- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Buffalo News on how to use New York state’s $4.8 billion budget surplus.

Dec. 19

There are almost as many ideas for using New York’s $4.8 billion surplus as there are New Yorkers, but any decisions need to be guided by a couple of principles:

-?It shouldn’t be used to create new, recurring expenses.

-?It should, in some demonstrable way, benefit the state’s economy.

The most obvious way to do that is to plow the money into infrastructure improvements, for which this state has a crying need. Roads and bridges, along with water and sewer systems, are, in many cases, in terrible condition. They will continue to degrade and the costs of repairing or replacing them will continue to rise.

This “found money” - the product of the settlement of eight financial lawsuits - could be productively used to take on that work. Construction work would provide thousands of temporary jobs. And while safer and better infrastructure is not, in itself, an economic benefit, it is clearly an economic driver. Without those assets, business cannot flourish.

Those assets include the Tappan Zee Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River north of New York City. The state is now in the midst of a $4 billion project to replace the aging, essential span, and the money to fund it is still being identified. It would be appropriate to use some of the surplus for that project, though certainly not all of it. Users of the bridge should cover some significant portion of the costs through the tolls they pay.

But by paying for some of it with the surplus, other New York drivers may be spared the otherwise likely imposition of a toll increase on the New York State Thruway.

Similarly, some of the money could appropriately be used to plug the Thruway Authority’s looming $39 million budget deficit. But the authority also needs to get its house in order, and it needs the State Legislature to help.

In a 1992 budget gimmick, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo and the Legislature moved the costly state canal system off the budget books by transferring it to the Thruway Authority. Two years ago, an audit by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli noted that the canal system has contributed to the Thruway Authority’s financial deterioration and that deterioration continues.

The canal system is valuable to the state and, plainly, it cannot simply be abandoned. The state needs to reassume authority for it as part of any deal that uses the money to fill a budget hole that otherwise would be virtually certain to recur.

There are many other good ideas, too, such as buying or defraying the costs of body cameras for all police departments that agree to use them. The cameras could improve policing dramatically by documenting false allegations against police officers and discouraging - or capturing - misconduct by officers who are tempted to cross the line.

There will be pressure from legislators and others to put the money to other uses, some of them of more dubious value. It would be a bad idea, for example, to use it to raise aid to education, since the money source would soon dry up, but the expectation of continued aid would remain.

Any of this money devoted to funding recurring expenses should be seen as a likely misuse of a one-time bonanza. It’s important not to squander it, but to make it pay many times over.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1sFI2iy

The Daily News on the killings of two New York City police officers.

Dec. 21

As more is learned about killer Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the clearer it becomes that he was driven by long-standing emotional torments having nothing to do with de Blasio.

Still more, those who have found cause to protest the NYPD’s approach to law enforcement must face facts that prove the falsity of their sweeping accusations.

Far from being cowboys, the city’s cops fire their weapons far less frequently than their peers in other large cities.

They pulled the trigger in only 81 instances last year, a record low, while responding to 4.6 million radio runs, including 81,000 reports of weapons, and while making 26,000 weapons arrests.

At the same time, the NYPD has essentially abandoned the stop-and frisk program. Where once the department made almost 700,000 stops annually, this year the number will be 50,000. Similarly, marijuana arrests are down by 60% and complaints of police abuse have fallen sharply.

Criticism of stop-and-frisk, much of it led by candidate Bill de Blasio, cast the NYPD as a racial-profiling operation. The chokehold death of Eric Garner and the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson then confirmed for many that the NYPD shared in an attitude that black lives don’t matter.

Unhelpfully, de Blasio affirmed the notion by saying after the grand jury refused to indict the cop who wrestled Garner to the ground:

“It should be self-evident, but our history requires us to say ‘black lives matter.’ It was not years of racism that brought us to this day, or decades of racism, but centuries of racism. That is how profound a crisis this is.”

The effects are poisonous.

On one front, Lynch and Mullins made their blood-on-his-hands statement. On another front, de Blasio and Commissioner Bill Bratton have been forced to defend quality-of-life policing - broken-windows enforcement - against charges that it discriminatorily puts minorities on a pipeline to prison.

De Blasio’s leadership is sorely being tested. He must wisely and clearly set the record straight about the NYPD, taking care to put tragedies such as Garner’s death in proper perspective.

He must also become the leading voice in a chorus invoked on Sunday by Cardinal Dolan, whose words are printed nearby. At the heart of his message, the cardinal addressed Bratton and Chief of Department James O’Neill, but his sermon applies even more to the mayor.

Dolan asked, “Would you tell your officers that God’s people gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral this morning, thundered with prayer with and for them? That we love them very much, we mourn with them, we need them, we respect them and we’re proud of them and we thank them. Will you tell them that?”

You must, Mr. Mayor.

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Online:

http://nydn.us/16N4xh0

The Post-Standard on the Sony hacking case.

Dec. 19

Sony Pictures has decided to yank its comedic film about assassinating the leader of North Korea. That deprives us of two options: boycotting “The Interview” to protest the studio’s utter cowardice, and buying a ticket to stick a thumb in the eye of Kim Jong-un.

Since when does the government of North Korea get to decide what movies Americans can or cannot see? Since when do we let it?

Sony’s act of self-censorship was abetted by the equally spineless movie theater chains that opted out of showing the movie for fear of a terrorist attack against moviegoers. The Department of Homeland Security said the threat — issued by the same shadowy group that hacked into Sony’s computers - lacked credibility.

Nevertheless, the chilling effect is spreading. New Regency has shelved a North Korea thriller that was to star Steve Carell.

The twists and turns in this story would make a great movie - if only someone in Hollywood had the guts to make it.

The comedy at the center of the controversy goes like this: Two American tabloid TV journalists land an interview with their No. 1 fan, North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un. The CIA recruits the journalists, played by Seth Rogen and James Franco, to assassinate the dictator. Hilarity ensues.

Since when does the government of North Korea get to decide what movies Americans can or cannot see? Since when do we let it?

In real life, North Korea was not amused. Its military cyberwarfare unit broke into Sony’s computer network and stole huge amounts of data, including corporate financials, employee Social Security numbers, celebrity aliases and reams of embarrassing emails.

Earlier this week, Sony’s lawyer sent “cease and desist” letters to media that published the stolen material under the protection of the First Amendment. That casts an ironic light on the statement Sony issued Wednesday after spiking the film: “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by the outcome.”

Which side of the First Amendment are you on, Sony?

And why isn’t the studio making lemonade out of the lemons Kim Jong-un handed you?

Since the theaters cut and ran, Sony easily could have released the film to video-on-demand or simply broadcast it on television or over the Internet. Go ahead, North Korea, attack every living room in America! Instead, by putting the movie in the vault, the studio is capitulating to the demands of a dictator.

Either that, or “The Interview” is a stinker - and this whole thing is a brilliant campaign to bury it before anyone sees it.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1x7ltXW

Newsday on the change in relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Dec. 17

The icy relationship between the United States and Cuba, a staple of our politics and popular culture for decades, melted Wednesday when President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations with that Communist enclave just off our shore.

The historic change - worked out over 18 months with a little help from Obama’s friend in the Vatican - is long overdue.

The attempt to isolate Cuba economically and politically began with good intentions in 1961, a simpler time when it seemed that was the way to drive Fidel Castro’s Communist regime from power. Five and a half decades later, it’s clear the strategy didn’t work.

For decades, the United States has had diplomatic and trade relations with Communist China and even Vietnam, where so many American lives were lost. The drama and romance of the struggle against communism in Cuba, and the political influence of anti-Castro expatriates in Miami, cast the attempt to isolate that island in a singular light. But it’s better to encourage orderly change through engagement than to risk Cuba one day becoming a lawless, failed state that would provide a close haven for terrorists.

So the time is right for a different approach to the tiny nation that has loomed so large in the American psyche - from the Bay of Pigs invasion to the missile crisis, through pop culture in movies such as “Scarface” and “The Godfather Part II,” to the harrowing dramas of desperate Cubans fleeing in leaky boats and skilled athletes such as former Yankee and Met Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez risking it all for a shot at Major League Baseball.

The initial, almost hysterical, political response in some quarters to Obama’s decision to end the Cold War is incomprehensible.

Re-establishing a U.S. embassy in Havana, relaxing rules for sending money to Cuba, expanding U.S.-Cuban trade, reviewing Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, allowing business deals between banks and communication companies, and easing travel restrictions - including allowing visitors to return with a few Cuban cigars - will improve the lives of the Cuban people and advance U.S. interests. Now Congress should repeal the trade embargo, the last legal obstacle to normal relations.

It’s fitting that such a dramatic era ended with a prisoner swap reminiscent of the Cold War. Obama traded three Cuban spies imprisoned since 2001 for a U.S. intelligence agent imprisoned for 20 years and American Alan Gross, a former government contractor who spent five years behind bars for bringing satellite communication devices into Cuba. The regime arrested him out of fear that communication with the outside world would loosen its grip on the populace.

Right now only 1 in 20 people in Cuba has access to the Internet, among the lowest rates in the world. Increasing that number is one of the best ways to promote the kind of change we’ve sought for so long in one of the world’s last bastions of communism.

It’s time to see whether openness and capitalism can accomplish what isolation did not.

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Online:

http://nwsdy.li/1x7nJyu

The Elmira Star-Gazette on U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, gasoline prices and airline fares.

Dec. 17

Count on U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to seize a political opportunity that plays to the emotions of the electorate.

As gasoline prices rose, he consistently called on a release of the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a way to lower the price of fuel for the driving public. It mattered little that the release would have provided only a short-term solution to rising gasoline prices, at best.

What mattered more to Schumer? He was telling his constituents what they wanted to hear. They wanted lower gasoline prices and they wanted them reduced in a hurry. Schumer was employing political expediency, no matter how short-sighted his proposed solution was.

Once again this past week, Schumer didn’t disappoint. He has called for a federal investigation of the airline industry. New York’s senior senator claims the industry somehow owes the flying public a price break because the price of fuel has declined dramatically.

When does Schumer’s grandstanding come? Right before the holiday season, when passenger terminals will be filled with frustrated travelers in the traditionally busy season who all expected to be paying lower fares than they were charged for their flights.

Not since President Richard Nixon tried to institute price controls have we had the federal government attempting to meddle with the cost of consumer goods. America prides itself on the free enterprise system, where the standard supply-and-demand formula dictates price, not some federal bureaucrat.

The nation’s airline system was deregulated during President Jimmy Carter’s administration under the direction of late Cornell economics professor Alfred Kahn. We haven’t looked back since, and airfares have been allowed to fluctuate according to demand ever since.

Why does Schumer pick on the airline industry? Because, for him, it is a target he knows will register with the voters. One wag called Schumer a “pandering demagogue” for his most recent move against the airline industry.

Schumer ignores the tens of billions of dollars that the industry is now spending to modernize its fleet, all in an attempt to keep the flying public safe in more modern and fuel-efficient jets.

The airline industry has its faults, scrimping on leg room and adding luggage fess among them. But having the federal government investigating why airfares aren’t correlated with fuel prices is a waste of time.

While he’s at it, why doesn’t Schumer probe the trucking industry to see if its prices moved lower with declining fuel costs? Or, are jewelers charging less for gold bracelets now that the gold price has dropped by one-third from its highs? Does Pepsi or Coca-Cola lower the price of a liter bottle depending on the price of high-fructose corn syrup? Does Starbucks lower the cost of a latte when coffee prices fall?

Prices are dependent on more than the price of one commodity. Move on, Sen. Schumer. Your time can be spent more productively elsewhere.

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Online:

http://stargaz.tt/1x7ppbf

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