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Editorials from around New York

December 19, 2018

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

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The Post-Standard on the New York State Compensation Committee.

How do New York lawmakers give themselves a raise without actually voting to give themselves a raise? They create an independent commission to do it for them.

On Thursday, the New York State Compensation Committee came through.

The committee recommended raising the annual salary for members of the Senate and Assembly from $79,500 to $130,000 - a 63 percent boost -- in three phases over the next three years. The first bump, a 38 percent increase to $110,000, would come Jan. 1.

On the plus side, the committee of two current and two former state and New York City comptrollers attached some important strings to lawmakers’ first pay raise in 20 years. On the minus side, it missed an opportunity to link the raise to broader ethics reform in Albany.

The committee recommended capping lawmakers’ outside income at 15 percent of their salary, starting in 2020, similar to a rule that applies to members of Congress. Outside income was a corrupting influence that led to the downfall of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

It also said lawmakers should stop receiving stipends for taking on extra duties on committees - known as “lulus” - except for a few top leadership positions. That removes a tool the leaders used to punish or reward rank-and-file legislators. Of the 213 members of the New York Legislature, 160 receive stipends, according to data assembled by the committee. Pennsylvania, with 253 legislators, awards stipends to just 15.

Those two changes should help focus lawmakers on doing the people’s business, not their own.

The committee also recommended raising the governor’s pay from $179,000 to $250,000 in 2021. The lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general would get a raise from $151,500 to $220,000 by 2021. Commissioners appointed to lead state agencies also would get a pay boost.

Altogether, the raises would make New York state government the highest paid in the nation. While it was probably necessary to grant a legislative pay raise after 20 years without one, the committee missed an opportunity to demand serious ethics reforms in exchange. Voters and taxpayers will not be satisfied with that.

Lawmakers’ first order of business in January should be to enact a comprehensive slate of reforms that would attack corruption in both the legislative and executive branches:

(asterisk) Create a “database of deals” to show who’s giving and getting taxpayer money for economic development.

(asterisk) Close the “LLC loophole” to prevent campaign contributors from evading the statutory limits.

(asterisk) Enact public campaign financing to magnify the influence of small-dollar donors.

(asterisk) Ban campaign contributions from entities seeking to do business with the state.

(asterisk) Create a truly independent ethics watchdog.

(asterisk) Restore the comptroller’s authority over SUNY contracts.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins announced her support for a pay raise and a ban on outside income. She signaled her intention to “advance other crucial reforms” in the new legislative session. The Senate Democratic Conference - including new member Rachel May, of Syracuse - must hold her to it.

The compensation committee’s final report to the Legislature is due Monday. Its pay raise recommendations become law automatically if lawmakers do not convene by Jan. 1 to overrule them. That scenario seems unlikely. How could they complain about getting a huge raise, on top of the generous pension and health benefits they also receive? Plus, legislators worked very hard to keep their fingerprints off a pay raise.

Emblematic of that, only four of Central New York’s nine legislators took a firm position for or against a raise, according to reporting by Mark Weiner. The others wouldn’t be pinned down or wouldn’t respond to the question -- not exactly a profile in political courage.

Now that it appears legislators are getting their pay raise, they must earn it by passing meaningful ethics reforms.

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

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The Post-Star on the power of the United States Senate.

The alarm bells have been sounding all week in the United States Senate, and we all need to be paying attention.

This isn’t about the accusations of presidential misdeeds, ongoing corruption and overwhelming partisanship, but about a political body once considered the “greatest deliberative body in the world” that is now barely functioning.

The reality is that it has been diminished significantly over the past 10 years with few of us even noticing.

Earlier this week, 44 former U.S. Senators — 32 Democrats, 10 Republicans, two independents — penned an opinion piece aimed at members of the current Senate, warning that we are entering into a “dangerous period.”

These are statesman from another era who already had their careers. They are removed from the current political bickering and partisanship, and no longer have anything to gain.

Their words to the current Senate were unprecedented.

“During our service in the Senate, at times we were allies and at other times opponents, but never enemies,” they wrote in the essay published in The Washington Post. “We all took an oath swearing allegiance to the Constitution. Whatever united or divided us, we did not veer from our unwavering and shared commitment to placing our country, democracy and national interest above all else.

“At other critical moments in our history, when constitutional crises have threatened our foundations, it has been the Senate that has stood in defense of our democracy. Today is once again such a time.”

But is the Senate up to the task?

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the longest serving GOP senator who is retiring at the end of the year, sounded a similar alarm a day later.

“The last several years I have seen the abandonment of regular order. Gridlock is the new norm,” Hatch said. “All the evidence points to an unsettling truth: The Senate, as an institution, is in crisis. The committee process lies in shambles, regular order is a relic of the past, and compromise — once the guiding credo of this great institution — is now synonymous with surrender.”

Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who both lost their re-election bids, sounded similar warnings.

“We need more members who are not scared to stand up when someone in their party uses fear and lies to win support,” Heitkamp said.

But the Senate did not suddenly fall into a malaise. This has been happening gradually over the past 10 years.

According to an in-depth analysis by The Washington Post and ProPublica published just before the election this year, the legislative branch has been weakened by restrictions on debate with party leaders dictating the agenda.

“During that time, as the political center has largely evaporated, party leaders have adhered to the demands of their bases, while rules and traditions that long encouraged deliberative deal-making have given way to partisan gridlock,” the analysis concluded.

We often wonder what our congressional leaders do all day. It turns out not much in the way of actually crafting laws.

Here are some of the Post/ProPublica’s findings:

Junior senators have fewer opportunities to wade into the issues of the day, largely because Senate leaders limit the number of votes on amendments to proposed legislation. The number of such votes has shrunk to an all-time low under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — less than 20 percent of all roll calls, down from 67 percent 12 years ago.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has logged an all-time high the past two years for the number of “closed rules,” where leaders eliminate any chance for rank-and-file amendments. Ryan closes off discussion four times more often than former speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) did 20 years ago.

Committees meet to consider legislation less than ever. As recently as 2005 and 2006, House committees met 449 times to consider actual legislation and Senate committees met 252 times. By 2015 and 2016, those numbers plummeted to 254 and 69 times, respectively.

The result has been less legislation and more and more authority delegated to the executive branch. That’s true of both parties, and the importance of individual legislators has been diminished.

Forty-four former senators announced to the world we are entering a “dangerous period.”

We concur and leave you with these final chilling words from Sen. Hatch:

“It ripples far beyond these walls, to every state, to every town and to every street corner in America. The Senate sets the tone of American civic life,” Hatch said. “Unless we take meaningful steps to restore civility, the culture wars will push us ever closer toward national divorce.”

We hope our current senators are listening.

Online: https://bit.ly/2LsD8q6

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Newsday on looming investigations into President Donald Trump and his family.

New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood nailed it Tuesday when she explained the significance of President Donald Trump agreeing to dissolve his namesake foundation amid a state probe into allegations that he used the charity for his own benefit.

“This is an important victory for the rule of law, making clear that there is one set of rules for everyone,” Underwood said.

Other institutions also are pushing back on Trump’s actions and those of his associates. Underwood’s words came the same day a Washington judge blasted former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI and one day after former FBI Director James Comey criticized Republicans for not condemning Trump’s attacks on the rule of law. Nearly every Trump organization — his business, foundation, campaign and inaugural committee — is under investigation.

Trump had no choice but to succumb to Underwood, who said her probe uncovered “a shocking pattern of illegality involving the Trump Foundation,” including coordinating unlawfully with his campaign and repeated instances of willful self-dealing.

Underwood said the findings, which followed groundbreaking reporting in The Washington Post, make clear that the foundation served “as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.” Its funds, most of which were donated by others, were used to:

Pay legal settlements for Trump’s businesses — like a $158,000 payment to a man who made a hole-in-one worth $1 million at a charity tournament at a Trump National Golf Club.

Purchase art — like a $10,000 portrait of Trump that later was hung at one of his golf clubs.

Make political donations — like a $25,000 payment to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s campaign.

Help Trump’s 2016 campaign — like when $2 million raised for veterans at an Iowa fundraiser was put in his foundation with then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski deciding how and to whom the money would be disbursed.

Underwood is right to insist that the remaining $1.75 million in the foundation’s coffers be distributed to legitimate charities subject to approval by her office and a state judge.

Trump has called the investigation “ridiculous” and a partisan attack. But it’s no surprise he caved. It’s what he does — deny wrongdoing, attack the accuser, promise not to settle, then do just that as inconvenient facts mount. See, for example, lawsuits filed by New York’s attorney general and others against Trump University, a case Trump derided and then settled for $25 million.

The unexpected White House announcement Tuesday of a needed ban on rifle bump stocks won’t steal the headlines from Underwood’s lawsuit or make it go away. Nor will dissolving the foundation. That’s significant. The violations of state and federal law Underwood has described are serious and the perpetrators identified in her lawsuit — Trump and children Don Jr., Eric and Ivanka as foundation directors — must be held accountable as the legal action continues.

That’s the only way Trump and his family will understand that the rule of law applies to them as well.

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

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The New York Times on Russia’s limitations on rap.

It was somewhat curious when Vladimir Putin came out, sort of, in defense of Russian rappers whose concerts have been canceled in cities across Russia in recent weeks. Curious, because Mr. Putin’s image in the West is not of someone who would be sympathetic to angry, obscene, uncensored rap viewed by tens of millions of youths and despised by parents and local authorities.

Yet when the canceled concerts were raised at a meeting of his Council for Culture and Art, Mr. Putin — who has himself borrowed on occasion from Russia’s rich lexicon of deletable expletives — argued that obscenity was part of the culture, and that, in any case, it would be counterproductive to try to block a form of poetry and music that was all over the internet.

The “sort of” interjected above was from the president’s argument that of the three pillars on which, he said, rap rests — sex, drugs and protest — drugs are indeed worrisome. “That is a path to degrading the nation,” he declared. “If it is impossible to stop, then we need to lead, and in an appropriate way, direct.”

Mr. Putin did not elaborate on what forms that might take, which is unfortunate, since it would be interesting to hear some authoritarian rap cooked up in the Kremlin. Actually, there is existing material he could use — one macho hit by the rapper Slava KPSS (“Glory to the CPSU,” the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) has as its refrain “Vladimir Putin.”

Russian rap is enormously popular with the new generation of Russians. In August 2017, Slava KPSS (Vyacheslav Mashnov) beat the veteran rapper Oxxxymiron (Miron Fyodorov) in a keenly awaited rap battle that got more than 10 million views on YouTube within 24 hours. Last month, the arrest of the rapper Husky in the southern city of Krasnodar prompted mass protests. After his concert was canceled because the authorities deemed his lyrics offensive, he climbed onto the roof of a car and tried to do his show there. He was arrested and sentenced to 12 days for hooliganism, but the public outcry was so big that he was quickly released.

These are not forces the Kremlin wants to take on, at least so long as Mr. Putin himself remains relatively unscathed by the rappers, even if they are anti-establishment and raw. His response to the council smacked more of letting a sleeping dog lie than any appreciation of hip-hop.

Though older generations everywhere get worked up over radical developments in art, music and cultural forms — recall how American parents reacted to Elvis Presley, the Beatles, hippies and beat poets — the arts have a powerful history as a political force in Russia and the Soviet Union.

Artists, writers and musicians outside the official culture canons were a powerful opposition to the Communist Party, and the less official the more potent. Mr. Putin has to be aware of the power, for example, of the folk singer Vladimir Vysotsky, who became an underground icon in the 1970s with his songs about the hard plight of ordinary people. And Leningrad, where he grew up, was home to some of the most popular Russian rock bands that arose in the wake of Beatlemania.

But it is also a venerable Russian tradition for the state to try to shape and control culture. Lenin taught that every artist has the right to be free, followed by the usual Soviet qualification. “However, we are Communists and we must not stand with folded hands and let chaos develop as it pleases,” Lenin wrote. “We must systemically guide this process and form its result.”

Mr. Putin’s “lead and direct” suggested that authoritarian delusions die hard. It didn’t work then, and it would be far more futile in the age of the internet and social media. And as Russia’s rappers have argued, the country’s grave drug problem is not their doing, and censoring it out of their work won’t solve it.

Online: https://nyti.ms/2UWHhHn

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The Auburn Citizen on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s legislative power.

When the state Legislature goes to work in Albany in January, we hope that lawmakers will keep in mind that their actions will affect all New Yorkers, not just those who support the party with the most clout.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced a long list of things he’d like to see happen during his third term. And with the Assembly and Senate being controlled by Democrats, there is a good chance that Cuomo will get his way more often than not. But the governor’s sweeping, progressive agenda will not find universal acceptance among New Yorkers, so the Legislature will need to remain the check on the executive branch.

One way to look at November’s election results is to note that Cuomo got 1.26 million more votes than Republican challenger Marc Molinaro. But another way to look at it is that Molinaro won 47 of the state’s 62 counties. There are a lot of people who support Cuomo and his policies, and there are a lot of people who don’t.

So in the same way that Democrats have implored GOP members of Congress to act as a check on the policies of Donald Trump, Democrats in New York will be failing in their responsibilities if everything on Cuomo’s wish list receives their unquestioning support.

The Legislature has an important job to do. And part of that job needs to entail the Democratic majority in the Assembly and Senate working in tandem with their Republican colleagues, so that the varied concerns of all New Yorkers are taken into consideration before contentious legislation comes up for a vote.

Online: https://bit.ly/2rN6nuO

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