- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Buffalo News on felons seeking exemptions for employment in certain industries.

May 27

The complications of humanity - its wrinkles, crosscurrents and black holes - are all on display as the case unfolds against Jeffrey J. Basil and the police officers who were with him when a bar patron was shoved down a flight of steps and left in a coma.

Basil, it seems safe to say in hindsight, should have been nowhere near a bar. His history of run-ins with the law and the tragic outcome of a May 11 confrontation document a foul-tempered pattern that should - in retrospect - have ensured he was not involved in the alcohol industry or, for that matter, debt collections, which he also sought to pursue.

William C. Sager Jr., 28, suffered a severe brain injury when he was pushed down a flight of stairs at Molly’s Pub in University Heights. He remains in a coma.

Basil, who ran the bar, has been charged with felony assault. Buffalo Patrol Officers Robert E. Eloff and Adam E. O’Shei have been suspended without pay for what they did - or didn’t do - when the attack took place at the bar where they had been working security.

Basil has been in and out of trouble for years, enough that, as a felon, he was prohibited by State Liquor Authority regulations from applying for a liquor license or managing a bar.

He sought an exemption, allowed for felons working toward rehabilitation, and was twice denied by State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang before she approved it on his third attempt three years ago.

Basil has several convictions on his record: a felony of attempted criminal possession of a controlled substance, a violation after an arrest for aggravated harassment and misdemeanor DWI. For the last one, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail. In January 2013 he was convicted of a violation - driving while ability impaired. Six months ago he was convicted of second-degree harassment.

Now, though, he is charged with an assault that could easily have left a man dead and appears to have caused permanent brain damage. And so, the question is, should Wolfgang have shown mercy on Basil?

In retrospect, of course, the answer is no. Yet there should be no question that the law needs to leave room for people to turn their lives around and to make a living.

Three of Basil’s arrests had to do with the use or attempted sale of intoxicating substances, and two others involved harassment. Together, they draw a picture of someone who doesn’t need to be working in the alcohol industry - or, for that matter, in debt collections, an industry with its own thuggish reputation, especially in Western New York.

There is no perfect formula that can guide judges on whom to allow exemptions from the standard consequences of criminal behavior. Human nature doesn’t allow for that, and judicial systems have been known to work poorly when politicians substitute their judgment for those of actual judges.

Nevertheless, this terrible episode suggests the need to reconsider the system, and whether certain crimes should simply prohibit some people from ever again working in a few licensed industries.

Basil didn’t have to manage a bar. He could have sold shoes at a department store. He’d have been better off for it, and so would William Sager.

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Online: http://bit.ly/TQfWq7

The New York Daily News on efforts in the state Legislature to legalize medical marijuana.

May 27

With the state Legislature inching toward legalizing medical marijuana, absolutely tight controls are crucial.

New York must not make the mistakes California did after its medical marijuana law passed by referendum in 1996.

The law was so loosey-goosey that virtually anyone could grow, sell, prescribe or ingest the weed for practically any ailment, real or imagined. Predictably, the state was overrun by pot shops frequented by recreational smokers who easily obtained prescriptions from pliant “practitioners” based on most any health complaint.

Worse, the burgeoning and little-regulated industry gave cover for criminal gangs to move their contraband from Mexico and elsewhere.

Here, Staten Island state Sen. Diane Savino says her Compassionate Care Act, narrowly approved by the Health Committee, would impose strict regulation “from seed to sale.”

Her law would license no more than 20 growing operations, which would operate indoors under 24-hour security and surveillance. Each plant would be bar-coded, its every move tracked.

Only patients with one of 20 “severe disabling or life-threatening” conditions (including cancer, Alzheimer’s and HIV/AIDS) would be eligible.

They would need permission not just from a medical professional authorized to prescribe narcotics, but also from the state Health Department.

What Savino’s proposal does not do, worryingly, is cap the number of retail outlets that sell the stuff. It would also give an advisory board the power to add diseases and conditions to the original 20. Finally, it lacks an expiration date - a necessary precaution in such tricky experiments.

Using his authority under existing law, Gov. Cuomo has floated a plan that would allow no more than 20 hospitals to dispense pot for medical purposes. While there are legal obstacles to this approach, he’s right to want a program that’s limited, controlled and subject to revocation.

That’s what the doctor ordered when it comes to the distribution of an illegal drug as medicine.

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Online: http://nydn.us/1humvUe

The Poughkeepsie Journal on problems within Veterans Affairs.

May 25

Today, as we pay homage to those who have fought and died in our nation’s wars, the country can honor veterans in so many ways - but none is as pressing as making sure those returning from battle are getting adequate care to stay healthy.

The country is falling horribly short, as the most recent scandals at Veterans Affairs facilities show. And that is an awful thing to ponder as we observe Memorial Day.

Recently, in fact, it was revealed that dozens of U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA and many of them were on a secret waiting list, apparently to mask the problem.

As incredible as that seems, similar claims are now being reported at VA facilities in at least a half-dozen other states, including Florida and Pennsylvania. The VA’s inspector general said an investigation into the allegations has expanded to 26 facilities.

Yet even President Barack Obama has conceded he doesn’t “yet know how systemic this is.”

The administration must get a handle on this problem and, working with Congress, find solutions quickly.

For nearly a decade, Americans have realized that there has been a backlog of medical cases, ever since the first soldiers started coming home from Afghanistan.

That burden was greatly increased after the United States declared war on Iraq and stretched our troops incredibly thin, often sending them to multiple deployments before allowing them to come home.

Yes, Veterans Affairs has acknowledged the problems, but efforts to fix the system clearly have not worked.

Members of New York’s congressional delegation - including U.S. Rep Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat - have suggested loosening the rules to allow more veterans to use local medical facilities to aid the VA to alleviate the backlog. That idea should be embraced quickly.

What’s more, it has taken way too long to shift the VA from a paper-based operation to one that is fully integrated electronically, including a key link to Defense Department databases to help transition important records.

Yes, that is a heavy lift, but it’s one that should have been accomplished long ago.

Today, communities across the United States will hold ceremonies, parades and other fitting events to honor fallen veterans, including those lost in our most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a day of reflection, but it shouldn’t end there. A massive effort must be waged on behalf of the soldiers who have made it home from war but are in critical need of the country’s help.

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http://pojonews.co/1ozRMu9

The Schenectady Daily Gazette on the spike in utility bills this past winter.

May 22

As utility bills continue to rise, it’s time for power companies to come clean about what really drove up electric and gas bills for New Yorkers and others across the country last winter.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand added her voice to those of Sen. Charles Schumer, the state Public Service Commission and a host of others in demanding that federal officials conduct a full investigation into why the bills rose so drastically and without warning this past winter, more than 60 percent for some utility customers.

Many residents were shocked this winter when they opened their National Grid bills, some of which were hundreds of dollars higher than the previous year. The unexpectedly high bills put many families, particularly those on tight budgets, in the position of weighing the need for other necessities vs. paying their power bills. As a result of the spike, New Yorkers currently owe about $1 billion in overdue utility bills.

The federal Energy Department on Wednesday reported that customers spent $14 billion more this winter to heat their homes nationwide. Natural gas expenses rose $5.8 billion, a 16 percent hike. Residents spent 27 percent, or $6 billion, more on heating oil and propane. And electricity expenditures increased $7.9 billion, or about 10 percent. More than half the homes in the Northeast use natural gas as their primary heating fuel. Heating oil is second and electricity is third.

There’s no question that prices went up a lot. The question that hasn’t been answered to anyone’s satisfaction is, “Why?”

The nation did experience an unusually cold winter; the Northeast was about 13 percent colder than the previous year and 10 percent colder than the average for the last decade.

But it seems awfully suspicious that as the nation was gripped by a polar vortex, power customers suddenly faced a financial vortex thanks to their heating bills. Utility bills usually go up in winter, but not like this.

Utilities blamed the increase on those low temperatures and subsequent higher demand. But some question whether the huge increases were manufactured by power companies, by charging more for fuel than they’re allowed, and by fuel providers, by withholding supplies to keep prices artificially high.

Gillibrand said Wednesday she sent a letter to the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asking for an investigation. Schumer last month asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate.

Whomever investigates, the public deserves answers. If the utilities are on the up-and-up and the price increases were the legitimate result of supply-and-demand, force them to document that.

But if utilities in any way manipulated the markets to take advantage of the cold winter and generate higher profits, then the federal government needs to step in, punish the offenders, and take steps to prevent it from happening again.

Despite our glorious spring weather, a new winter will be upon us in just a few months. Residents can ill afford a repeat of what happened last winter.

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Online: http://bit.ly/1h95xjR

The Gloversville Leader-Herald on funding in Congress for the nation’s highways.

May 26No one in Congress wants to take the blame for higher gasoline taxes just weeks before a major election. That probably explains delays in addressing long-term problems with the Highway Trust Fund.

But unless something is done to provide an infusion of money for the fund, it will dry up within months. By August, payments to states for road construction and repair will have to be cut off.

State transportation officials understand the challenge. Many highway departments receive much of their funding through state taxes on vehicle fuel. The federal fund relies entirely on it.

As we have noted previously, more fuel-efficient vehicles and inflation in general have opened gaps between fuel-tax funding and highway needs. That is why the federal fund will run out of money later this year.

Senators already have passed a stopgap measure that would provide $265 billion for the fund during the next six years. That would allow states to receive money at current levels.

But President Barack Obama wants a $302 billion, four-year funding scheme. His idea is to provide much of the money through higher business taxes.

Simply adjusting the federal gasoline tax, now 18.4 cents a gallon, upward would resolve the problem. Again, no one wants to do that just before an election.

House of Representatives members should agree to the Senate bill - in order to prevent highway repairs throughout the nation from grinding to a halt in August. Then, a long-range plan can be tackled.

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Online: http://bit.ly/Rx4ygO

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