- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 2, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Times Union of Albany on the Cuomo administration’s decision to use $511 million from a clean water loan fund to help replace the Tappan Zee Bridge.

July 1

The Cuomo administration has what seems to be some entirely reasonable and legal-sounding arguments for siphoning $511 million from a fund for clean water projects to help pay for the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge. However, just because New York can do something doesn’t mean it should.

The New NY Bridge has become something of a symbol for Gov. Andrew Cuomo of a can-do government. He has pressed ahead on the project before all the finances are in place. Don’t worry, he assures; we’ll figure out the details.

Now we learn how a significant portion of the $4 billion project will be paid for - by sweeping more than half a billion dollars from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

The CWSRF, funded largely through federal grants with some matching state money, is meant to improve or protect recreational and drinking water resources, aquatic wildlife, and estuaries. Normally, the money is loaned at low or zero interest to municipalities, farms, small businesses, homeowners and nonprofits. But with so much unclaimed - more than $600 million - Mr. Cuomo hopes to use most of it for a loan on the bridge, to be repaid within five years.

Most of the money would go to what the administration argues would be a more environmentally-friendly approach to taking down the old bridge and building a new one - armoring the river bottom to minimize sediment disturbance, removing polluted materials that have built up over the years, installing a bicycle and pedestrian path. It all sounds quite sensible.

But to look at just the administration’s arguments for using the money is to miss the forest for the trees. First comes that concern that this is a bad precedent - that the state will come to see the clean water fund as a routine source of “temporary” financing. We have seen this before - the federal government for years leaving IOUs in Social Security, thus turning a self-sustaining program into a perceived burden on taxpayers, or New York unloading transportation expenses onto the Thruway Authority, only to now find that the authority can’t borrow money for the bridge as cheaply as it might have.

Next comes the question of why all this money is sitting around to begin with, when there are billions of dollars worth of sewer and other pollution projects waiting to be done in the state. Is there more that could be done to encourage use of the CWSRF as it was truly intended?

And then there’s the question that should be answered with any loan: How will it be paid back? Specifically in the case of the bridge, what is the revenue stream? What will the tolls be? Mr. Cuomo’s determination not to answer those questions rivals his determination to build the bridge.

We appreciate the governor’s desire to prove himself - and the state - as capable of getting big things done. But the more we look at this financing scheme, the more we’re left wondering: Is this the right way to do it?




The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on this year’s campaigns and the balance of power in the state Senate.

July 1

New York’s 2014 legislative session wound down with not only the customary glut of last-minute bills but an unusual amount of political retrenching. As factions within the state Senate alter alliances with an eye toward new leadership arrangements for 2015, they might think twice about getting too far ahead of themselves. After all, state voters still have a say in who represents their interests - and in the closely divided Senate, which party will come out of November’s election with a majority of the 63 seats is anything but a foregone conclusion.

Jostled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s endorsement-soliciting pledge to the liberal Working Families Party to break a power-sharing agreement in the Senate, the five-member Independent Democratic Conference announced plans to rejoin its Democratic brethren.

On the one hand, that would return power to the party that holds the Senate majority; aside from the five-member IDC, Democrats occupy another 27 seats (although two were expelled from the caucus after being arrested and a third, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, conferences with the GOP). There are currently two Senate vacancies.

On the other hand, the power-sharing arrangement between minority Republicans and the IDC, for all of its novelty, has worked well. Cuomo and the leaders were instrumental in approving on-time budgets, and major initiatives such as the START-UP NY tax-free zones, universal pre-K and new tools to combat rising heroin use.

Still, several high-profile measures - including substantive campaign finance reform, a further hike in the minimum wage and the 10-part Women’s Equality Act - have been blocked by Senate Republicans. Cuomo and IDC leaders say a functioning Democratic Senate majority would assure passage of such legislation, which has already breezed through the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

That may be so, but it assumes Democrats will hold their majority - and that is anything but certain. Recall, the party only edged out Republicans 32-31 in 2012 after a lengthy court battle that saw an Albany-area district decided by just 18 votes. There are about a half dozen districts - including the 55th in Monroe County, where freshman Democratic incumbent Ted O’Brien is being challenged by well-known former TV newsman Rich Funke - that will be closely contested this fall.

The Senate’s power-sharing arrangement was unorthodox but ultimately effective. Future leadership should seek to build on its record. But that leadership will not be known until voters have their say.




The New York Times on the Supreme Court decision siding with Hobby Lobby on providing contraceptive care under the Affordable Care Act.

June 30

The Supreme Court’s deeply dismaying decision on Monday in the Hobby Lobby case swept aside accepted principles of corporate law and religious liberty to grant owners of closely held, for-profit companies an unprecedented right to impose their religious views on employees.

It was the first time the court has allowed commercial business owners to deny employees a federal benefit to which they are entitled by law based on the owners’ religious beliefs, and it was a radical departure from the court’s history of resisting claims for religious exemptions from neutral laws of general applicability when the exemptions would hurt other people.

The full implications of the decision, which ruled in favor of employers who do not want to include contraceptive care in their company health plans, as required by the Affordable Care Act, will not be known for some time. But the immediate effect, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in a powerful dissent, was to deny many thousands of women contraceptive coverage vital to their well-being and reproductive freedom. It also invites, she said, other “for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.”

The case involved challenges by two companies, Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a cabinet maker, to the perfectly reasonable requirement that employer health plans cover (without a co-payment) all birth control methods and services approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The main battleground was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says government may not “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion” unless the burden is necessary to further a “compelling government interest” and achieves it by “the least restrictive means.”

As a threshold matter, Justice Samuel Alito Jr., read the act’s religious protections to apply to “the humans who own and control” closely held companies, an interpretation contradicted by the statute’s history, context, and wording. He then found that the contraceptive coverage rules put a “substantial burden” on the religious owners, who objected to some of the items on the F.D.A.’s list based on the incorrect claim they induce abortions.

It’s hard to see that burden. Nothing in the contraceptive coverage rule prevented the companies’ owners from worshipping as they choose or advocating against coverage and use of the contraceptives they don’t like.

Nothing compels women to use their insurance on contraceptives. A woman’s choice to use or not to use them is a personal one that does not implicate her employer. Such decisions “will be the woman’s autonomous choice, informed by the physician she consults,” as Justice Ginsburg noted. There also is no requirement that employers offer employee health plans. They could instead pay a tax likely to be less than the cost of providing insurance to help cover government subsidies available to those using an insurance exchange. That did not convince Justice Alito and his colleagues on the court’s right flank, who bought the plaintiffs’ claim that providing health coverage to employees was part of their religious mission.

The majority’s finding that the government’s contraception coverage rules were not the “least restrictive” way to carry out the broad and complex health reform was also unpersuasive.

Mr. Alito’s ruling and a concurrence by Justice Anthony Kennedy portray the decision as a narrow one without broader application, like denying vaccine coverage or job discrimination. But that is not reassuring coming from justices who missed the point that denying women access to full health benefits is discrimination.




The Times Herald-Record of Middletown on the Supreme Court ruling on cellphone privacy and law enforcement.

June 27

In 2012, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told a university audience that the challenge for the Supreme Court for the next 50 years would be: “How do we adapt old, established rules to new technology?” On Wednesday, the court proved itself equal to that challenge in at least one context. It ruled unanimously that, except in extraordinary cases, police must obtain a warrant before searching the contents of an arrested person’s cellphone.

This is a historic decision because allowing police to sift through the contents of a modern smartphone gives them access to a wealth of information about a person’s most private and personal affairs, from emails to family photos to bank statements. As Roberts wrote in his magisterial majority opinion: “With all they contain and all they may reveal, (cellphones) hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’”

In the case of David L. Riley, a San Diego man arrested on weapons charges, those privacies included a photograph police found on his phone showing him in front of a car used in a drive-by shooting. Riley was eventually convicted of attempted murder.

You don’t need a law degree to believe that allowing police to search through a cellphone without a warrant is an “unreasonable search” of the kind prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. But to reach that conclusion, Roberts had to wrestle with a 1973 decision that gave police wide discretion to search people they arrested - including packages in their pockets - even if the search wasn’t necessary to disarm the suspect or prevent the destruction of evidence.

Rather than overruling that decision, Roberts declined to extend its reasoning to cellphones, which contain the sort of records that would have been stored in private homes at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted. “The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought,” Roberts wrote.

Wednesday’s decision also raises the possibility that the court might be willing to revise another precedent. In 1979, the justices upheld the warrantless tracking of phone numbers dialed by a criminal suspect, on the grounds that no one has a reasonable expectation of privacy in information they turn over to a third party, such as a phone company. That precedent has been cited to uphold the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records.

Yet Roberts indicated that the cellphone data protected by Wednesday’s decision “may not in fact be stored on the device itself” but in a computer “cloud,” and that “it generally makes no difference.” But if you have an expectation of privacy in information stored for you by a computer service, why shouldn’t the government also be required to obtain a warrant to obtain your phone records? We hope that when the court addresses that question, it also will adapt the Fourth Amendment to new technology.




The Plattsburgh Press-Republican on paying student athletes to participate in collegiate sports.

June 24

The idea of paying salaries for college athletes to play sports for their schools feels wrong to most people.

It feels wrong because it opens so many unanswered questions - and unanswerable, perhaps, until it is too late.

A number of former college athletes are suing the National Collegiate Athletic Association in an anti-trust action that will have enormous ramifications on the future of college sports.

The athletes say, in effect, that the NCAA and colleges for generations have profited immensely from the efforts of the competitors while the competitors got nothing.

Well, the truth is that even the athletes admit they didn’t get anything. They got inexpensive or free education, the joy of participation and, for some, entree into the lucrative world of professional sports.

But they want more. They want a cut of the immense profits the NCAA and the colleges have been banking.

On the surface, that notion could appeal to some observers. After all, the colleges wouldn’t be able to present these wildly popular events without the players. Shouldn’t the players get something?

Well, yes, and they do. They get a free or reduced-price education, as well as the fame and adulation that springs from their roles as sports stars and campus idols.

If the court forces the colleges to actually pay salaries to the players, a host of problems will have to be solved. Many of them may have no solution.

For example, will the highly paid athletes have to go to classes, or will all pretense of college be forfeited? If they are paid hefty salaries, the relationship between the Athletic Department and the English Department will become very hazy. And where will the school’s administration come down?

What if college sports come to mirror professional sports in this way: that the highest bidder gets the best player? Will the colleges with the greatest endowments and wealthiest and most loyal alumni become the New York Yankees of university athletics? Will they win all the national championships because they can afford to “hire” the biggest stars?




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