- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2020

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

Republicans Tried to Suppress the Vote in Florida. And Failed.

The New York Times

May 26

Who gets to cast a ballot in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, could well determine who will be the next leader of the country, and in the middle of the biggest global crisis in generations.

With stakes this high, literally every vote matters. That’s why a ruling on Sunday by a federal judge in Tallahassee is so important.

The opinion, by Judge Robert L. Hinkle of U.S. District Court, is 125 pages long, but nearly everything you need to know is summed up in its opening sentence: “The State of Florida has adopted a system under which nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens will be allowed to vote only if they pay an amount of money.”

That system violates at least two provisions of the Constitution, Judge Hinkle ruled: the Equal Protection Clause and the 24th Amendment, which bans poll taxes.

The court’s decision, following an eight-day trial by videoconference, resolved a challenge to a law Florida’s Republican-led legislature passed last year. The law, known as S.B. 7066 and approved along strict party lines, requires Floridians with a criminal record to pay off all fines, fees and restitution owed in connection with their sentence before being eligible to vote.

The law was a response to what had happened in the 2018 midterms, when Floridians overwhelmingly voted to amend the State Constitution to eliminate a lifetime ban on voting by people with a criminal conviction who had completed their sentences. Under the ban, roughly 1.4 million Floridians, disproportionately poorer people and people of color, were denied a voice in the electoral process. The amendment automatically restored voting rights to all but those convicted of murder and felony sex offenses.

It was one of the biggest one-time enfranchisements in American history and part of a decades-long trend in dozens of states to make it easier for people with criminal records to get their voting rights back. It was also a bipartisan success, passing with more than 64 percent of the vote in a year when Republican candidates won both the governorship and a contested Senate seat.

Why wasn’t that good enough for Republican lawmakers? Because, to put it bluntly, they are terrified of losing power, and they believe that as the number of people voting goes up, their odds of winning go down.

But they didn’t want to say that directly, so instead they passed S.B. 7066, on the grounds that the amendment restored voting rights upon the completion of “all terms of sentence, including parole and probation.” Floridians understood when they voted for this, Republicans said, that “all terms” included financial obligations.

Judge Hinkle wasn’t buying it. “The voters’ primary motivation plainly was to restore the vote to deserving felons at the appropriate time - to show a measure of forgiveness and to welcome even felons back into the electorate.”

And as Republican lawmakers knew when they passed their legislation, a vast majority of people convicted of crimes are poor and will never be able to pay off their dues to the state. Between 2013 and 2018, Florida courts assessed more than $1 billion in fines and fees, labeling more than 80 percent of that amount unlikely ever to be paid.

Take Raquel Wright, a plaintiff in the case, who owes roughly $54,000 in fines and fees; her part-time work pays her $450 per month. But even less extreme examples show the absurdity of the state’s demand. According to an expert witness for the plaintiffs, a majority of Floridians with convictions owe at least $500. That may not seem like much, until you remember that 40 percent of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency expense - and that was before the coronavirus pandemic wiped out tens of millions of jobs in a matter of weeks.

As Judge Hinkle wrote, “One cannot get blood from a turnip or money from a person unable to pay.”

Just trying to calculate what a person owes is often hard or impossible, the judge said, because the state keeps no centralized records, and those records that do exist are often unclear or contradictory. By Florida’s own estimates, it will take nearly six years to determine who owes what.

None of this accounts for all the additional expenses associated with paying court debts. Want a copy of your original judgment of conviction? It will cost you. Maybe you’d prefer to pay your fees directly? Watch out for the 4 percent surcharge. How about setting up a payment plan? That’ll be $25 - better, at least, than being sent to a collection agency, which will skim 40 percent of your payment off the top.

Florida has, in short, “shown a staggering inability to administer the pay-to-vote system,” Judge Hinkle wrote. He noted that he gave lawmakers ample warning and opportunity to fix the problems in a preliminary ruling last fall, and yet they have done essentially nothing.

Sunday’s ruling is a monumental victory for voting rights. Still, it can’t fix the damage Republicans have already inflicted, by intentionally confusing hundreds of thousands of Floridians about their rights and frightening them away from the ballot box. As Judge Hinkle rightly recognized, the incentive to stay home is especially strong for those people “who have served their time, gone straight and wish to avoid entanglement with the criminal-justice system.”

These potential voters are understandably skeptical of a government that has shown over and again how little it respects their constitutional rights or cares for their participation. The dilemma is that there is only one antidote to this systemic suppression: Vote. It won’t be easy, especially in the face of pandemic-related restrictions, but Floridians who believe in a fair and open democracy must spread the word, help their fellow citizens register and ensure as many of them as possible get to the polls, both in November and in the years to come.

Online: https://nyti.ms/3cfu3Nv


The price of Twitter’s ‘fact-check’ on President Trump

New York Post

May 27

After President Trump’s fevered conspiracy tweets about Joe Scarborough’s former intern Lori Klausutis, her widower, T.J. Klausutis, begged the company to delete them. It was a heartbreaking plea (one that Trump himself should listen to), but CEO Jack Dorsey made the right call. The tweets were a living record of the nation’s president, and the company wasn’t going to take them down.

But then, later on Tuesday, Twitter decided on what is considered a compromise. It would flag Trump’s tweets for “misinformation,” beginning with his rants against mail-in voting.

Dorsey should have stuck to his hands-off approach.

This isn’t a free-speech issue, as Trump claimed last night. Twitter is a private company and can decide what’s published on its platform. But Dorsey understands that Twitter is documenting history here. If he bans Trump, he’s making a political statement - not providing the neutral forum for ideas that the company invented.

But now Dorsey walked into the trap he was trying to avoid. What will be labeled misinformation? Will liberals, too, get warning labels? Who decides? Will every user be read and reviewed, or just Trump?

Already, one sees that the “fact-checking” services of social-media giants such as Facebook are more about stifling the conversation than the truth. One day’s conspiracy theory can turn into another day’s investigative report, and vice versa. Most of all, it’s a patronizing, liberal form of engineering - deciding that readers can’t judge for themselves.

Twitter already has a robust form of “fact-checking”: All the people who comment on a post, retweet a post, rebut, argue and insult. Let them handle it, Jack.

Online: https://bit.ly/2X5C0jU


Cuomo can’t have it both ways on funding

The Auburn Citizen

May 27

A recurring theme in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily public briefings on the coronavirus pandemic is his push for the U.S. Congress and the Trump Administration to get a new fiscal relief package done that sends badly needed aid to states and to local governments.

The governor is absolutely correct when he says that Washington hasn’t done enough, and he’s smart to push the New York delegation to continue fighting to get a new stimulus bill passed and signed by the president.

But where Cuomo goes too far, and in fact undercuts his own case, is when he starts to threaten massive cuts in aid to local governments if the state doesn’t get more help from the federal government.

Yes, New York state is in a fiscal crisis, and some big spending cuts are going to be needed. But what the governor has suggested in his rhetoric is that all public safety agencies, all school districts, all hospitals and other nonprofits that get state funding will lose 20% of their state aid in the near future if the federal government doesn’t come through.

Perhaps it’s a scare-tactic to spur action in Washington, but the bottom line is that this threat is putting many financially struggling local governments in a terrible position to plan for their futures. The most glaring example is with public school districts, which have been forced to put budget proposals together that must go before voters in a mail-in vote next month. Districts must decide what to do with Cuomo’s threats of 20% cuts in state aid: Do they plan for massive layoffs and service cuts, or do they hope for the best-case scenarios? We’ve seen a patchwork of responses locally.

What Cuomo and his budget office should be doing is figuring out a plan to cut state spending and increase revenue streams in a way that’s least disruptive to the most financially disadvantaged school districts and local governments. The Auburn Enlarged City School District shouldn’t be facing the same state aid cut as a wealthy school district in the Hamptons. And billionaires can certainly afford to pay more in income taxes at a time when millions of New Yorkers don’t have a job.

The other problem with Cuomo’s talking points about the federal government is that he’s calling on them to step up to the plate at the same time as he’s forcing local governments to increase spending with little or no state help. He’s forcing school districts, for example, to shell out thousands of dollars to send ballots to every potential voter, even though school budget vote turnout is historically (and shamefully) low.

There’s no question that the federal government must do more. But the state also must be more mindful of the impact its own actions and inactions are having at the local level.

Online: https://bit.ly/3dc4P3y


Many students will need summer help

Adirondack Daily Enterprise

May 22

Many public school districts are ending the academic year early or plan to do so - including here in the Tri-Lakes area. In some schools, use of distance learning via online tools has been pronounced a disappointment.

Come August and September, when American children return to school - at least we hope they do - millions will be behind academically.

If it has done nothing else, COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of in-school education. With students in the classroom, teachers are able to provide both comprehensive learning and individualized attention that simply is not possible online. Face time is vital.

Part of the reason for that is that when teachers have children in front of them five days a week, they can serve as enforcers. By that, we mean simply this: Millions of American children live in homes where, for one reason or another, education is not the priority it should be. The coronavirus epidemic has aggravated the problem. A significant percentage of students simply are not buckling down and doing the at-home work assigned by teachers - and their parents are not policing them in that regard.

That does not mean distance learning is a failure. It also does not mean school officials should just give up for the summer.

Rather than declare that school’s out for the summer, educators should be preparing “enrichment” programs for students during June, July and August. A mixture of online programs and, where possible, one-on-one contact with students could work wonders in terms of closing the academic gap caused by the COVID-19 shutdown.

Intensifying rather than canceling the education-at-home campaign will cost money. Teachers are paid for the school year, not summer.

State legislatures should encourage school districts to develop and implement summer initiatives - and should support them with supplemental funding.

All this is far outside the comfort zone of many educators. Fiscal strain caused by the coronavirus will make that supplemental funding a hard pill for legislators and governors to swallow as well.

But public education may be the most important function of local and state governments. Finding ways to hold “summer school” ought to be a priority nationwide.

Online: https://bit.ly/3etns3w


The Article 23 Public Input Provisions Are A Red Herring

The Post-Journal

May 27

There has been a lot of opposition locally to changes passed as part of the state budget to largely eliminate local opposition to the siting process for renewable energy.

We note, then, a Reader’s Forum letter we received from Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, in which she took issue with comments made by Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and state Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, in our pages. Goodell and Borrello oppose the legislation because they say it gives state government too much authority approving renewable energy projects at the expense of local officials and local laws.

Reynolds says the new law is designed to “improve a siting process that was expensive, took years to navigate, and was costly and often frustrating to both developers and local governments. It does not exclude local governments from the process, as Senator Borrello and Assemblyman Goodell contend.”

She says the new process requires draft permits to be provided to local governments early in the permitting process and provides multiple opportunities for input, including a mandatory public or adjudicatory hearing. It also requires project developers to provide funding to local government to hire experts to review applications and raise concerns.

We hope Reynolds’ reading of the legislation is accurate, but we have a feeling it isn’t.

Article 23 limits the public’s ability to intervene in renewable energy siting discussions, limits the weight public comments carry in the discussion and limits hearings unless a local government can show a serious and substantial impact from the proposed renewable energy project. Most importantly, all local laws can be waived by Empire State Development if they are viewed as “reasonably burdensome” in light of the state Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

Local laws passed because residents here, by and large, want to be sure the state’s renewable energy projects aren’t trampling on local property rights or the health and well-being of local residents are going to be pushed aside on a regular basis because they conflict with the edicts of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democrats in the state Legislature.

The Article 23 public input provisions are a red herring. Local decision making is indeed curtailed - no matter how much the governor and the green energy lobby say otherwise.

Online: https://bit.ly/3cf3vvO

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