New York State update

As you may recall, I post occasionally on New York State government and politics, especially as it relates to the pandemic. This has necessarily led to some reference to the investigations into Governor Cuomo. Many New York politicians of both parties have called on the governor to resign, claiming he can’t govern effectively under a cloud of suspicion, while the majority of New York voters say in public opinion polls that he should remain in office while the investigations continue.

Given Governor Cuomo’s high profile nationally, both as a leader on pandemic policy and as the chair of the National Governors Association, there has been national coverage on the allegations and investigations, although this waxes and wanes depending on what else is happening. When there is a lot of coverage of a mass shooting or trial or a major piece of federal legislation, we don’t hear about Governor Cuomo for a few days until things calm down and we are back to the question of how can he govern under these circumstances.

Meanwhile, he has been governing. There have been numerous speaking engagements at vaccination sites, especially those in high-need neighborhoods, in the continuing efforts to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible without leaving any demographic groups behind. This week, there was the announcement of a monument dedicated to essential workers who continued to serve the public while most people were encouraged to stay safe at home. Updates to COVID policies have been rolled out as data and conditions warrant.

Most significantly from the political standpoint, our state budget has passed. Unlike most states, the New York fiscal year starts April first, so the budget was a few days late being passed. While the governor’s office is heavily involved in budget process, the delay was due more to timing of the American Rescue Plan passage in Washington, which established how much federal aid was coming to New York, and to COVID, which complicated the negotiation process which usually happens in person. Unfortunately, the Speaker of the Assembly, our lower house in the legislature, tested positive for COVID during the negotiation process but continued to serve from home.

So, our state government continues to function, which is good as we are facing yet another critical time period with the pandemic. While the overall infection rate is still quite low, cases on average are rising with sizeable presence of the B.1.1.7 variant and another variant that first appeared in New York City. We are giving out the vaccine as quickly as we can get doses. Thirty-five percent of NYers have received at least one vaccine dose, with twenty-two percent fully vaccinated. That still leaves millions of people, especially younger adults, teens, and children vulnerable to infection, so we have to continue to be cautious with masking, distancing, and gathering size and conditions.

The newly passed state budget has money to help with public health efforts, in addition to rent assistance, increase education aid, and small business programs to help everyone in our pandemic recovery. It will take time and effort, but we will build back better, a phrase that Governor Cuomo was using before President Biden and that others in the environmental and social justice movement were using before the governor took it up.

Governor Cuomo, continued

I wrote here about the developing situation with Andrew Cuomo, our governor here in New York State, where I live in Broome County, far from both New York City and Albany, our capital. In the week and half since I wrote, things have become increasingly contentious, both on the reporting of nursing home death issue and the sexual harassment/bullying issue.

The nursing home death reporting issue parameters are largely unchanged. The administration reported deaths where they happened, whether in a hospital, nursing home, or elsewhere, such as a private residence. Some people wanted to know how many of the hospital deaths were people who had come to the hospital from nursing homes; they wanted the term “nursing home deaths” to refer to people who had likely contracted the virus in a nursing home, regardless of where they died. The newest wrinkle in this is that it appears some of the governor’s top aides edited a report over the summer in such a way as to not reveal how many of the hospital deaths were people who had come from nursing homes at a time when the governor was writing a book on his leadership during the pandemic.

In reaction to all this, the legislature has rescinded the broad authority to take executive action that it had granted to the governor last spring. This is their right to do, of course, but I would feel better if they committed to staying in session past June. Getting things through the New York State legislature is often a long, drawn-out affair and there are times with the pandemic when things change quickly and new policies need to be enacted as expeditiously as possible. The governor can continue to extend existing executive orders.

I am grateful that the existing orders can still stand because, by and large, they have worked well in keeping as many New Yorkers safe as practicable. While the initial outbreak in New York was horrible, the policies the governor enacted in conjunction with public health, medical, scientific, and legal experts were adopted by the public and brought the infection rate down well below the national average. Although there have been spikes, for example over the holiday season when many people travelled and gathered in groups against the state and public health recommendations, New York has not suffered the fate of other states that didn’t implement mask mandates, distancing requirements, gathering size restrictions, etc. or that lifted restrictions too quickly. By being thoughtful and incremental in re-opening and by gathering, analyzing, and adjusting in response to data, most New York businesses and schools are open and are expanding hours as our vaccination rates go up and infection rates go down. New York needs to continue on its science- and data-driven path to keep from suffering the spikes we have seen in other states that were less thoughtful in their plans. Governor Cuomo made mistakes during the past year, but he took responsibility for them and changed policies to correct problems. His leadership mattered and I will always be grateful for what he did because he helped as many New Yorkers as he could to survive a devastating year.

I think New Yorkers need to remember that Governor Cuomo is also a regional and national leader. He spearheaded an effort in the Northeast for states to cooperate on policies and on procuring supplies after the prior federal administration decided not to have a national strategy. In 2020, he was vice chair of the National Governors Association; in 2021, he is chair. This gives him even more opportunity to advocate for policies to help everyone in the US in these trying times. In a few days, it is likely that federal aid to state and local governments will finally be enacted as part of the American Rescue Plan, an initiative that Cuomo has been championing since last spring.

I admit that I am somewhat perplexed that people are surprised by Cuomo’s personal behavior. Any casual observer of New York politics or regular viewer of his pandemic press conferences has seen him being combative and displaying his sense of humor, which ranges from dry to caustic. His sense of what is appropriate to say in public is – um, let’s say – less circumspect than one would expect. He seems especially unable to understand younger people’s sensibilities. For example, when his three 20-something-year-old daughters and one of their boyfriends were living with him last year, he said any number of embarrassing things regarding them. I don’t think he really understands current mores on what is appropriate to say or do in work settings, which is why I think his apologies following the young women’s stories of feeling uncomfortable with his behavior are credible. He is as clueless as Joe Biden who faced criticism for touching and whispering in the ears of women while on the campaign trail or George W. Bush who tried to give German Chancellor Angela Merkel a shoulder rub.

I think that the independent investigation that is ongoing is very important to gather evidence on stories of sexual harassment and hostile work environment. If there is evidence of impeachable acts by the governor, then that should take place. Unlike a corporate executive, the governor is elected by voters, not a board of directors, so there is no relevant authority to fire him or force him to resign. While some state legislators have gone on record calling on Gov. Cuomo to resign because these investigations are a distraction, the governor is carrying on with his duties, adjusting the pandemic policies as conditions warrant and getting ready for budget negotiations with the legislature. Unlike most states, New York’s budget is supposed to be passed by April first, so, once the American Rescue Plan is signed into law, there will be a short window in which to finalize and pass the state budget. Although Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul has been involved in the pandemic response, especially in her home region of western New York, it would be much more disruptive to the state budget process to have Gov. Cuomo step down at this time.

While I admire Governor Cuomo’s leadership through the pandemic, I do not admire him as a person. I find him to be arrogant, overbearing, and a boor. Unlike his father, the late Governor Mario Cuomo, who was principled and articulate, Andrew has always been a bare-knuckles brawler and bully as a politician. Despite being a Democrat, during his early years as governor, he governed more like what used to be a moderate Republican. He and then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were willing to inflict the health and environmental consequences of fracking on our area, as long as the watershed for New York City water supplies was kept free of drilling. (The eventual fracking ban in New York was thanks to Dr. Zucker of the Health Department and later passed into law once the Democrats had the majority of both houses of the legislature.) It wasn’t until it was clear that the national electorate was becoming more progressive and the Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature that Governor Cuomo started to govern and talk like a Democrat.

Because past Republican candidates for governor have been unqualified and put forward ideas which I oppose and because I didn’t like or trust Andrew Cuomo, I have been voting for the Green Party candidate for governor, whose platform aligns most closely with my own. Granted, in heavily Democratic New York, it was unlikely that my choice to vote third-party would have any real bearing on the outcome of the elections, but I wanted to make clear here that my admiration of the governor’s handling of the pandemic was not a reflection of my being a fan of him personally. Likewise, my observations of his personality and behavior are not coming from a place of partisanship.

At this point, my main motivation is pragmatism. The next couple of months are critical in the course of the pandemic. As national health experts and the Biden administration are pointing out repeatedly, we need to be cautious in ending pandemic protection measures until we have a much higher level of protection among the general public. Texas and a number of states have, as they did in previous waves, lifted restrictions too soon. Governor Cuomo will continue to follow the science to keep us from having a large spike in cases. He is also setting up vaccine sites among underserved populations, trying to address the health and social inequities that caused people of color and those with low income to be hit hardest by the pandemic. I don’t think the New York State legislature is nimble enough to address these issues and I’m not sure if Cuomo’s prior executive actions would stay in force if Lt. Gov. Hochul were to become governor.

Also, the budget negotiations will be very difficult. In New York, for a number of complicated historical reasons, the budget gets hammered out largely by the governor, the speaker of the Assembly, and the majority leader of the Senate. The budget also includes a lot of non-budgetary legislation; one hot topic in the last several fiscal years has been the legalization of recreational marijuana. I don’t think it would be fair to expect Hochul to be thrown into the midst of that process with the deadline coming up in three weeks.

I have often written about how the stress of our governmental function adds to my personal stressors. After the November election, I had hoped that, by this time, the governmental stress might have eased more than it actually has. With the aftermath of the insurrection and the state of the Republican party on the national level and the upheavals with Governor Cuomo, my hopes were not fully realized.

But, hey, what’s life without stress?

I’ll never know.

Plan C? Seriously?

Last night, more Republican Senators made it clear that they would not vote to open debate on the latest version of the health care bill.

Within a couple of hours, Majority Leader McConnell announced that he would bring up a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but delay its taking effect for two years, during which time the Congress would need to pass a replacement plan for the president to sign.

This is a bad idea.

The last time the Congress tried something similar was during a budget impasse. They put in place a sequester program that capped budget allocations for both discretionary and defense spending. The theory was that both parties would want to cooperate so they could allocate more money for their budget priorities. The reality was that no agreement was reached and there were some years that Congress didn’t even pass its appropriations bills, but used a series of continuing resolutions to fund the various departments.

This does not give high confidence that Congress would pass a replacement bill before the deadline.

Insurance companies and health care facilities are upset because this would create so much uncertainty for them.

The general public is concerned because the repeal is expected to immediately raise premiums and reduce the number of people who can afford insurance.

There are senators across the political spectrum calling for a new process to begin, involving input from all senators, along with public health professionals and the public, to craft health care reforms that will increase the availability and affordability of health care.

I hope that Senator McConnell will choose to engage in this more cooperative process which is in line with the way the Senate has traditionally operated.

Senate shenanigans

While we have been dealing with our own family health issues, I have also been keeping my eye on the sorry spectacle unfolding in Congress.

Last week, the Senate Republicans made public their version of a health care bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. It was drafted by a small group of the most conservative male red-state Republican Senators, without hearings, public debate, the input of health care experts, and contributions of the other 87 Senators, who are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

The bill would cut Medicaid over time, raise deductibles, decrease the comprehensive nature of insurance, increase premiums, make insurance unaffordable for millions of people, and give massive tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans.  It faces major opposition from doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurers, public health organizations and advocates, and the general public.

Still, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans a vote on the bill this week. It seems that the main reason is to have the first major piece of legislation enacted in the new administration, not to actually improve medical care access or affordability for the American people.

One of the things that has been most annoying is the Republican members of Congress and some pundits and reporters who equate the current process on this healthcare bill to the process that produced the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act was passed after almost a year of public discussion, numerous Congressional committee hearings, expert testimony, amendments from both Democrats and Republicans, Congressional debate, floor votes, the creation of a bill to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions, and a final round of voting with met the 60 vote total in the Senate to avoid filibuster.

Contrast this with the current Republican bill, which was written behind closed doors by a small group of Republicans. There are no hearings, plans for only limited debate, and the invocation of budget bill rules which make it impossible to filibuster.

There are two Republican Senators who are opposing the bill because it will hurt their constituents and other Americans. Four other Senators oppose it as not conservative enough. After the Congressional Budget Office analysis came out yesterday, with projections of 22 million people losing coverage and costs skyrocketing especially for those with low incomes and those who are in their late fifties to mid-sixties. there is hope that Senator McConnell will pull the bill or, at least, slow down the process to allow for more debate and revision and to put the bill under regular order instead of trying to reform healthcare through the budget process.

Many of us are inundating our Senators with pleas to protect and improve our healthcare. We’ll see if they listen.

an open letter to Speaker Boehner

Dear Speaker Boehner,

Thank you for your service in what has become an increasingly untenable job.

I implore you in your remaining days as speaker to lead in a new direction. Please search through the Republicans in the House and identify those who want to govern, rather than obstruct.

Speak to House minority leader Pelosi about forming a governing coalition so that the legislation that the country and all of its people need passes, among these being a clean debt ceiling raise and a just budget, which puts human needs first.

Nancy Pelosi, as a former speaker, would be the natural choice to lead this new coalition, although another person outside of Congress would be a possibility.

The country cannot afford to be made ungovernable by a few dozen representatives who refuse to do their job, which is to govern for the good of the country, not just their district, not just the people within their district who voted for them.

Pope Francis eloquently called on the Congress to work together, in keeping with the ideals of our Constitution.

I know you believe these ideals and ask you to put the common good above partisan politics to craft a solution that will move the Congress and the nation out of its current dysfunction.

Sincerely,
Joanne Corey

school district election day

Today, across New York State, voters are heading to the polls for school district elections. For some reason I have never been able to ascertain, school budgets are the only ones that are voted on directly in New York. Unfortunately, sometimes this means that school budgets fail as a general statement against taxes, forcing second votes on revised budgets or austerity budgets that cut all extracurriculars and all-but-bare-bones transportation.

This year, there has been an unusual amount of advertising to pass the school budget. I think it is to convince people not to use the budget vote as an opportunity to take out their frustration with the contentious rollout of common core standards in the state. For the record, I no longer have school-aged children in my household, so I haven’t experienced common core directly in my family. I do support the concept of common core, to cover fewer topics in a school year, but in greater depth, in contrast to the current trend toward a mile wide but an inch deep approach. New York State’s curriculum has long been infected with survey-itis. For example, in the social studies curriculum, a survey of US history is taught in fifth grade, again as a two-year sequence in seventh and eighth grades, and then again as a one year Regents course in high school, locally usually taken in 11th grade. Because so much time is devoted to rushing through large amounts of material, there isn’t time to engage in in-depth analysis of any time period or theme. When I was in high school in Massachusetts several decades ago, we had options for semester-long US history courses in Civil War and Reconstruction, Minorities in America, Presidential Greatness, or several other options. Already expected to have an overview of our country’s history, we were able to develop deeper understanding of the hows and whys of history, which also helped to inform our lives as active citizens.

The upset over the implementation of common core seems to mirror two statewide changes that happened during my children’s school careers, the ending of local high school diplomas in favor of more rigorous Regents diplomas for all graduates and reform of state-wide tests in fourth and eighth grades and high school Regent exams. It also mirrors the transition to a new high school honors program on the local level. The root of the problems with all these changes was not that the final goals, but the transition itself, in which students are tested in the new framework without the benefit of the years of preparatory study that is in place when the transition is complete, resulting in lower test scores as these students catch up to the new standards. It seems that the same mechanism is happening with the transition to common core.

The other oddity of this election locally is that we have eight candidates running for four board of education seats. Given that candidates often run unopposed or with only one more candidate than seats available, this year is a hot contest. Even more unusual, there is a group of four being presented almost as a slate, advertised together in mailings, on yard signs, and in hand-delivered fliers, and endorsed by the local teachers’ union.

Voting is from 12-9 PM today at the local elementary schools. It will be interesting to see how this all turns out.

UPDATE:  The budget passed by a wide margin. All four of the candidates endorsed by the teachers’ union were elected; the two incumbents who were running for re-election got only 50-60% of the voting totals of the successful candidates.