Albany Times Union. November 20, 2022.
Editorial: You promised, governor
Kathy Hochul promised transparency. Why are her agencies stonewalling or slow-rolling auditors and the public?
Gov. Kathy Hochul should know better than most people about the need for openness in government. It was her predecessor’s secretive ways that helped destroy his political career.
And indeed, Ms. Hochul acknowledged right from the moment she rose from lieutenant governor to the state’s top job that the public’s trust in government needed to be restored. She vowed to run an ethical administration.
That must include not keeping secrets unnecessarily. That means not stonewalling public requests for information, or refusing to give the state’s own auditors access to information they need to do their jobs.
And yet, here we are, with two agencies under Ms. Hochul’s executive authority blocking or slow-rolling the release of information.
In one case, the Labor Department was uncooperative with auditors from the state comptroller’s office on certain matters concerning billions of dollars in fraudulent unemployment claims. The audit said deficient oversight and management, and an outdated computer system, helped enable the fraud.
Moreover, the audit said the department would not provide detailed information on its handling of fraud, making it impossible to validate its boast of having prevented $36 billion in fraudulent claims. It remains unclear how long payments continued to fraudulent claimants before they got caught, and how much money was recovered.
Auditors weren’t the only ones being stonewalled. As the Times Union’s Brendan J. Lyons reports, the Labor Department has long delayed responding to a Times Union request — filed more than two years ago — for correspondence between with the agency and top officials in the Cuomo administration.
Why the secrecy? We all know the department was overwhelmed by the volume of unemployment claims in the COVID-19 pandemic, and that fraudsters took advantage of the chaos all across the country. If the state could have done better to catch fraud, well, fine. Own it, fix it, and don’t let it happen again. Don’t act like you have something even worse to hide — which is exactly how it looks when an agency stymies an audit or blows off Freedom of Information Law requests.
This past week, too, the good government advocacy group Reinvent Albany complained to the directors of Empire State Development about the agency’s failure to provide the public with information concerning the controversial, multi-billion-dollar Penn Station Redevelopment project. The agency, Reinvent Albany said, has been unresponsive to a request for an analysis of where money for the state’s share of the project will come from, and for underlying economic and financial assumptions. The group says that Empire State Development is using a “trade secret exemption” to hide information that’s produced by an outside consultant.
Again, the public is left to wonder: What is the state hiding?
The previous governor of this state tried to keep information about deaths of nursing home residents a secret, even from the Legislature. That opacity only added to the political pressure Andrew Cuomo faced from multiple complaints of sexual misconduct. Had Mr. Cuomo not looked like a governor keeping secrets, he might have had a few more allies willing to defend him in the end. But a public official who doesn’t trust the public is a public official who ultimately finds himself — or herself — bereft of public trust.
Advance Media New York. November 20, 2022.
Editorial: $11B fraud price tag doesn’t count human cost of NY’s unemployment debacle
We now have a rough idea of how much New York’s antiquated unemployment insurance system cost the state during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. At least $11 billion in fraudulent payments went out the door, according to an audit by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
That number — staggering as it is — does not capture the human cost of the state Department of Labor’s management failures that left New Yorkers thrown out of work by the pandemic to fend for themselves.
We haven’t forgotten their stories: the restaurant dishwasher rationing sandwiches for his three kids as the money ran out; the machinist raising chickens to scrape by; the title clerk who called the Labor Department 4,000 times in two weeks before getting through; the retail worker who got a call back after midnight, when he was asleep; and the thousands of desperate, frustrated and trapped people who resorted to complaining on social media and even calling news reporters for help as they watched their bank balances dwindle and their bills pile up.
The anguish of New Yorkers who couldn’t get their unemployment benefits owes to the colossal failure of a state agency to do the unglamorous work of maintaining back-end systems. No one gets a photo op for that — but failing to do it has real consequences for real people.
There’s no question Covid placed unprecedented demands on the Labor Department. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s lockdown order in March 2020 put millions of New Yorkers out of work all at once. Labor’s call centers were swamped by a 13,480% increase in volume and initial claims for unemployment increased 2,666%. Applying for unemployment benefits is confusing on a good day; shifting rules for federal pandemic unemployment only complicated matters.
None of that absolves the Labor Department from its failure to have the right technology in place when the pandemic struck.
The department knew its decades-old UI system was vulnerable. It had been warned back in 2010 that it ran on old mainframes and outmoded programming languages. It took nine more years for the state to hire a consultant to build a new UI system from scratch. The $57 million, four-year project began 10 months before the pandemic and is now due to be completed in fall 2023.
The old UI system buckled under the pandemic overload. It could not be scaled up to meet increased demand. It was not secure. It was inflexible, requiring on-the-fly workarounds that compromised fraud controls and allowed scammers to collect benefits to which they were not entitled. Real people who needed help couldn’t get it because their identities had been stolen.
At first, Cuomo dismissed the backlog as “an annoying delay.” As complaints grew louder, he asked Google to develop a more user-friendly interface and to expand the system’s capacity. Thousands of state workers were temporarily assigned to UI call centers. But as the pandemic entered its second year, New Yorkers reapplying for jobless benefits encountered a system that was still broken.
The fixes have come slowly. It took until February 2021 for the Labor Department to tighten identity verification requirements. Multi-factor identification — you know, the text or email confirmation your bank, credit card or social network requires to make sure you are who you say you are — rolled out just this past September. This isn’t rocket science.
Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon claimed that her department prevented $36 billion in fraudulent payments. The agency was not able to back that up with any data, DiNapoli said. He also complained that the Labor Department stonewalled auditors for months before turning over information. This is unacceptable.
In addition to the human cost of the Labor Department’s mismanagement, New York employers are now stuck with the bill. The state had to borrow $9 billion from the federal government to cover jobless claims, both legitimate and fraudulent. That money has to be paid back, with interest, by the employers who pay into the system. That works out to $200 per worker, according to an estimate from the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany think tank.
Now that we know how much was stolen from the unemployment insurance system during Covid, who will be accountable for it? What other state agencies are vulnerable to outdated technology and poorly maintained systems? We await action from the state Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Auburn Citizen. November 20, 2022.
Editorial: More NY state candidates are needed
The state Legislature redistricting process brought some big changes to Cayuga County’s representation in Albany.
After a decade in which the county was divided into three Senate districts and two Assembly districts, the new lines resulted in the county having just one senator and three members of the Assembly (that could change, however, because of a court order that Assembly lines be redone in time for the 2024 election).
The shuffle for Cayuga County brought three new faces to the Albany delegation: state Sen. Rachel May, who won re-election in a three-way race for a newly drawn district that added Cayuga County, and two members of the Assembly: Minority Leader Will Barclay and Assemblyman Jeff Gallahan.
Unlike May, Barclay and Gallahan did not have an opponent in their re-election bids this year. And as a result, they didn’t need to spend much time during the campaign season getting to learn about their new constituents.
It’s one of many examples of why a lack of competitive races for state Legislature seats is a problem, and one that we urge party leaders in every county to address.
To that end, there is a potentially impactful new tool that could help challengers. A new state law providing matching campaign donations for state candidates has begun.
The state Public Campaign Finance Board, a bipartisan entity, has launched the program for the 2024 election cycle in which candidates for state Legislature can tap into matching public funds if they meet minimum small donor thresholds.
While some state Legislature races do become extra expensive, many could become much more competitive from a campaign spending aspect with just a few thousand dollars in matching public funds.
The key for it to have a chance to work, though, is for people interested in running to be made aware of the opportunity and to make an effort to do the fundraising that will enable them to tap into it.
If state officials, including the Public Campaign Finance Board, and party leaders do an effective job of promoting this new program, we might just see some more contested races in 2024. And choices on the ballots tend to make our democracy work better.
New York Post. November 20, 2022.
Editorial: NY Regents are looking to snap education standards out of existence
Parents, beware: State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa and her allies on the Board of Regents are getting set to kill the state Regents exams, the central guarantee that a New York high-school diploma signified real value for well over a century. If parents and politicians who care about standards and excellence don’t speak up now, it’ll be a done deal before you know it.
The writing was on the wall at a recent Board of Regents meetings, as the state’s top educrats discussed the worth of the exams for high-school graduation. “Maybe the Regents exams are not the be-all and end-all,” said Regent Roger Tilles, bizarrely pondering whether students who can’t pass a Regents test yet can pass all their courses should be denied high-school diplomas. (In fact, they can get a less-prestigious “local diploma.”)
The debate comes on the heels of a 166-page report assessing graduation requirements here and across the nation, and ahead of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Graduation Measures that will soon recommend changes to the state’s graduation requirements.
Ever since he took office as Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie has been packing the Board of Regents with anti-standards zealots, the latest being Manhattan’s Shino Tanikawa, goosing the board’s race-to-the-bottom policies.
In May, state education officials approved a temporary measure that lets high school students more easily appeal failing scores on Regents exams through the end of the 2023 school year. Meanwhile, two straight years without Regents-test requirements (supposedly because of COVID) boosted graduation rates.
Yes, lower standards make it easier to pretend schools are succeeding, but at the price of denying kids who excel the proof of their success.
Rosa regularly argues that the exams aren’t working for every student and pushed for alternative paths to graduation, including career and technical education. A separate “technical Regents diploma” might well make sense, but it’s not reason to rob the many kids that the tests do serve.
Even worse is the claim that the tests “harm” minority and disadvantaged students because their passing rates are lower. In fact, those kids need the benefits of a quality education the most; the anti-standards agenda is all about hiding the reality that New York public schools fail the majority of students so badly.
The Regents exams are the state’s only reliable barometer of student learning, achievement and college-readiness at the high-school level. Eliminating them (or watering them down, as Heastie’s Regents keep doing) is all about killing the messenger.
And let’s not pretend this is even any service to diversity, equity or inclusion: At best, it’s about hiding the fact that the state’s schools don’t deliver what less-privileged kids need.
Fact is, killing the Regents exams would be a death blow to public education across New York, sending even more families into flight from a system that’s utterly devoted to the adults’ interests at the expense of all children.
Jamestown Post-Journal. November 22, 2022.
Editorial: Friday Is An Example Of Why Local Officials Should Be Allowed To Make Decisions
Gov Kathy Hochul was certainly warranted to declare a state of emergency in Buffalo over the weekend.
As we all saw, weather forecasters were right when they projected a couple of feet of snow for Buffalo starting Thursday night and ending Sunday. It was a lake effect storm for the ages.
But Hochul, who loves to tout her Western. We York roots, should also have known that a region wide state of emergency wasn’t arranged. The Jamestown area, for example, received absolutely zero snow during school hours Friday. Yet schools were closed, throwing thousands of working parents into a panic trying to figure out what to do with their children at the last minute. It’s not as if the lack of Jamestown area snow was a shock. The same forecasts that showed Buffalo was going to get hit hard said Jamestown was largely going to be spared. Yet Thursday was the more difficult travel day in Jamestown, and schools were open despite several inches of snow falling overnight and through the morning.
This, dear governor, is why we have towns, villages, cities, counties and school districts, each with decision makers in some cases earning very good taxpayer-funded salaries to make these decisions. If you don’t trust them to decide when conditions locally warrant travel bans or closures, why have them in the first place?
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