- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:

The Utica Observer-Dispatch on passing a state law allowing parents to opt their children out of standardized tests.

May 19

Lost in the blur of state government is a bill that would amend the education law to provide parents the right and authority to exempt their children from taking standardized assessments. That already is their right, albeit a bit fuzzy, and this legislation would make it clear.

It needs to be approved before the session ends next month.

The bill was first introduced in the Assembly - A6777 - by Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, D-Ridgewood. Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, is a co-sponsor. A companion bill - S5337 - was introduced in the Senate last week by Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome. It mirrors Nolan’s bill.

Both bills would add to the education law the right of a parent or person in parental relationship to exempt their child from taking standardized tests. It would also mandate that schools offer the exempted students alternative educational or enrichment programs during testing time and that there be no retaliation or other negative action taken against a student, parent, teacher, principal or building administrator, school building or school district in response to student refusal to take these tests.

Although the legislation reaffirms parents’ discretion and authority to exempt their children from standardized tests, it neither supports nor opposes such exemption. The bill also stipulates that the test exemption would not extend to Regents exams, which are required for graduation.

Parents and guardians already can refuse the New York state Common Core testing of their children by following a procedure outlined on Page 63 in the state Education Department’s Student Information Repository System (SIRS) manual. To do so they must contact their child’s principal, teachers and guidance counselor by written letter - email or hard copy, whichever they prefer - in advance, and request that their child not participate in the state tests.

Adding this to education law is a good idea. One amendment to the bill, however, should be a requirement that school districts inform parents/guardians of their right to refuse these tests and the procedure necessary to do so. Brindisi said Friday that he has spoken to Nolan about considering that amendment, and we’d encourage Griffo to do likewise with his Senate bill.

That isn’t an endorsement of the opt-out provision, but merely makes the whole process transparent. After all, if we expect our children to be honest and straightforward, we should expect no less from our education leaders.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1ScrJZw

The Ithaca Journal on new state regulations requiring lobbyists to register their activities in municipalities of over 5,000 people.

May 15

Greasing the skids of government has been one of bright spots for New York’s economy and also a frequent blotch on the reputation of some public agencies and officials.

The great gobs of grease amounted to $210 million in 2013 for lobbying government - nearly double the $120 million spent in 2003. Lobbying by New York hospitals, banks, labor unions, media, philanthropic groups, schools, local governments and hundreds of others is big business. Toss in the campaign contributions special interests make to candidates, and the web of influence peddling is woven with gold.

Keeping track of who spins those golden threads and influences government has covered state government and large local governments for years. Lobbyists have been required to regularly disclose their activities involving state and local municipalities with more than 50,000 people.

A new change in state regulations will require disclosure for lobbying activities involving municipalities of 5,000 or more residents. Most of the towns in this region, its four cities - Binghamton, Ithaca, Elmira and Corning - and every Southern Tier county will now be covered by the change. The rule will also include local public authorities, such as industrial development agencies - that can hand out tax breaks to companies and developers.

Good-government groups believe the measure will boost transparency in the often-overlooked lobbying activities done on the local level.

“It’s a significant improvement in broadening the public’s understanding of which interest groups are trying to influence local governments,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group.

For lobbying to have reached the door steps of small New York communities says plenty about the relationship of every level of government to special interests with cash and an issue. Recent history in this region shows the intense lobbying efforts launched to influence small governments.

When new casino locations were proposed in the region, small communities were heavily lobbied to either support or reject proposals. The experience was similar to the lobbying dozens of town boards faced when they considered local bans on hydraulic fracturing.

Under the new law, lobbyists who are paid or spend more than $5,000 on local efforts would have to register their activities with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, similar to the process done by lobbyists who seek to influence state government.

The ethics commission would then post the lobbying activities on its online database so the public will know who is influencing their local governments and how much the lobbyists are spending in that community.

If the state ethics commission can scale up to handle the extra oversight work, the new lobbying rules promise a level of transparency in how local governments are influenced in how they handle the public’s business.

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Online:

http://ithacajr.nl/1efo7pK

The Middletown Times Herald-Record on Congress’ chronic underfunding of Amtrak.

May 19

Even as full rail service was restored Monday, questions continued to swirl around the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia May 12 that killed eight passengers and injured more than 200 others. Among them, a new one - why wasn’t the speed control system that has long been in place on southbound lines out of Philadelphia also in place on northbound lines?

Immediately after the crash, Amtrak officials said they had not had yet installed the safety equipment, intimating that perhaps a shortage of resources had delayed the upgrade. Yet, when federal regulators on Saturday ordered Amtrak to expand use of the speed-control system, the Railroad Administration was able to announce on Sunday that the automatic system was now fully operational in both directions. That’s quick work.

The system alerts engineers to slow down when their trains go too fast and automatically applies the brakes if the train continues to speed. Speed has emerged as a critical factor in the crash - the train may have been traveling at 106 mph around a curve with a speed limit of 50 mph. Why it was going so fast is a mystery.

But speed, operator error, faulty equipment, or whatever combination of factors investigators ultimately determine to be the cause of the crash, there’s no escaping the fact that railroads in the Northeast Corridor are also suffering from decades of what the Amtrak president called “chronic under-funding.”

Short-sighted “cost-saving” measures by Congress have created a situation of fast-moving trains traveling on aging tracks, over outdated bridges and through 19th century tunnels. Yet, the day after the Amtrak tragedy, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut Amtrak’s federal subsidy by $251 million, to $1.1 billion. That’s a small fraction of what it would cost just to replace outdated parts.

Actually, short-sighted budgeting doesn’t come close to describing treatment of Amtrak and other rail systems. It’s really neglect. It would be one thing to argue that fewer people are using passenger trains, so let’s pour even more money into building highways for more cars to buy more gas to make more oil companies even richer

But Amtrak carried 11.6 million riders in fiscal year 2014, a record. On any given weekday in the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston, some 2,000 trains operated by Amtrak and eight other passenger railroads carry about 750,000 riders. Amtrak ridership has increased by 50 percent since 1998, largely due to the addition of high-speed trains. Many frequent travelers in the nation’s most densely populated area prefer taking the train over the plane.

Obviously, safety is the primary concern. Congress, to its credit has already ordered that a next-generation of speed control systems be in place on Amtrak by next year. Amtrak is also reviewing other possible safety improvements. But rail service in the Northeast Corridor is also an economic engine. A Congress truly interested in boosting a slumbering economy would invest in systems that help people get to and from work, to and from major business centers, quickly and safely without adding to road congestion or polluting the air.

Really, neglect doesn’t even do justice in describing Congress’ longstanding treatment of Amtrak. The word sabotage comes to mind.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1Gp7L98

The Jamestown Post-Journal on fallout from President Barack Obama’s appeasement of Iran.

May 18

A genuine foreign policy crisis is occurring, and President Barack Obama’s reaction to it betrays his clear failure to comprehend the peril his ongoing missteps have created. He seems bent on aggravating rather than alleviating the problem.

A key meeting of Middle Eastern allies, the Gulf Cooperation Council, is to take place this week at the Camp David presidential retreat. But Saudi Arabia and five other countries have announced their leaders will not attend. Instead, they will send other officials to the gathering.

Officials from some of the countries have made it clear staying away from the summit meeting is a demonstration of their displeasure with Obama’s policy, which appears calculated to appease Iran at the expense of security for many of the other Middle East nations.

Obama’s recent reaction was to annoy some Middle East leaders by insisting their major security problem is not Iran, but dissidents seeking greater freedom in their own countries.

Coming on the heels of Obama’s effort to avoid angering Turkish leaders over the Armenian genocide a century ago, his comments on Saudi Arabia and nearby countries seemed calculated to downplay their importance. No wonder their leaders are angry.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the Iranians are eager to exploit Obama’s foolish mistakes. Time is running out for him to correct them.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1R3efxw

The New York Times on China’s decision to equip its most powerful missile with multiple warheads

May 20

After exercising restraint in its nuclear weapons program for decades, China has made the poor choice of upgrading its arsenal in a way that raises concerns about its intentions, introduces new uncertainty in Asia and could add more fuel to a regional arms race.

The unsettling development is China’s decision to equip its most powerful missile - the DF-5 for Dong Feng or East Wind, which can reach the United States - with multiple warheads instead of just one. The information was reported publicly for the first time earlier this month in the annual Pentagon report on China’s military and security programs.

The United States pioneered this technology, called multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle, or MIRV, when it was in competition with the Soviet Union. MIRV made it possible to load each missile with as many as 10 warheads, each of which could be aimed at a different target. That made the missiles more lethal. But it also made a country with those missiles more vulnerable because an enemy would want to hit them before they could get off the ground. Because they put a premium on striking first, MIRVs were seen as inherently destabilizing and were limited in the SALT II treaty, the second major strategic arms limitation treaty signed in 1979.

Last year, decades after the Cold War, the United States finished downloading its land-based Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles so that they each now carry only one nuclear warhead. The missiles on American submarines still carry multiple warheads, as do the land-based missiles and submarines of Russia. France and Britain also have MIRV systems.

China’s move along this path does not represent a big increase in its nuclear capability. It is among the five recognized nuclear powers and a signatory to major arms control agreements, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It has an estimated 250 warheads in total, with about three warheads on each of about 20 DF-5 missiles. All of this is a fraction of what the United States and Russia possess in their arsenals.

Nevertheless, the decision to outfit its missiles with multiple warheads is of concern for several reasons. Although the technology to miniaturize weapons and put several atop a missile has been in China’s hands for decades, a series of leaders chose not to go forward and compete in the kind of arms race that for decades sapped American and Soviet resources. Instead, China espoused a doctrine of maintaining a minimal nuclear force that would only be used to retaliate against a nuclear attack, not initiate one. And while China’s arsenal has been growing slowly, putting MIRVs on missiles is a way to expand more quickly and it sows doubt about the commitment to a minimal deterrent.

President Xi Jinping has encouraged suspicions by asserting a more aggressive foreign and economic policy, including building military airfields on disputed islands in the South China Sea, and created tensions with neighboring countries that are intimidated and have increasingly looked to America for support.

The expansion of American missile defense systems oriented toward Asia likely had a bearing on China’s decision. China has long been concerned about the survivability of its nuclear force, and while the Americans insist its missile defenses are aimed at shooting down potential incoming North Korean missiles, China worries, perhaps understandably, that some of its weapons could also be vulnerable.

China may also have upgraded its missiles as a hedge against India, a regional rival that has been vigorously improving its long-range missiles. Yet China’s move could propel India to move farther and faster with its arsenal, partly out of fear of China and partly out of fear that its adversary, Pakistan, might obtain the MIRV technology from China, Pakistan’s ally.

These developments strengthen the case for talks between the United States and China, and, ideally, with other nuclear powers, on ensuring strategic stability in Asia. China has resisted a government-to-government dialogue, but American officials say there have been promising informal conversations that can provide a basis for progress. The United States, Russia, Britain and France could help greatly by transitioning from their multiple warhead weapons.

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Online:

http://nyti.ms/1Gpc2t2

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