leaving corners or even distinct areas of malls empty and dark. Bon-Ton’s left Great Northern a decade ago and Macy’s is scheduled to close on April 18. Once that occurs, Great Northern’s only anchor stores will be Sears, Regal Cinemas and Dick’s Sporting Goods — which are all facing their own business troubles due to the growth of Wal-Mart and Amazon — with Sears teetering on the edge of collapse. The once-monolith of retail, which is the only remaining anchor store at ShoppingTown, announced recently it has “substantial doubt” about its future and many believe the chain will go out of business by the end of 2017.

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The Macy’s at Great Northern Mall in Clay is scheduled to close on April 18.

You don’t have to be a sailor to know that without an anchor, ships drift away. Hollister, Aeropostle and Wet Seal are among several smaller stores that have left Great Northern in the last few years, with American Eagle Outfitters and Liberty Travel pulling out this year. Even a Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk couldn’t survive.

Add up the tallies here and we get one sound conclusion: Malls can no longer use retail as the core of their existence. And while the immediate threat is largely limited to smaller suburban malls, larger ones should take a deep look at themselves and see what they have that helps keep them ahead of the troubles others face. Destiny USA, for all its size and attractions, is also losing retail chains, most notably Hallmark this past January.

But Destiny sets a good example of what more malls need to be like if they are to survive. They can’t just be a place for shopping for items. They have to provide customers something they can’t get on their phones or computers — an experience.

Newer and unique attractions like WonderWorks, GlowGolf, LazerTag and Dave & Busters go way beyond the back-to-school clothes shopping in their focus on entertainment, gaming and eating, which give customers — from any age group — a new reason to venture out to the mall.

Ironically, to move forward, malls have to return to the main principle of their origin — being the town square. They must be the place where people converge for the most basic of human needs, whether it’s laughter at the Funny Bone Comedy Club or live music and wetting one’s whistle at World of Beer.

Now, should we expect a WonderWorks at Great Northern? Unlikely. But smaller malls are slowly taking the hint. Escape the Estate, an escape room attraction in the region that has enjoyed success, opened at ShoppingTown in 2016 to offer consumers something different and exciting.

And many malls have already made a habit of moving things like hair and nail salons, fitness gyms, rock climbing centers, indoor water parks, hospital care and even grocery stores into former anchor store locations. It’s not Dave & Busters, but even those simpler destinations are a step in the right direction.

And if you can’t get regular people to come in, another alternative is to transform unused floor space into areas for businesses and offices, which is what many dead or dying malls in upstate New York have done. ShoppingTown played around with the idea of placing a call center there for a while.

Kohan Real Estate Investment Group says it also prioritizes using large amounts of unused mall space for events like fundraisers, festivals, farmers markets, concerts and banquets. That might be especially beneficial to a suburb like Clay, with Great Northern’s easy access to routes 481 and 31.

Let’s hope that Kohan Real Estate Investment Group has the right ideas to transform Great Northern into a mall of the future it needs to be. Now is the time for new creativity and experiments in redefining just what a mall is. If the small malls of this region and across the country don’t do so or don’t do so fast enough, they will all find themselves at their own checkout line before too long.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Voting Should Be Encouraged, but Not Required

Sweeping reforms, not mandatory voting, will boost turnout rates

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Did you vote in this past November’s election? If you didn’t, it would be a criminal act if one New York legislator had her way.

State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Democrat from Manhattan, recently sponsored a bill that would slap New Yorkers with a $10 fine if they failed to turn in a ballot during elections.

The assemblywoman based the proposal off of a similar statute in Australia, where those who don’t vote are fined about $15 U.S.

Because of its own absurdity, the bill is certainly not poised to go anywhere, as it doesn’t yet have a sponsor in the Senate and has been ridiculed by members on both sides of the aisle in Albany.

Mandatory or compulsory voting is something that’s been discussed several times in recent years, especially at the federal level. Indeed, at least 26 countries have compulsory voting, according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. In Belgium, if you don’t vote, you pay a fine. If you don’t pay the fine, you could go to prison.

In 2015, President Barack Obama suggested a mandatory system in the United States might help curb the influence of big money in our politics.

Assemblywoman Glick’s justification for mandatory voting in New York is the state’s shameful low voter turnout rate in recent elections — which is an incredible problem. In the 2014 off-year elections, which included a race for governor, New York had the fourth worst turnout rate in the nation. Even in 2016, during a heated presidential election, it had the sixth worst turnout. About 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. The rates are naturally much lower when it comes to primaries and local elections.

While Glick should be given at least some credit for her effort to turn around these rates and ensure the conversation on low turnout continues, her solution is simply not the correct approach. And with its guaranteed failure and mostly symbolic message, why create it in the first place? In an editorial on this subject, The Daily Gazette in Schenectady said “maybe there should be a fine for proposing the dumbest legislation.”

Now, the thing about those who vote is that the actual issues in the country, state, county, towns and villages are enough to motivate those individuals to actually make the effort to go down to their polling places and fill out a ballot. A compulsory law would either rob $10 from a lot of people because they forgot, weren’t able to get to the polls or are simply not interested, or it would force a significant percentage of the population who are disengaged to cast votes for candidates they know little or nothing about who stand for issues they don’t understand or might not identify with.

Take young people for example, who among the poor and non-educated, make up the population that don’t vote. A 2015 poll by Fusion found that 77 percent of millennials (those aged between 18 and 34) could not name either of their U.S. senators who represent them in Congress. And while it’s certainly not required for them to know that — some people just aren’t interested in politics after all — do we want them deciding who fills our political offices?

While it is healthy in a democracy for as many people as possible to vote, it is not healthy for people who don’t know who Chuck Schumer or Kirsten Gillibrand are to go to a polling place and fill in some bubbles just to save $10 when people’s very lives are at stake.

There are actual concrete solutions to improving New York’s voter turnout issue that are currently being tabled in the Legislature. The state’s current voting laws are strict, archaic and complex. That is why people aren’t voting. Propositions regarding party affiliation in primary elections, a two-week window for early voting, an option for no-excuse absentee ballot voting, same-day registration and automatic registration by the state are being discussed in Albany. Gov. Andrew Cuomo hopes lawmakers will pursue those measures once the state budget proceedings are complete.

Similar measures have been implemented in other states in recent years and have resulted in increasing voter turnout rates. The same could be done in the Empire State if these reforms are passed. Those laws, not fear of a $10 fine, will boost New York’s standings.

It is true that even with sweeping voting reforms in this state, there will still be an abundance of people who don’t vote. And you know what? There’s nothing directly wrong with that. Perhaps the greatest flaw with Assemblywoman Glick’s proposal is that it defies the basis of what our democracy is all about — our rights as citizens. Voting, though it is undoubtedly important and should be strongly encouraged, is nothing more than a right. And as such, it is also the people’s right to not vote, if they so wish.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Home Health Care Workers Need to Be Cared For Too

Those who take care of our most vulnerable need and deserve a living wage

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We all knew the approval of a gradual rise to a $15 minimum wage in New York state would be a double-edged sword. And now one industry is certainly feeling the sharp pains.

A shortage of home health care service workers has been a problem in the state for some time. And with a rapidly aging Baby Boomer generation, there are more people to take care of, and less people to take care of them.

New York employs about 326,000 people to help disabled or elderly citizens eat, bath, dress, change adult diapers and perform other various housekeeping tasks in order to keep patients in the comfort of their own homes instead of in hospitals or nursing homes. But it’s predicted that the state will require about 451,000 workers by as soon as 2024.

Already the lowest-paid workers in New York’s health care system, home health aides make an average $11 an hour, although it is much lower in upstate regions. By contrast, the statewide minimum wage is currently $9.70. For fast-food workers upstate, it is $10.75 — and that will increase $1 every year over the next few years.

So yes, by as soon as next year, someone working at McDonald’s will make more an hour than the average home health care worker — or anyone else working minimum wage for that matter.

And that is why there is so much concern in the industry right now.

Indeed, last year, a Home Care Pulse Benchmarking Study found that more than a quarter of home care providers nationwide saw increasing minimum wages to be the top threat for the industry. And $15 wage proposals are gaining momentum in other states.

Since Medicare and Medicaid shoulder much of the burden of home care services, significant wage increases are unlikely anytime soon since both programs are facing tremendous financial pressure. In fact, adjusted for inflation, home care workers on average are actually earning less than they were a decade ago, according to P.H.I., a nonprofit research and consulting group.

With low wages, a big responsibility, little or no benefits, late and weekend shifts, hours of mandatory extensive training, a high rate of injury and until recently, no entitlement to overtime pay, home health care workers might be more inclined to leave for a different industry with less demands, including fast-food, either to make paying their bills easier or out of sheer necessity to sustain themselves and their families. The annual turnover rate for home care workers is already an estimated astounding 40 to 60 percent.

The New York government has an important objective ahead — provide more financial incentives for home health aides to first enter the field and then keep those jobs competitive enough so they remain in it.

A coalition of agencies that serve the developmentally disabled has pursued just that, using the hashtag #bFair2DirectCare to call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to include in his executive budget $45 million each year for the next six years to help boost wages for home health workers. The governor has yet to include the money in his budget, even though the funding has the support of the chairmen of the mental health committees in each chamber of the Legislature.

Cuomo spent the last few years marching for a wage raise for all of the state’s fast-food workers. It’s hard to understand why he can’t seem to do the same for some 326,000 people whose work is to keep our most vulnerable alive and comfortable.

If the governor wants an eventual $15 wage for everyone, like he has said he does, he should start with those people. The workers and their employers need and deserve the $45 million that should be included in this year’s budget that would raise their wages. Heck, Cuomo has proposed half that amount to upgrade the state’s ski areas.

There is little argument otherwise because there is no alternative. If the current trends continue, it will leave our elderly and disabled further neglected, which in some cases will force their relatives to take over caring for them — if they even have any family that can.

Doing nothing will also put further strains on the nonprofits that employ home health care service workers, which might force some to ultimately go out of business. That would be especially disastrous for rural areas upstate, like in the Adirondacks, where communities can be very far in between.

And it’s not like this problem is going to go away. There are some projections that say nearly one in five New Yorkers will be 65 years of age or older by 2025. Who is going to take care of them? An already dire situation is only bound to worsen in the coming decades if little is done.

And it’s not just a problem in New York. Home health aide shortages are being seen from Massachusetts to Wisconsin to Iowa.

Indeed, The Des Moines Register identified in a December article a very simple reason why we need to address this now: Because it will impact everyone.

At some point, “it’s highly likely that you, a family member or friend will need the services of a paid caregiver, a direct care worker, to assist in the activities of daily living,” the newspaper reads.

Let’s hope our state lawmakers can also comprehend that we will all suffer if we don’t take care of those who regularly take care of us.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88