- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 16, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Times Union of Albany on gambling interest lobbying and the integrity of the state casino siting process.

July 10

The money pouring into the competition to build four casinos in New York should make even the most avid gambler uneasy. What New York is witnessing is legal bribery, in all its shameless glory.

The more than $11 million spent by casino interests over the past two years - a figure sure to rise when this year’s spending is added in - underscores the need for the state Gaming Commission to be at least as open as it has promised to be, if not more, in considering the 17 proposals before it. The commission should also consider the possibility that none of them, ultimately, measure up.

And the millions of dollars flowing into politicians’ and political parties’ campaign accounts highlights, once again, how corrupt this state’s campaign finance system is and how badly it needs to be reined in.

As the New York Public Interest Research Group detailed in a report this week, casino interests spent $6.7 million on lobbying in 2012 and 2013. And they gave generously to politicians, contributing $4.3 million to state and local political committees.

It would be naive in the extreme to imagine that money wasn’t intended to sway public opinion and buy official favor and influence. It would likewise strain credibility to imagine it didn’t accomplish just that.

What it shouldn’t do is influence the Gaming Commission, which plans to select four projects for upstate. And has promised to be transparent in its deliberations.

The commission will need to cut through the lobbying, through all the hype coming from casino developers promising all sorts of transformative projects, and any undue political pressure, and closely analyze these proposals. It should look not just at the quick returns that casinos, as novelties in New York, may well bring, but whether they have long-term staying power. With most of the U.S. casino industry in decline and Moody’s Investors Services recently downgrading the industry’s outlook to negative, the board should be wary of endorsing proposals that could well become vacant eyesores and community liabilities down the road.

As for all that political money exchanging hands, it’s all legal, of course. It is perfectly OK if a casino mogul cuts a check to a governor for as much as $41,100 - as long as it’s made out to his campaign account. It’s fine, too, to hand $10,300 to a state senator or $4,100 to an Assembly member - again, as long as the check is made out to their election fund.

And of course, none of those officials will ever break the rules and pick up the phone to call a member of the Gaming Commission, or wander over to one at an event, or pull aside during a chance meeting with one in Capitol corridor, to suggest that Proposal X deserves special consideration.

If you buy that, you no doubt buy the argument that campaign finance reform, including lowering the contribution limits, is unnecessary.

Just don’t be surprised to find that while you were buying that, someone else was buying your government.




The Adirondack Daily Enterprise on public funding and keeping the Buffalo Bills in New York.

July 12

It’s hard to imagine a future without the Buffalo Bills in Western New York. Bills’ games are regional happenings even when the team is bad, and a good team playing in Orchard Park can be a morale boost for the entire region, as those who remember the Bills’ Super Bowl years can attest. There are economic benefits to having a professional team that surely are important to the residents and businesses that surround a team’s facility.

Are good feelings and some economic spin-off enough to warrant public financing of a new Bills’ stadium? It is an interesting question worth keeping an eye on as the team looks for a new owner.

Taxpayers have already paid $90 million toward a $130 million renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium. And state taxpayers found themselves on the hook for 32 percent of Yankee Stadium’s $1.6 billion cost, or roughly $512 million. Even Yankees fans would say that money could have been better spent on education, economic development or a simple tax cut - particularly when the Yankees and the Steinbrenner family had plenty of avenues with which to pay for a new stadium. Financing stadiums to help save billionaires some money seems a bit ludicrous for a state that can’t figure out how to equitably finance public education.

That’s why it was good to hear Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently back away from a blanket promise of state funding for a new stadium. The state and Erie County will do their part, Cuomo said, though the governor isn’t sure a new stadium is necessary. The last two NFL stadiums to be completed came with price tags of more than $1.5 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend without a firm commitment the team is staying in Buffalo. The state’s share, based on the Yankee Stadium example, would also be costly.

State and local tax abatements for the new owner are a fine enticement to build a new stadium, as are low-interest loans and other goodies. But spending any taxpayer money on a new stadium for the Bills’ must be well justified. We would hope a thorough study of the Bills’ stadium issues is made public before any public money is spent. After all, state taxpayers - many of whom will likely never attend a Bills game - shouldn’t be writing checks based on a wink and a smile from Cuomo, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and whoever becomes the Bills’ new owner.

Keeping the Bills in Buffalo is important, but not at any cost.




The New York Times on the election compromise in Afghanistan and the Obama Administration making sure it holds.

July 14

The compromise deal over Afghanistan’s bitterly contested presidential election is a big relief and a credit to all involved, especially Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, the two candidates, and Secretary of State John Kerry, who brokered the agreement in 12 hours of intense negotiations. It pulled the country back from the risk of civil war and offers a chance for a peaceful political transition after 13 years of Hamid Karzai’s leadership.

Even so, there is no guarantee that the compromise, reached Friday and Saturday after Mr. Kerry made an urgent trip to Kabul, will endure. This is, after all, Afghanistan, a fragile, war-ravaged country with many ethnic, geographic and political divisions.

Mr. Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister and World Bank official, and Mr. Abdullah, a former foreign minister, are both plausible candidates. But the deal is unlikely to hold up if they cannot resist the destructive influence of some of their allies and their own worst instincts. Mr. Abdullah, for instance, irresponsibly threatened last week to establish a breakaway government.

First, that means upholding their commitment to a recount, by international monitors, of all 8.1 million votes cast in the June 14 balloting, however challenging that task is. Preliminary results last week showed Mr. Ghani leading Mr. Abdullah with 56.4 percent of the vote. Mr. Abdullah cried foul, and even some neutral observers found Mr. Ghani’s margin of victory less than credible.

The candidates have also agreed that the results will be binding and that the winner will lead a national unity government. The recount, is expected to begin in the next few days and take several weeks, and could delay the planned Aug. 2 inauguration of the new president. But it is the only way to give legitimacy to the electoral process.

The compromise anticipates that the loser or his designee would become “chief executive” for the government, with powers to be settled later. This is intended to assure the loser and his supporters that they will have a meaningful role in the political system. The candidates are also said to have agreed to take the threat of violence off the table and to pursue a reform agenda. The deal includes longer-term plans to consider reshaping the Afghanistan government system, which was established in 2001 with substantial American input and includes a president with near-dictatorial powers. But a parliamentary system or other replacement has yet to be agreed on, and altering the existing structure will be very contentious.

The compromise is a rare success for American foreign policy. But it would not have been possible without President Obama’s threat to withhold aid, the billions of dollars that have propped up Afghanistan’s economy and underwritten its security forces, and without which it could well go the way of Iraq. Mr. Obama must be prepared, if necessary, to use that leverage again to ensure the deal is carried out.




The Finger Lakes Times on the federal decision to cancel trademark protections for the Washington Redskins over “disparaging” name.

July 13

Just a team name or an offensive slur that should be changed?

However you feel about it, last month’s decision by the federal Trademark and Appeal Board to cancel the NFL team’s trademark protections brought the issue back into the national conversation.

The ruling - which calls the name “disparaging of Native Americans” - puts new financial and political pressure on the team to change its name. Though it’s the second time the board has issued an opinion on the case - a similar ruling from 1999 was overturned on a technicality - the ruling this time around seems to have carried a bit more weight.

Talk show hosts, sports analysts and coffee shop denizens across the United States have spent countless hours debating the issue in the days and weeks since the decision, with plenty of opinion on either side.

But the bottom line is that when the same logic is applied to other minority groups in this country, it’s plain to see that they just wouldn’t fly. Would anyone be OK rooting for the New York Blackskins, Los Angeles Brownskins or San Francisco Yellowskins?

Of course not. Those hypotheticals are as offensive as they are ridiculous.

But for some reason when it comes to Native Americans, disparaging names and sports logos (Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians comes to mind as a prime example), this politically sensitive country has looked the other way for decades.

Is the tide turning?

According to AP, half of the U.S. Senate wrote letters to the NFL urging a change, with one of the letters stating that “racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports,” and Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray suggested the name will almost certainly have to change if the team ever wants to build a new stadium in the city.

Nothing is likely to change any time soon, however. The team has appealed, and the matter could take years to wind its way through the courts.

So while we wait, perhaps it’s also time for a local conversation.

Around here we have several school districts that have nicknames based on Native Americans, with varying degrees of obviousness, including the Waterloo Indians - affectionately known as the Tribe - Palmyra-Macedon Red Raiders, Red Jacket Indians, Canandaigua Braves and Romulus Warriors.

In a day and age when schools put a heavy emphasis on diversity and mutual respect, is it appropriate to have a school nicknamed after a minority group or related term?

Are the names offensive or are they tributes to the original inhabitants of the Finger Lakes, where around every corner you can find a lake or town or county with a Native American name?

Is it enough to cite school loyalty and say that’s the way it’s always been? Or is it time to consider a change?




The Buffalo News on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on birth control.

July 15

However you look at the Supreme Court’s ruling on birth control, it was a mess. First, the court had to decide that corporations have religious rights, which seems unlikely on its face, and then it ruled that different kinds of corporations have an economic advantage over others by being exempted from costs others are required to bear. It’s a shambles - and one that isn’t finished playing out.

The ruling came in a case filed by Hobby Lobby, the crafts store chain. The company contended that the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to provide insurance benefits that include birth control violated its religious beliefs. In a 5-4 ruling, the court agreed and issued a decision that would allow closely held, for-profit businesses to opt out of that requirement.

But, Mitt Romney’s insistence notwithstanding, corporations are not people and cannot have religious beliefs. Corporations are legal entities created through a registration process. They exist because a document says they exist. They don’t eat, they don’t sleep, they don’t worry about how to pay for the kids’ college. They just are, and what they are, are vehicles to help their principals make money. Rules apply. Some may be wise and some not, but that is a matter for presidents and Congress, not Supreme Court justices.

And, it gets worse. The Supreme Court granted Hobby Lobby and similar corporations - amounting to about 90 percent of all businesses, by some estimates - economic advantages over others, since they are not required to provide health insurance policies that include birth control coverage. It’s hard to imagine the courts won’t be called upon to sort out that and other difficult questions that come with the Supreme Court’s tortured ruling.

Confusion has continued. The Obama administration, in an effort to placate businesses with objections, created a mechanism by which they could decline to offer the coverage, but under which the insurer will still be required to provide it. In fact, in the Hobby Lobby ruling, Justice Samuel Alito referred to that opt-out as a possible path for businesses. But a federal appeals court granted a temporary injunction on implementation of the rule based on an objection from a Catholic television network.

It is, in some ways, not surprising. When issues as large as the ones at play come into conflict, the path forward is often tangled. But it doesn’t help when the highest court in the land buys into the idea that corporations are people and that different corporations have different rights.


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