ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Newsday on political corruption in New York state and doubts lawmakers will take meaningful action.
This is how entrenched and notorious the culture of "pay to play" has become in New York politics.
Preet Bharara, the latest in crusading U.S. attorneys, recounted a meeting he had with George Venizelos, the FBI's top official in the region, to discuss expanding their already determined and accomplished efforts to put dishonest officials behind bars.
"And I can tell you that he shares my view that corruption should be the absolute top priority for federal law enforcement in New York," he told the Citizens Crime Commission last week.
Bharara certainly has the premier insider's view. He brought the latest jaw-dropping charges of elected officials gone wrong: State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) allegedly trying to bribe his way onto the Republican ballot for New York City mayor, followed by the case of the Bronx lawmaker who, to pay for his own alleged sins of voter fraud, wore a wire for three years while serving in the State Assembly. And the Manhattan-based federal prosecutor's office has already convicted two other members of the Assembly and five state senators in recent years.
Just how deep is this cesspool? Well, the public thinks the legislature can drown in it. A Siena College poll after Smith's arrest earlier this month found that 81 percent of voters surveyed expect more arrests of Albany legislators on corruption charges.
The federal effort is aggressive and necessary. But handcuffs are really the end of the line. The rogues gallery of legislators convicted or with charges pending — 27 in the last decade — is only a reminder that reform is urgently needed and must be comprehensive. In comparison, in two other large states, only one California legislator and one in Michigan faced criminal charges in the same period, and neither was related to the official's elective office.
The goals of reform are clear:
— Attract better public servants by making it easier to get on the ballot.
— Close campaign funding loopholes.
— Enact stronger laws to curb the temptation and punish those who succumb.
— Expand the new ethics law requirements on the disclosure of outside income so law enforcement can better track who is paying whom for influence.
Albany is flooded with ideas on how to make legislators more honest. But it isn't likely that substantial change will come from those who benefit greatly from the status quo.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed tougher criminal laws and ways to provide easier access to the ballot by loosening the grip of party bosses. It's a solid start, but banning cross endorsements is needed as well. Third parties should compete based on the vibrancy of their ideas, but often exist to shake down Republican and Democratic winners they support for the spoils of patronage. If the minor parties can't get the minimum requirement of 50,000 votes in statewide elections because of the quality of their candidates, they should lose the automatic right to a line on the ballot.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has resurrected public campaign financing to solve the problem. Even if he could accomplish that, his bill leaves a big "soft money" loophole that keeps funds flowing from state parties to individual campaigns.
Silver does have one tempting reform that is red meat for a populace fed up with dishonest public servants: Take away the pensions of crooked elected officials. Doing that would require amending the state constitution, a difficult and expensive task, but it just might have some deterrent value.
The Independent Democratic Conference, which shares the majority gavel in the State Senate with Republicans (and a group that once had Malcolm Smith in its fold), wants to close the soft money loophole. It supports public campaign financing, as does Cuomo, but there are no specifics from anyone.
The Senate Republicans promise their own list of reforms, with a look toward accelerating the reporting of campaign donations. But there are no bold suggestions from them and there is uniform opposition to public financing. The GOP says the estimated $200 million cost is just as prone to corruption, and better spent on education and roads.
This comes as no surprise. The only reason the state GOP isn't on the border of extinction is the deals it made with the governor last year to get gerrymandered election districts. Republicans may be right in opposing taxpayer dollars for candidates, but giving challengers parity to these powerful entrenched GOP senators for campaign contributions wouldn't be their preference anyway.
The natural allies of reform, the earnest public interest groups, are overlooking the critical need for a comprehensive package of reforms, because they're preoccupied with public campaign financing. They point to New York City's public campaign financing law, one of the oldest in the nation, as a better way.
Right now, that's not very persuasive evidence. A motive for Malcolm Smith's desire to run what was a clearly losing campaign for mayor was likely easy access to all those matching dollars.
Meanwhile, the federal criminal trial of the campaign treasurer for city Comptroller John Liu brings new allegations daily of how illegal payments were made to skirt the law. And another Democrat, former Rep. Anthony Weiner, of Twitter fame, is considering a mayoral run because it would be his last chance to spend a war chest bulked up with public matching funds.
One group, the New Roosevelt Initiative, has a more holistic approach. It suggests giving legislators more money so they won't want to get any more, legally or otherwise. The group wants to raise the state legislators' base salary from $79,500 to $125,000 starting in 2015. In return, legislators would forgo "lulus," or leadership stipends, that boost almost every member's income. The plan would ban outside income from law firms, corporate boards and the financial services industry, for example, because of the potential for conflicts of interest. Needless to say, the initiative was dead on arrival in Albany.
There are plenty of ideas, but no real support, for a tighter set of laws that could stop the crime spree. These latest federal indictments will embarrass the legislature into passing some anti-corruption measure before the session ends in June.
But don't expect anything to change.
The Daily Gazette of Schenectady on the Buffalo school district, its teachers union and the new state evaluation system.
It's no surprise that teacher unions don't like the teacher evaluation system now in place in New York state. They resisted evaluations for the longest time, until the Legislature authorized them and Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to withhold aid from any district that didn't have a state-approved plan (and he has made good on his threat in the case of New York City.)
But the unions had a place at the table as these plans were negotiated district by district, and all agreed to comply. Except in Buffalo, that is, where the union got the district to agree to a secret side deal that said no teacher would be negatively affected by a bad rating.
The state Education Department and governor weren't pleased, and rightly so, and on Thursday declared the side agreement void. The school district then rescinded the side agreement, and now the union president is moving to rescind the union's agreement to teacher evaluations, an action that could result in the loss of millions of dollars in aid to the Buffalo district, one of the state's neediest. What a mess!
Teacher evaluations, like the evaluations so many workers in the public and private sector are subject to, have several purposes. One is to look at strengths and weaknesses, as measured by student test scores and classroom observations, with an eye toward helping all teachers — but especially weaker ones — improve. Another is to know whether, after extra training and other help, that weak teacher has improved. Finally, evaluations make it possible to get rid of those teachers who just can't make the grade, a process that now takes so long (about two years) and is so costly that districts seldom pursue it.
Firing bad teachers isn't the primary aim of evaluations, but it's a legitimate and sometimes necessary one. An excellent teacher makes a huge difference, as does a bad one. On average, the academic progress of students with excellent teachers is three times that of students with bad teacher: a year and a half in a year vs. half a year in a year. Inner-city schools like Buffalo, with large numbers of kids who struggle academically, need as many excellent teachers as they can get, and certainly can't afford to have incompetent ones.
It's not hard to tell which is which — and administrators know. But union protections in the past have made it too difficult to get rid of the incompetents. Now, according to state law, districts may charge an ineffective teacher with incompetence if there hasn't been improvement after the second year, and have an expedited termination process before the commissioner within 60 days.
That's may charge, not must. So districts still have plenty of discretion — probably too much. But even that isn't enough for the Buffalo union, which wants to turn the may into can't.
Teacher evaluations, like any significant change, are scary and can be expected to have some initial problems. But they should at least be given a chance. The state must insist that the Buffalo union comply with the law and live up to its word on evaluations.
The Oneonta Daily Star on a New York state senator advocating torture to interrogate terrorism suspects.
"Who wouldn't use torture on this punk to save more lives?"
So tweeted state Sen. Greg Ball, R-Carmel, last week after Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended.
Fortunately for us, the answer to Ball's question is, "The U.S. government."
So far, Tsarnaev has been cooperating with authorities. Unable to speak because of a gunshot wound to his throat, the 19-year-old has been nodding "yes" or "no" to questions asked by investigators about the motives and background for the April 22 bombing, which killed three people and wounded more than 200.
Ball wasn't the only one calling for extreme measures in dealing with Tsarnaev, who was charged Monday with one count of using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death and one count of malicious destruction of property by means of an explosive device resulting in death.
Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain argued that Tsarnaev should be treated as an enemy combantant, which would mean he would not be entitled to his Miranda rights (the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney, among others).
This strategy was rejected by the Obama administration in what conservative critics have called a mistake.
"We need to know about any possible future attacks which could take additional American lives," the senators wrote. "The least of our worries is a criminal trial which will likely be held years from now."
As crucial as it is to determine if any additional threats exist, the extreme step of declaring Tsarnaev an enemy combatant does not seem to fit the situation at hand.
For one thing, there is no indication right now that the suspect and his older brother, Tamerlan, were working under the umbrella of a terrorist organization. We may still learn of such ties, but at this stage of the investigation, the brothers are being characterized as "self-radicalized jihadists," according to a source in the U.S. government quoted by CNN.
For another, one of the advantages of stripping a suspect of his legal rights is to bring stronger pressure to bear on him to extract information. Since the suspect appears to be cooperating with law enforcement, there is no obvious reason to take this extreme step.
In Ball's tweet, and McCain and Graham's plea, there is a common sentiment that most of us can identify with: We want justice. We want the person responsible for this heinous act to answer for his crimes. And we want to know that the immediate danger is behind us.
The Obama administration seems to believe it can achieve these goals, which we all hold in common, without resorting to a suspension of civil liberties. And we firmly believe it will be proven right.
The Glens Falls Post-Star on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security proposal to study a fee for crossing the Canada and Mexico borders.
We are among those baffled by the suggestion from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that imposing a fee for crossing the land borders into the U.S., from Canada and Mexico, is a subject worth studying.
We support the stance of Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, of being "unabashedly opposed" to the idea, to the extent we feel, as he does, even studying it is a waste of time and money.
Should the department study the idea of strip-searching every airline passenger?
Should it study putting a ticket booth on the Lincoln Memorial?
Should it study putting armed guards at every post office in the country?
Some ideas are so impractical, expensive, inconvenient and unworkable they don't deserve to be studied.
They deserve to be skewered, then forgotten.
Charging a fee will slow down border traffic already slowed by the stiffening of security after 9/11. Long lines will inhibit cross-border tourism, as will the natural reluctance of visitors to pay a fee for the privilege of spending money in our country.
Our region benefits from Canadian tourism, and we want to encourage more of it, not show our lack of appreciation by charging our guests.
Much more than tourism flourishes in cross-border business, with thousands of trucks a year running up and down the Northway. A fee will clog that critical artery of New York's economy.
Turning border guards into cashiers will be bad for homeland security, too.
Border guards are charged with assessing the legitimacy of trips into the United States. They peer into cars. They ask questions and weigh answers.
They have to make delicate, difficult calls on when and why to pull cars over and order a further interrogation or a search. Taking cash, making change, handling credit cards — all of that would become a distraction from their jobs' essential security function.
More federal employees could be hired, just as toll-takers, but then any money realized from the fees would go toward paying the extra staff.
Likewise, the border checkpoints could be expanded by adding lanes and crossing stations, so traffic wouldn't be slowed by fee-collection, but that expansion would be expensive.
The border fees collected from passengers on airlines and cruise ships are different because they don't slow anyone down. Planes and ships don't wait in toll lines; the fees get charged ahead of time and are added to ticket prices or paid on board.
A small fee is not a deterrent to an international visitor already paying hundreds of dollars for airfare or a cruise ship ticket.
But a small fee, along with a longer wait at the border, could deter a casual visitor from Canada, coming down for a day trip to Plattsburgh or Lake George.
And a small fee adds up for people who make frequent cross-border business trips.
Beyond the impracticality, inconvenience and outright destructiveness of the idea is the lack of justification for it.
Even a small fee would bring in millions of dollars a month, but federal officials are refusing to explain what they would do with the money.
We oppose a border fee as counterproductive, no matter how it would be used. But the proposal would be more palatable if some need for the money were specified.
If federal officials said they would use the cash to hire more border guards, for example, or to expedite the flow of traffic from Canada into the U.S., we would feel less certain in being against the charge.
But under the circumstances, with the bad idea of a fee being floated without explanation or justification, our opposition is unabashed.
The Times Union of Albany on the Obama administration's review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Really, now, how could the Obama administration seem to favor allowing a pipeline carrying oil from the tar sands of western Canada all the way to Texas without assessing how that would contribute to climate change?
What qualifies as one of the most controversial energy projects in recent history deserves careful scrutiny by all sides. Notably, Secretary of State John Kerry needs to answer the questions laid out in a two-pronged challenge by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
What seems to emerge is a glaring lapse in sound environmental policy in a State Department review of the Keystone XL pipeline. The oil consumption that the pipeline would enable would add as much as 3,740 million metric tons of additional climate change pollution, according to scientific consensus cited by Mr. Schneiderman.
More to the point, Mr. Schneiderman says, the State Department's belief that the pipeline could be constructed without damaging the environment runs contrary to federal environmental law — and, we might add, to common sense.
The 1969 National Environmental Policy Act requires that greenhouse gas emissions should have been considered before the State Department issued a noncommittal 2,000-page report on the pipline.
"It is indisputable that Keystone XL and related tar sand oil transportation projects will result in the emission of tremendous amounts of climate change pollution," says Mr. Schneiderman, pointing out that crude oil taken out of the tar sands produces 17 percent more such pollution than oil extracted from other places and by other means. "Without a full assessment of the climate change impacts of this and associated pipelines, the feds cannot possibility judge whether Keystone XL is in the public interest."
Mr. Schneiderman can claim some neutrality in the raging debate over the tar sands project. The pipeline won't be going through New York and won't disrupt life here. Nor will the jobs and other immediate economic benefits be coming here.
But New York has the same investment as everyplace else in controlling the effects of climate change — especially in the wake of Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy. The greenhouse gas emissions from Keystone and from the burning of the crude oil it will carry, Mr. Schneiderman says, could be as much as 14 times higher than the state's annual emissions.
It was just a week ago, on Earth Day, that Mr. Kerry was demanding that the international community confront climate change. Now it's his responsibility to heed Mr. Schneiderman's concern that the tar sands oil venture could make that crisis worse.