- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 11, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Schenectady Daily Gazette on the use of red-light cameras.

June 6

It seems silly that when a municipality wants to put into place a proven technology such as red-light cameras to help improve traffic enforcement and public safety, it has to go to the state Legislature for permission.

The city of Schenectady is the latest city weighing whether to seek permission to install the cameras at particularly dangerous intersections. One potential location is the Brandywine Avenue corridor (Route 146) between State Street and I-890, a busy mostly-four-lane road that cuts through an area full of businesses and residences. It’s notorious, in particular, for vehicle-pedestrian accidents.

Installing red-light cameras at various points along the roadway would help increase safety by discouraging motorists from running red lights, illegally passing through crosswalks, blocking intersections, failing to stop at stop signs, passing stopped school buses and committing other acts that place other motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians in danger.

The cameras are not robo-cops designed to pad city coffers and boost insurance rates, and they’re not another way for the NSA to spy on us. Violations start at just $50. The camera doesn’t identify a driver, only the registrant, through the vehicle’s license plate. Drivers don’t have the violation go on their records or see their insurance rates go up because police can’t tell who was driving.

The cameras are strictly safety-oriented. The fines, which go up to $100, are enough to serve as a deterrent to unsafe driving. Combined with signs warning motorists of the presence of the cameras, they can be one effective traffic enforcement tool among many.

Since they were introduced 50 years ago, the cameras have been put in use throughout the world. In the U.S., more than 500 municipalities in 24 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands allow them. Another 103 communities have cameras that monitor speeding.

But in order to install the cameras, municipalities must go to the trouble of seeking permission from the state Legislature to amend the state’s Vehicle and Traffic Law.

If this was a new and untested technology, we could understand the need for the state to be careful about casually letting communities install the cameras.

But given that the technology is so common and has been proven to improve safety, there’s no reason for the state to hand-pick the communities that get to use them. The process of seeking home-rule legislature takes time and expense for localities to prepare, as well as unnecessarily adds another bill to the pile of legislation that state lawmakers already don’t have time to read.

Local governments should be able to decide for themselves whether the cameras are needed, whether they want to pay for them, how many they need, where they want to place them, and whether they want to burden local courts with administering citations.

Whether removing the state impediment means amending state Vehicle and Traffic law to explicitly allow the cameras, or creating a blanket new law, the Legislature should do it. By creating a statewide law, the state could create uniform standards and enforcement procedures to ensure motorists that the cameras are being employed consistently from community to community.

The city of Albany has sought permission this year to install the cameras. Schenectady is considering asking for permission, although time is running short in this legislative session. Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy has recently advocated for removing the layer of red tape that prevents cities from installing them on their own.

There’s no more need for additional testing or experimentation.

We know the cameras work effectively.

It’s time for the state Legislature to stop allocating permission piecemeal and allow any community to put them in place if it wants to.

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Online: http://bit.ly/TJxVy2

The Poughkeepsie Journal on the state’s property tax cap.

June 10

Yes, it is true that the state’s property tax cap is no panacea; it’s far from perfect.

But it also is far better than what was occurring before it was enacted in 2012. Property owners simply could not sustain the double-digit tax increases they were facing from local governments and school districts in some years.

Something had to give. With this in mind, the judicial system must see the wisdom of upholding the property tax cap as it moves through legal challenges.

Clearly as a result of the tax cap, school budgets are being passed on the first try more than ever in New York. Taxpayer backlash is not nearly what it was, but it also means fewer people are turning out at the polls for such important things as school budget votes.

The tax cap is set at 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower, but it also provides localities - in particular school districts - with some leeway.

Certain expenses are exempt, such as any dramatic increases in pension costs and voter-approved capital expenditures.

What’s more, if 60 percent of voters agree, districts can override the parts of the budget that are capped.

After cutting back or freezing school aid, the state has stepped up the last few years, providing more money to school districts, a trend that must continue if the property tax cap is to stay in place. The state should be paying more of these expenses, but it also should be able to use incentives to get localities and school districts to stay under the cap - and to consolidate and merge their operations as much as possible.

To that end, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature have agreed to spend nearly $1 billion a year over the next two years to provide a rebate to homeowners whose local governments and schools stay within the property-tax cap. In those cases, homeowners will get rebate checks, providing a big incentive for local governments and school districts to stay under the property tax cap.

At about $19,000 per student, New York spends nearly the double the national average on education, and state residents have shown they are more than willing to do their fair share. But reasonable parameters must be set. Allowing the state to shift some of the costs off the backs of property owners while providing incentives for localities and school districts to work more efficiently are important tools. They should be built on, not eradicated.

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Online: http://pojonews.co/1xDLlLA

The New York Daily News on unrest in Iraq.

June 11

The black flag of Al Qaeda flies over the streets of Mosul. Keep that in mind when President Obama takes credit for ending the war in Iraq while vowing to bring the one in Afghanistan to a similar end.

Four thousand four hundred eighty-six American service members made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq, so it is galling that the Al Quaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has taken control of Mosul and Fallujah - two of the cities where American forces fought fiercely.

There was no one to stop them. In 2011, after failing to secure an agreement with the Iraqi government to keep a residual military presence there, Obama misguidedly withdrew entirely.

That left Iraqi security forces on the front lines. As the jihadists moved in, the troops fled, abandoning American-made heavy weaponry, along with nearly a half-billion dollars worth of currency left in the banks. Imagine the terror operations Al Qaeda could finance with that kind of cash.

As many as 150,000 Mosul residents have already fled the city of 1 million. They report that masked fighters and comrades freed from prisons were running through the streets.

The killers appear to have come from over the border from Syria, where jihadists seized the lead in warring against dictator Bashar Assad. In Mosul, they post pictures of slain Iraqi soldiers in pools of blood. In Syrian towns they control, it is pictures of those they’ve publicly crucified.

That provides a cautionary tale as Obama heads for the Afghanistan exits as fast as he can.

The commander-in-chief says he intends to keep 9,600 troops there after the war formally ends at the close of this year. But again, he has yet to reach the agreement with the Afghan government needed for that to happen. And even if a deal is struck, it remains unclear what such a small force - and one on a fixed two-year departure schedule - could accomplish in a huge country where the Taliban holds much of both sides of the AfPak border.

If there’s a power vacuum, the bad actors will fill it - as they now have done in Mosul - and America’s investment of blood and treasure will have been squandered.

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Online: http://nydn.us/UtnC1Z

The Buffalo News on federal government initiatives to lessen college loan debt.

June 11

President Obama’s executive action Monday will ease the burden of college loan debt for potentially millions of Americans, and comes while Senate Democrats are working on other fixes for this growing problem.

College student loan debt is a drag on the U.S. economy. More and more graduates are saddled with huge loans that leave them unable to buy homes, start families and contribute to the overall economy.

The president is expanding a 2010 law that capped borrowers’ repayments at 10 percent of their monthly income. The original law applied to only some borrowers. Now, another 5 million borrowers will be eligible. Those graduates will have to hang in there; the relief will not be available until December 2015, to give the Education Department time to propose the new regulations and put them into effect.

The Education Department also will renegotiate contracts with companies that service federal loans and give them additional financial incentives to help borrowers avoid delinquency or default. That is in addition to the Education and Treasury departments working with the nation’s largest tax preparation firms, H&R; Block and Intuit, to make sure borrowers are aware of repayment options and tax credits for college tuition.

The matter of America’s crushing student loan debt and its effect on the economy has grabbed headlines. Whether students are borrowing too much in order to attend pricey schools rather than seeking cheaper options is a debate for another time.

Solving out-of-control student debt is mission critical for boosting America’s economy. Some 40 million Americans have student loans totaling $1.3 trillion.

Families can help by educating themselves on alternatives to expensive four-year colleges, including state schools and community colleges.

Other states are searching for solutions. In March, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a couple of bills designed to help students attend college without impoverishing themselves. One creates a pilot program at one or more community colleges to provide scholarships and wraparound support, including advising. The other launches a study of whether and how Oregon might provide free community college classes to every Oregon high school graduate.

Those are longer-term solutions. For now, we must find ways to help graduates who are suffocating in debt enter the mainstream economy. The answers are out there, and can’t come too soon.

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Online: http://bit.ly/1inRjqd

The Glens Falls Post-Star on political campaign spending.

June 10

If you support the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010, which allows unlimited political campaign spending by corporations and unions, then you must tolerate negative campaign ads like the ones that recently attacked Republican congressional candidate Matt Doheny.

The ads that attacked Doheny, dredging up negative information publicized years ago, and rehashed several times since, were paid for by American Crossroads. That group, founded by Karl Rove, is one of the political action committees, known as Super PACs, that sprang up after the Supreme Court’s decision for the purposes of steering politicians, influencing legislation and winning elections.

The Supreme Court overruled its own recent precedents and a long history of legal decisions in Citizens United, as the five-member majority opened the political process to manipulation and control by the wealthiest Americans.

Earlier rulings had upheld a distinction between individuals on one hand and corporations and unions on the other. But Citizens United destroyed that distinction by focusing on money and declaring spending for political purposes is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.

Individuals still cannot give unlimited amounts of money directly to candidates, but since Citizens United, they can give unlimited amounts to organizations set up to promote certain candidates and pursue certain causes. The decision created the “dark money” phenomenon, where billionaires such as Michael Bloomberg and the Koch brothers secretly pour millions of dollars into organizations that support candidates they like and attack candidates they don’t.

One of Bloomberg’s pet causes is gun control. For the Kochs, it’s climate change. One of the new organizations backed by the Kochs, Americans for Prosperity, forces candidates and officeholders who want its money to sign a pledge in which they promise to oppose climate change legislation.

Charles and David Koch control Koch industries, which has holdings in energy, petroleum, chemicals, fertilizers, natural gas and plastics.

The Kochs have a financial motivation to fight climate change legislation. But they can hide their influence over the political debate, because Americans for Prosperity and other Super PACs do not have to disclose their donors.

Evidence of their influence is everywhere, however. A few years ago, John McCain spoke out on climate change, saying it was an urgent issue that had to be addressed. Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi made an advertisement in which they talked about working together on climate change.

Now, leading Republicans avoid the issue. Presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio won’t even acknowledge the problem exists.

The Kochs are two of many wealthy Americans, not all of them conservatives, who have been given free rein by the Supreme Court to influence politicians for their own ends. Some of them, such as Bloomberg on gun control, embrace liberal causes.

The problem is not political orientation but undue influence based on wealth.

The First Amendment intends to give every citizen a voice in the political process, but that has no value if your voice is ignored. Citizens United gives each wealthy American a voice that can drown out the squeaks of tens of thousands of middle-class Americans.

The court ruling came at an inopportune time, giving ordinary citizens even less political influence, and rich Americans even more, even as the country’s income gap is widening.

The decision also drags political discourse down. If one of these political organizations is willing to spend thousands of dollars on mean-spirited ads to influence a Republican primary for an obscure upstate New York congressional seat, imagine how much money is being spent nationwide.

Imagine the disheartening effect on voters.

Negative advertising may work, but it also discourages and disenchants the public. The irony of Citizens United is that the five justices who wrote the decision characterized it as a defense of the First Amendment in the name of political participation. But its effect has been to restrict ordinary Americans’ political influence and make them cynical about the value of participating at all.

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Online: http://bit.ly/1inTSsk

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