- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

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

The Niagara Gazette on questions being asked about the effectiveness and future of New York’s new medical marijuana law.

April 23

In the wake of all the debate over New York’s new medical marijuana law, serious concerns have been raised about its effectiveness and even its long-term prospects.

It may be premature to judge legislation on the books for only three months. Thus far, however, there are indications that only a small number of patients have actually benefited from the measure. Among the complaints: the strict limits on the diseases that qualify for treatment.

An obvious problem would be no insurance coverage. Some people eligible for the marijuana treatment are turned off because, without the proper health insurance coverage, just one dose of the medicine is likely to be cost prohibitive. Secondly, there is a shortage of qualified doctors willing to make the commitment to undergo the required training to prescribe the medicine. Those are a few of the hurdles that have left some people really frustrated over the law.

State Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried, the prime sponsor of the legislation, told reporter Karen DeWitt during a recent interview on WROV-TV that if he had a free hand in writing the medical marijuana law, it would be a very different law. “You wouldn’t have had the Legislature trying to practice medicine by listing specific conditions,” the lawmaker added.

For the bill to be passed, Gottfried explained, it was necessary to strike a compromise with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and several state senators. The latter were initially opposed to legalizing the use of the drug. While the lawmaker takes issue with anyone who claims the law is a failure, he does emphasize that it has a long way to go before it can be considered successful. And, he adds, the existing shortcomings can be fixed.

One Western New York resident treated at the University of Rochester for multiple sclerosis lobbied in Albany for the law, known as the Compassionate Care Act in 2014, but since the measure became effective in January, it has been impossible to obtain the drug through her doctors.

It was also shocking to hear doctors explain they weren’t interested in the regulatory process of the Department of Health to qualify as certified prescribers. Some people suggest that it might even make sense to expand the law that would allow physician assistants and nurse practitioners to prescribe the medicine. Advocates say that the diseases treated should include chronic pain, which might at least curb the growing opioid addiction that is considered a key factor in the heroin epidemic. There is no record in the Niagara County Health Department of area physicians certified to prescribe the marijuana medicine.

Under the state’s law, only five organizations were chosen from among 53 applicants for licenses to operate up to four dispensaries across the state. One of the unsuccessful applicants was Herbal Agriculture, a subsidiary of Modern Corp., Lewiston, that planned to develop a medical marijuana production facility on a 12-acre site near Modern’s Model City landfill. The Herbal project team spent about two years on plans to invest $1 million to complete its application.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1TwMbUY

The Auburn Citizen on the failure of state lawmakers to provide local governments relief on unfunded mandates.

April 24

After state legislators wrap up another session in a few weeks and return to their home districts to prepare for the fall campaign season, you can be sure to hear some common talking points from the incumbents seeking to go back for two more years.

They’ll point to things like income tax relief, on-time state budgets, the state property tax cap, restoration of funding for public schools.

In a vacuum, these are real accomplishments. But a big item that influences the real impact of these and so many more legislative accomplishments will be missing from the campaign accomplishment lists: unfunded mandate relief for local governments.

Despite near-unanimous support for state help with costs of laws and regulations that require municipalities and school districts to spend taxpayer money (go ahead and try to find a state lawmaker who will say he or she is against mandate relief), nothing is getting done. There have been tasks forces. There have been bills proposed. Year after year, though, there have been no meaningful results. And it sure looks like 2016 will be a continuation of that pattern.

In fact, 2016 appears to be making the problem worse. Cayuga County legislators gave their state representatives a much-deserved earful at a committee meeting last week when they pointed to new state mandates driving up local costs for public legal defense, district attorney pay and food assistance programs.

And don’t forget the much-hyped minimum wage increase, which will certainly drive up labor costs for many governments.

At the same time, the property tax cap that lawmakers have and will continue to tout is getting more restrictive because of a flawed formula that fails to take into account the true economic picture facing many local governments.

It adds up to a mess on the local level because Albany is cutting off revenues while driving up expenses - all while state officials praise themselves for a job well done.

It’s important that county lawmakers, city and town officials, school district leaders and any other stakeholder make as much noise about the unfunded mandate problem as possible. And they should make it clear to their incumbent representatives that they expect real results, not just blame-shifting to the other party or the governor or the other chamber in the Legislature.

If these state legislators want to keep their jobs, it’s time for them to deliver on this one.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1SASh4j

The Albany Times Union on the need for federal lawmakers to reconsider a bill that would have independent military trial lawyers take over all sex assault cases.

April 24

It was a rare bipartisan move for the sharply divided U.S. Senate, but the progressive measure fell one vote short. Now it’s being reported that the Pentagon was cooking its numbers.

In making its case last year that the military chain of command was best suited to ensure justice for victims of sexual abuse in the armed services, Pentagon officials presented data showing how it was more aggressive than local civilian prosecutors in going after accused service members. But new research shows the information that bolstered the Pentagon’s position, undercutting Senate supporters of the bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act, was inaccurate and misleading.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a leader and sponsor of the Senate bill, nearly achieved the impossible at a time of deep partisan gridlock in Washington. Her legislation, which had bipartisan support, aimed to reduce sexual assaults by stripping senior officers of their power to decide which sexual assault cases to pursue and which to drop. It had been documented that some prosecutions had been halted by senior officers. Under the bill, independent military trial lawyers would take over all sex assault cases against service members. It failed in June by a 50-49 Senate vote.

Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group that supported the legislation, used the federal Freedom of Information Law to obtain documents showing inaccuracies and omissions in military records that summarized the circumstances of cases prosecuted in military courts. The questionable data included 90 cases depicting civilian authorities as dropping prosecutions of accused soldiers, but where the military went forward.

The Associated Press interviewed local prosecutors who contradicted the Pentagon’s versions. One was Kristyna Mills, the district attorney in Jefferson County, where Fort Drum is located. She disputed the Army’s conclusion that she dropped a case involving an alleged sexual assault at Fort Drum. Instead, she said, a “collaborative effort” determined this case could best be handled in the military justice system at Fort Drum. A male service member who was accused of raping a woman and sending sexually explicit messages was court-martialed and sentenced to five years in jail.

Yet the Army’s report to Congress inaccurately portrayed it as one that would have been dropped had the military not intervened, according to Protect Our Defenders.

If there is any good news in these revelations, it’s that the bipartisanship remains intact on this issue. Sen. Gillibrand, of the Armed Services Committee, joined Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to call on President Barack Obama last week to fully investigate the allegations.

If it turns out the Pentagon misled Congress to defeat the bill, those responsible should be disciplined, and the bill brought back up for a new vote.

As Sen. Gillibrand has said, it’s not a matter of “if” this bill will be passed - only “when.”

That “when” should be now.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1SPxWxp

The Syracuse Post-Standard on the significance of putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill and recognizing other women activists.

April 22

The good news: Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and led other slaves to freedom, will appear on the front of the $20 bill. Bad news: You won’t be seeing the new redesigned bill until 2020 and then it won’t be in wide circulation until sometime in that decade.

Central New Yorkers take pride in celebrating the U.S. government’s recognition of Tubman, who settled in Auburn toward the end of her heroic life. Ironically, the one-time slave will replace the seventh president Andrew Jackson, who was a slave owner, on the $20 note. Jackson will be moving to the back of the $20 for now.

“She represents the best of America and believed in the promise of America,” said Karen Hill, president and chief executive officer of the Harriet Tubman Home Inc., an Auburn museum.

Tubman will be the first African-American to be featured on currency, but not the only woman. In time, a series of women and civil rights leaders - first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, singer Marian Anderson, suffragists Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony and the lone male, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - will appear on the back of the $5 and $10 bills.

We are also on watch for the final approval of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in the city of Auburn and town of Fleming in Cayuga County. The park would cover Tubman’s former home, the AME Zion Church and related properties.

The presence of women activists on paper currency - before it’s replaced with a digital equivalent - calls attention to the contributions of women who helped make America great. Women didn’t just watch history unfold, they made it. It’s fitting that Harriet Tubman, who fought for freedom and liberty for many should be the first woman to be featured on a bill in more than 100 years.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2432D7P

The New York Times on the need for a federal appeals court to reject a district judge’s upholding of a restrictive 2013 North Carolina voting law.

April 27

Late Monday, a federal district judge upheld one of the most regressive and restrictive voting laws in the country - a 2013 North Carolina law that eliminated same-day voter registration and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds; cut back on early voting by a week; barred counting votes cast outside voters’ home precincts; and required voters to show identification at the polls.

State lawmakers said these changes were necessary to reduce fraud and inefficiency in elections - though there is no evidence of voter fraud to combat or inefficiency to cure. The Justice Department, the American Civil Liberties Union, the N.A.A.C.P. and the Advancement Project, among others, sued on the grounds that the law illegally discriminates against minority voters.

Judge Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee, accepted the state’s baseless rationales for the law, even as he dismissed or ignored the obvious political realities behind its passage. The law was a Republican-led rollback of several measures passed during the previous 15 years to make voting easier, and it was drafted with the purpose of driving down the vote among minorities, the poor, students and other groups that tend to vote Democratic.

It was pushed forward by the Legislature one day after the disgraceful Supreme Court ruling that struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, freeing North Carolina and other states with histories of voting discrimination from federal oversight. Had that provision been left in place, the North Carolina law would very likely have been blocked.

None of this seemed to matter to Judge Schroeder, who acknowledged that some black North Carolinians “endure socioeconomic disparities that can be linked to State discrimination,” which make it harder for them to participate in elections. Yet he concluded that voting discrimination is no longer a problem in North Carolina and that the new law does not exacerbate existing disparities. He pointed to strong registration and turnout numbers among minority voters in 2014, but that could be attributable to strong voter turnout efforts by civil rights groups after the law’s passage.

Any meaningful analysis of the law should consider the impact of the restrictions on the specific communities and voters involved. For example, the elimination of same-day registration disproportionately affected black North Carolinians, who used that method at twice the rate of whites. That’s the type of analysis a three-judge panel of the federal Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit looked to when it blocked the ban on same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting. Those changes, it said, were a “textbook example” of vote denial under the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court, however, reversed that ruling without explanation, allowing the law to take effect for the 2014 midterm elections.

This case is only the latest example of the damage the Supreme Court did when it hobbled the key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which stopped discriminatory laws before they went into effect.

Republicans have admitted that they do better when fewer people vote, and that voter-identification laws and other restrictions are intended to deter Democratic-leaning voters from getting to the polls. That’s the reality, and Judge Schroeder was wrong to disregard it. His decision will be appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which should waste no time in knocking down this latest obstacle so that all North Carolinians can exercise their voting rights in November.

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Online:

https://nyti.ms/24k3fCC

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