- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Post-Standard of Syracuse on the state budget process.

March 30

The good news: New York state will have a budget in place by the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.

The bad news: It’ll be a few more days (or longer) before the legislators who voted on it - and the taxpayers who will be asked to pay for it - will find out exactly what’s in it.

That’s just how Albany’s secretive “three men and a budget” culture works, and no amount of scandal or complaining seems to have any effect. But we’ll say it again anyway: It’s no way to do the public’s business when we all want to see more transparency in our government.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos met behind closed doors over the weekend to hash out what’s in the budget and what’s out of it. Before the clock strikes midnight Tuesday, rank-and-file legislators will end up rubber-stamping the deal made by their leaders.

Unlike Cuomo’s other budget deals, this one was not done in time enough for bills to “age” for three days before final passage. Once the bills are passed and people have time to read them, we are likely to find more outrages like the “yacht tax break.” (That’s right. If you can afford a yacht, the sales taxes are on us.)

The budget came down to the wire this time because Cuomo piled on all of his policy priorities — education reform, new ethics rules, an economic development competition for Upstate, a higher minimum wage, a higher age of criminal responsibility, tuition tax credits and the Dream Act, to name just a few.

In the end, the governor jettisoned almost all of it but kept his perfect streak of on-time budgets intact.

Given the details that have trickled out so far, it appears Cuomo may have settled for “tinkering around the edges” - Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s term - on ethics reform. The broad outlines of the education reform package look more like a tune-up than an overhaul, staff writer Dave Tobin reports.

There’s a method to the madness of putting all of these issues into the budget: The leaders use them as bargaining chips. Now that most of them are out of the budget, gone too are the leverage they provided and the pressure exerted by a deadline. Going forward, it will be harder for the leaders to cut a deal.

That’s an opening for legislators who want to be more than rubber stamps, and to do more for their constituents than take what the leaders deign to give them. Let’s have a full, frank and open discussion of the issues left on the table. It’s time the rank and file does some real lawmaking. Legislators have until the session ends in June to get after it.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1CtavyL

The Watertown Daily Times on a proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage.

March 31, 2015

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were all smiles yesterday as they jointly announced an agreement for the state’s 2015-16 budget.

And for the fifth year in a row, the budget will be passed by the April 1 deadline. The governor’s office said the budget once again kept spending growth below 2 percent.

So Mr. Cuomo achieved some of his legislative goals with this new budget. But the “three men in a room” could not reach an agreement on some measures that the governor has been pushing, which means they’ll have to be negotiated separately this session.

That’s good news for people with concerns about some of Mr. Cuomo’s proposals. One of the items that require more study and input is the plan to raise the minimum wage in New York state to $10.50 per hour.

According to information from the governor’s office, the state’s minimum wage is now $8.75 per hour. In 2012, Mr. Cuomo signed a bill into law mandating the minimum wage to be raised incrementally from $7.25 to $9 by the end of this year.

But Mr. Cuomo wants to surpass what he agreed upon in 2012, and it would adversely affect many employers throughout the state. In particular, dairy farmers would be hurt.

It’s one thing to require retail businesses and fast-food restaurants to pay more for the minimum wage. If push comes to shove, they can pass these additional costs on to customers.

But dairy farmers operate in a commodities market, where their products compete with those from farmers in other states. There are states where the mandated minimum wage is less than it is here.

In the commodities market, prices are established by traders based on future supply and demand. And variances are created if there is a special need (yogurt and cheese plants, for example), which are highly regional.

More importantly, in New York the price is set by a federal milk marketing order. This established the price for milk on a month-by-month basis.

The only way farmers can receive more for their products is by special contracts. Otherwise, they will receive the price that has been set by the commodities market. So dairy farmers do not have a way of increasing their revenue like many other businesses.

The governor’s office stated that raising the minimum wage to $10.50 per hour statewide ($11.50 per hour in New York City) would raise total wages by $3.9 billion. This was touted as a significant pending boost to the state’s economy.

But where is that money going to come from? The figure presented by the governor’s office presupposes that all employees now making less than $10.50 per hour will be in a position to receive this pay hike.

The $3.9 billion figure falls in line with the concept of “a rising tide lifts all boats.” If all employers were subject to the same market forces, this notion could play itself out in New York state. More money would go to those whose wages were less, and they would enhance the economy by spending more of the additional discretionary revenue they now possess.

But as demonstrated by the situation with dairy farmers, not all employers are subject to the same market forces. Some would be able to absorb the mandate for higher salaries while others would not.

Dairy farmers believe their voice has been ignored in this discussion, so it’s good that the state Legislature will take more time to debate Mr. Cuomo’s minimum wage proposal. All of us in the north country should take the concerns of dairy farmers seriously as they are so crucial to our economy.

It’s admirable that Mr. Cuomo wants to see more people make higher wages; we join him in this desire. But a blanket minimum wage increase without considering the complexities of a commodities market is not in the best interests of local dairy farmers or the north country economy.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1MumOCF

The Times Union of Albany on Indiana’s religious freedom bill.

March 31

Even before Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act last week, the Hoosier State was not exactly hospitable to gays and lesbians. But with the stroke of a pen, Indiana went from not protecting them to declaring open season on discriminating against them.

Now the state is drawing national criticism, and rightly so, for a law that sanctions bigotry under the guise of religious freedom. With calls for economic boycotts and moving the NCAA’s Final Four games to another state, Indiana is quickly finding out how this misguided law may bring a lot of unintended consequences.

Mr. Pence vaguely suggests he will seek to “clarify” the act. Yet what Indiana intended is already clear.

The act prohibits government from intruding on a person’s religious liberty unless it can prove a compelling interest; even then, it must do it in the least restrictive way. RFRA, scheduled to take effect July 1, is widely acknowledged as allowing business owners to cite personal religious beliefs in refusing service to certain customers - particularly gays and lesbians. The law comes on the heels of court action last year striking down the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

This is Jim Crow updated for gays and lesbians, with the added veneer of religion to support an irrational yet enduring prejudice - one that is still all too often blessed by those in office.

This will likely clog up the courts, at least for a while. As the Indianapolis Star notes, RFRA opens anti-discrimination laws around that state to legal challenges (RFRA isn’t such a problem where statewide anti-discrimination bans that include sexual orientation are in place). Quite possibly, it will take the U.S. Supreme Court to settle these fights - the same court that has yet to uphold or overturn lower court rulings that have legalized gay marriage in state after state, but which also ruled that a closely held corporation could exercise religious freedom, at least in deciding what kind of contraception coverage their employees could have under the Affordable Care Act. Whether it will continue to allow this cherry-picking of biblical rules to suit individual views on hot button issues is anyone’s guess.

Indiana might look to the experience of Arizona, which backtracked on a similar law after a national uproar, including the possibility of having the NFL pull out the Super Bowl.

It might consider Florida’s experience with muddying the church-state divide when it allowed religious holiday displays in the state capitol, only to end up hosting a Satanic display, too.

Or it could look to New York on how to guard religious freedom - to not, for example, force clergy or sects to violate the tenets of their faith - while insisting that people not be discriminated against in the marketplace or other secular settings.

Indiana has a choice: It can fix this mistake and let it fade into the next news cycle. Or it can join the ranks of states still remembered for having to be dragged into the civil rights era.

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Online: https://bit.ly/1CI438k

The New York Times on California’s environmental issues.

March 28

Californians are understandably focused on the state’s severe drought, now in its fourth year. But drought is not the only environmental risk the state’s residents face.

Twenty-five million Californians get their drinking water from the San Francisco Bay Delta watershed, which covers more than 75,000 square miles and stretches from the Cascade Mountains in Northern California to the Tehachapis in the southern part of the state.

Rain and snowmelt in the watershed (down significantly this year because of the drought) eventually flow to the Pacific Ocean through San Francisco Bay. Along the way, that fresh water is protected from saltwater by a patchwork of levees. If those levees are breached in a storm or an earthquake, millions living in the area will be without safe drinking water.

Experts have been worried about a breach for decades, and sea level rise associated with climate change would only exacerbate the existing risks to California’s water.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a plan to build tunnels to carry water through the delta region, a system he says would better protect the water supply from contamination. A drought relief bill just passed by the California Legislature, and signed by Governor Brown on Friday, would also include $660 million for flood control projects, including the repair of levees with known problems.

The $14.5 billion tunnel plan has encountered significant criticism, both from the Environmental Protection Agency and from environmental groups in California, which are concerned that the project would greatly increase the amount of water drawn from the delta area because of the high capacity of the tunnels. This increase, they fear, would endanger fish and other wildlife.

Opponents of Governor Brown’s plan say the state should invest in projects to increase water efficiency and decrease reliance on water from the delta. Some have proposed a smaller tunnel project. Meanwhile, state officials are revising the tunnel plan and intend to recirculate it for public comment this spring.

Even when revised, the plan will most likely face significant opposition. But at least California’s leaders are thinking about these issues.

In the coming years, climate change is likely to render every part of the country more vulnerable to environmental disasters. In some states, planning for these disasters is hampered by politicians who deny the very existence of changes in the climate. In Florida, another state threatened by sea level rise and extreme storms, officials say they were told not even to use the term “climate change.”

Even when there’s recognition of a gigantic problem - as with California’s aging levees - the cost of infrastructure improvements coupled with bureaucratic inertia means it’s always simpler to put off measures that might avert future calamities. And so it’s easier to take the gamble that the catastrophe won’t happen, the storm won’t roll in, the flood won’t come, even though ever more scientific evidence says it will.

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Online:

https://nyti.ms/1I111iL

The Oneonta Daily Star on potential good from the debunked phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot!”

March 30

“Hands up, don’t shoot!”

Those words became a symbol of racism and protest after African-American teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., back in July of last year.

Some witnesses to the shooting claimed that Brown, who had been struggling with the officer, had his hands up in surrender when he was killed. Others said that he had been shot in the back.

It did not take long for “Hands up, don’t shoot!” to sweep the country, as demonstrators in various parts of the country chanted the phrase with their hands upraised, and held signs with those words on them. Some athletes and celebrities joined in.

Brown’s death led to riots in Ferguson, violent protests in other cities, and the perception that an innocent black man had been gunned down by a white police officer in a blatant and tragic act of racism.

As it turns out, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” never happened.

A U.S. Justice Department investigation revealed that some of the so-called witnesses were lying when they said Brown had put his hands up in surrender to the officer, some were confused, and some weren’t even there.

“Although some witnesses state that Brown held his hands up at shoulder level with his palms facing outward for a brief moment, these same witnesses describe Brown then dropping his hands and ‘charging’ at Wilson,” the report said.

“.There is no witness who has stated that Brown had his hands up in surrender whose statement is otherwise consistent with the physical evidence,” the report continued. “Again, all of these statements are contradicted by the physical and forensic evidence, which also undermines the credibility of their accounts of other aspects of the incident, including their assertion that Brown had his hands up in a surrender position when Wilson shot him.”

So, has all this fuss been much ado about nothing?

Of course not.

A Department of Justice report found an incredibly disturbing pattern of racism in Ferguson that permeated the police force and local government.

The report said that African Americans in Ferguson accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests over a two-year period. Those charged with minor offenses such as jaywalking and parking tickets were fined so heavily that the report said black citizens were used like an ATM to boost the city’s coffers. Tasers were routinely used by officers with little provocation.

“Seen in this context - mid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices - it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Perhaps some good will come of the nonexistent “Hands up, don’t shoot!” claim if it leads to Ferguson and other pockets of endemic racism being addressed and cleaned up.

Online:

https://goo.gl/SPm8Mu

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