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Editorials from around New York

January 24, 2018

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

The (Middleton) Times-Herald Record on disagreements on key issues in Washington.

Jan. 22

The blame game.

Even the phrase betrays the lack of serious concern, the lack of respect, the lack of - dare we even use the word right now - statesmanship evident in Washington these days.

It is not a game, although those who are inside and eager to play and those on cable news who are eager to boost ratings with breathless play-by-play are addicted to the drama.

Step back from the commentary surrounding the latest government shutdown and we have two sides, both with more than enough blame.

Republicans say they want full funding for the military, for children’s health, for the major functions of our federal government but they want all of those before they allow a vote on the status of the Dreamers, those young and now not-so-young people brought to this country by their parents and raised here to pursue the American Dream but without benefit of American citizenship or a reasonable path to it.

Democrats say that they want all these things, too, but they want them all because they do not trust the Republicans to keep their word about funding everything that needs funding and then moving on to the actions necessary to ease the burden on the Dreamers.

It should be an easy fix. It used to be. But for the past decade or so, conflict has become more satisfying than compromise. Those who play to the base, who make sure that the most extreme elements backing them are satisfied, have no interest, indeed no ability to move toward the other side. Members of Congress fear first a loss of hardcore support, second a loss of the hardcore and substantial money coming from a few mega donors.

What they claim to also fear, what keeps the talk shows and the cable channels full between dramatic votes on the floor of the House and Senate, is consequence. There is constant talk of who will pay the price, which candidate with a philosophy and voting record somewhat out of step with the voters in a particular state or district will be punished or rewarded come the next election.

But there has been scant evidence that any individual vote or stand has that sort of consequence these days. The recent election of a member of the U.S. Senate from Alabama showed that when a solid Republican by all measures was defeated mostly because of his character, not because of any single stand or series of positions most of which are still shared by most in that state.

And even character does not count all of the time, a perspective recently reinforced by “Saturday Night Live,” which noted that the news about a tryst between a porn star and the man who became president was only the fourth biggest story of the week.

We know from opinion polls that a majority of the country wants a reconciliation over the issues that brought this impasse, an agreement on funding, children’s health and the protection of the Dreamers. We also know that few, if any, in Congress will actually suffer for what they have done in these weeks.

So expect more.

Online: http://bit.ly/2n7KO6n

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The Niagara Gazette on the importance of NAFTA.

Jan. 21

President Trump has called it the worst trade deal in the history of this country.

If the United States can’t get a better agreement, the Trump administration has promised to terminate the pact. Supporters say a threatened withdrawal of the 24-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) could result in a staggering loss of jobs and a costly slowdown in the economies of the three partners, the U.S., Canada and Mexico. More than ever, there’s a need for compromise and candor on all sides instead of tough talk. Too much is at stake.

To date, Trump’s aggressive and often rude approach to any discussion of renewing the agreement has triggered shockwaves of fear from Mexico City to Washington, D.C., and Ottawa. U.S. trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has participated in all the rounds of the negotiations. Further talks are slated later this month and in February.

What should the U.S. be striving for at this point? After all, Canada is our largest trading partner. One important issue is how the U.S. auto industry would be impacted by any changes to the current agreement. Under the present NAFTA rules, at least 62 percent of the components in a car or light truck made in the region must be from North America to be able to enter the marketplace tariff-free.

Meanwhile, Canadian government officials appear reluctant to yield any ground to our nation’s chief executive. In a 30-page complaint to the World Trade Organization, they have charged the U.S. with nearly 200 examples of “unfair trade practices.” Lighthizer called it “an ill-advised attack.” He added: “Canada’s claims are unfounded and could only lower U.S. confidence that Canada is committed to mutually beneficial trade.”

If Americans have any doubts about the effect of walking away from NAFTA, they need only to look closer at the record. With Canada, the United States has experienced a $1 billion trade surplus in agriculture goods alone. Although the president hasn’t mentioned it, there’s another reason why the president might fear leaving NAFTA. There’s justifiable fear that such a move could adversely impact the rather vibrant stock market, a stiff price to pay, especially as our mid-term elections approach.

David McNaughton, the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., stated in a recent interview with nearly 9 million jobs now depend on trade and investment with Canada.

As the parties prepare for the next talks, set to start Tuesday in Montreal, congressional Republicans from U.S. border states whose economies rely on trade and some American automakers who build their products in all three countries are urging the administration to modernize NAFTA, not terminate it.

Online: http://bit.ly/2DBMu2b

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The New York Times on lobbying and the Trump administration.

Jan. 21

The numbers compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in American politics, might not seem surprising. The amount spent on lobbying during the first nine months of Donald Trump’s presidency, it found, was higher than in any corresponding period since 2012. A new administration would attract a new wave of lobbying, you would think.

Except that Mr. Trump promised something different. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” he said in his Inaugural Address. “Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth.”

Washington, though, has continued to flourish, and Trump himself has reaped some of the rewards. A new report from Public Citizen, a nonpartisan government watchdog, documents more than 60 examples of lobbying groups, foreign governments and corporate interests holding parties and meetings in Trump family properties, including that beacon for Washington lobbyists, the Trump International Hotel in D.C.

Mar-a-Lago, the Trump-owned private club where the president spends much of his time, charged up to $750 per person to spend New Year’s Eve with him.

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As we have noted, this all began with the festivities surrounding the inauguration, which were bankrolled by coal, oil, gas, chemical, technology and pharmaceutical companies that forked over a big chunk of the record $107 million raised for the inaugural events. Organizers aren’t saying how much was spent and what was done with the leftover money — likely tens of millions of dollars — which they said would go to charity, USA Today reported on Thursday.

But what is clear is that Mr. Trump and Republicans in Congress have been doing corporate interests’ bidding ever since.

The Trump transition’s “beachhead teams,” which essentially took control of federal departments and other agencies without needing Senate approval, bristled with lobbyists, some working inside the same agencies regulating their former industries. Cartoonishly self-interested cabinet members and senior advisers were drawn from the corporate elite Mr. Trump derided on the campaign trail. “I’m going to fight for every person in this country who believes government should serve the people — not the donors and special interests,” Mr. Trump promised. Not so much.

Instead, Mr. Trump got to work serving those special interests, signing executive orders gutting environmental, health and safety rules, sometimes as his industry masters looked on. Interested more in media attention than in governing, Mr. Trump stages televised meetings where he glowers “Apprentice”-style and demands that Congress send him legislation to sign. What a perfect scenario for big Republican donors. They help write perks for their industries into the bill, then congressional leaders push it under the pen of a president who signs pretty much anything. Take the December tax “reform.” It shortchanges low-income people, working families and the elderly to grant a big payday to multinational corporations, hedge funds, and the Trump family businesses. Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to read legislation or much else, but there’s no doubt that last part caught his eye.

Mr. Trump has become such a Washington creature that he’s rooting for a return to earmarks, that opaque process in which legislators direct federal spending to their home districts and pet projects, like Republican Representative Don Young of Alaska’s failed “bridge to nowhere,” a plan to waste more than $300 million on a mammoth bridge to an Alaska island of 50 inhabitants.

Contrary to his promises but not surprisingly, Mr. Trump spent his first year cementing the inequity he decried at his swearing-in. In the first year of the Trump administration, his words from a year ago have echoed: “Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth.”

Online: http://nyti.ms/2n4vOFm

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Newsday on operating issues with the Long Island Rail Road.

Jan. 20

This has been the January of hell.

For Long Island Rail Road riders, every day of 2018 has brought with it new troubles. First, it was the cold and snow. Then Amtrak began track repairs at Penn Station, causing diverted and canceled trains. Then came shortened trains when cars needed maintenance, astonishingly because of residue from fallen leaves. The result: crowded trains.

And that wasn’t all. Riders on the nation’s busiest commuter railroad experienced a seemingly endless series of delays, cancellations and suspensions. There was trouble with equipment, switches and signals, track conditions and broken rails. Communication about it all was neither sufficient nor timely.

The railroad’s performance has been abysmal. The accompanying silence from top LIRR personnel has been deafening. Indeed, it seems a complacency descended over the LIRR after the successful handling of the so-called summer of hell — and stayed with the railroad since. It seems only the riders are outraged.

Even though railroad officials knew leaves would fall, they didn’t adequately prepare for the resulting slime on the rails that makes wheels slip, slide and sometimes flatten, requiring repairs or replacement. Even though they knew Amtrak would start new work, they didn’t do enough to make sure regular operations would go smoothly. Even though the railroad has well-paid workers who should be able to handle routine maintenance and track work, somehow, it couldn’t. And even though the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has the means to communicate within its bureaucracy and with commuters, the agency seemed unable to do either.

After two weeks of commuters issuing a daily primal scream across social media, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota emerged to say something had to change.

He’s right. And the response must be immediate and significant.

The trouble starts at the top. So, a new LIRR must start with new leadership. The MTA is considering replacing top LIRR executives. It’s inevitable. President Patrick Nowakowski was hired in 2014 because he is a civil engineer bringing technical expertise. In reality, he was brought in to replace then-head Helena Williams, who was too outspoken in her advocacy for Long Island’s interests for former MTA head Thomas Prendergast. But Nowakowski has not delivered, or was never allowed to deliver, the needed leadership inside and outside the LIRR. Nowakowski knows about the trouble leaves cause for trains, for instance, but somehow, the problem persisted. Without a strong leader, bureaucrats and union leaders default to their crippled old culture, one defined by inertia. Lhota’s choice should be someone with the ability, as well as the support, to take the megaphone and act like the president.

But a leadership change must be only the first step. Lhota must treat the LIRR with the same urgency with which he tackled the subways. Last summer, Lhota announced a subway action plan to increase reliability and improve the system. The MTA developed a website, a timeline and a clear, written plan. And Lhota has stayed on top of the situation, day in and day out.

Treat the LIRR similarly. Make a grand announcement of an action plan, give it a moniker, and provide a blueprint to address the challenges. Show who’s accountable, and allow that person to be an outspoken advocate. Develop a full online dashboard so riders can track performance, train by train, car by car, station by station. Prepare for how to handle emergencies.

Communication remains an enormous hurdle. It shouldn’t be. When LIRR personnel plan a service change or know there’s a problem, commuters should know, too — right away. When a plan is made at night to change service in the morning, don’t wait until 6 a.m. to tell the world what you knew at 11 p.m. When there’s a problem on one part of a line, workers at another station shouldn’t say a train is on time. Commuters shouldn’t be getting real-time information from other commuters, while receiving outdated, incorrect information from railroad workers, the MTA website or social media. Recognize that executives in Manhattan and Jamaica don’t know what’s happening in Ronkonkoma.

Beyond its day-to-day problems, the LIRR isn’t handling bigger responsibilities well, either. Take positive train control, safety technology that commuter railroads are supposed to install by the end of 2018. As of the third quarter of 2017, the LIRR had installed just 57 percent of its hardware and trained fewer than half of its employees.

Change is possible. It requires new leadership, accountability, training, better metrics, clear standards and massive adjustments to maintenance and communication. It will take an urgency not seen since the summer, one that cannot be short-lived.

Just last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo praised the LIRR’s ahead-of-schedule work on the double track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma and said nearly two dozen station upgrades would be finished this year, too. Give credit where it’s due, but a pretty-looking station isn’t going to help anyone who’s waiting for a train that never comes, or has to jam onto a train with too-few cars.

Get the trains back on track. And keep them there.

Online: https://nwsdy.li/2DxnuoA

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The (Plattsburgh) Press-Republican on legalizing recreational marijuana in New York.

Jan. 21

You can put your money on New York legalizing recreational marijuana at some point. That’s because, in the end, money is what it’s all about.

The Empire State allows marijuana use for specific medical conditions, but its possession and use simply as an intoxicant is still illegal.

Laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use have been approved by the District of Columbia and eight states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Vermont just moved on legalization — the first state to do so by a vote of the legislature. Starting July 1, the Green State will allow adults older than 21 to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and have two mature plants or four immature plants in each dwelling unit.

New Jersey may allow its use, as well.

So New York is practically surrounded by states that have approved recreational use.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in releasing his state budget last week, said he will appoint a task force to review the practicality of legalizing marijuana. Budget Director Robert Muhica said the idea is not to raise revenue but to guide policymakers on how to respond to nearby states legalizing weed.

But dollar signs loom large in the equation. Last year, Colorado surpassed half a billion dollars in taxes and fees since it legalized recreational marijuana use.

Think how tempting that will be to New York, which faces a potential $4 billion deficit.

The pros and cons will be debated by state lawmakers, advocacy groups and law-enforcement agencies.

On the positive side is not only the potential revenue but also the idea that decriminalization could take marijuana out of the hands of illegal drug dealers and put it under government regulation, where its quality and sale can be ensured and monitored.

The drawbacks focus mostly on safety issues. As with alcohol, you can say people shouldn’t use it and drive, but enforcing that is another matter. Marijuana use is not as easy to detect in a driver as alcohol.

In Colorado — which now has more marijuana dispensaries than there are Starbucks and McDonalds combined, according to Business Insider magazine — National Transportation Safety Board statistics show the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana has doubled since 2013, although state officials say the fatalities can’t be definitively linked to its legalization in 2012.

New York lawmakers have not, in the past, shown any hurry to move toward legalization. Whether that will change with the task-force findings has yet to be seen.

But that doesn’t mean this state won’t have to deal with legal weed. Police and district attorneys in the North Country have already expressed concern that New York residents will buy legal pot in Vermont or Massachusetts and think they can bring it home. They emphasize that it’s still illegal to possess and use in this state.

It will be interesting to see how mounting pressure from legalization in neighboring states and the huge revenue lure match up against safety, crime and addiction concerns.

Online: http://bit.ly/2rtu4eg

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