March 31, 2014

Breaking News Trifecta

A trifecta is generally described as a type of bet where, in order to win, the bettor must pick the top three finishers in the correct order.  Here are the top three from the past couple of days.

Moreland Commission to be Shut Down
Apparently the State Legislature has succeeded in ringing down the curtain on Governor Cuomo's Moreland Commission investigation into bad behavior of politicians.  The Commission, with great fanfare, announced there was lots of bad stuff going on, some of it perfectly legal, some of it not,  in how we handle campaign money here in New York.

I've posted several times on the Commission, ethics, and the like, and on our local DA-for-Life Bill Fitzpatrick --  he of the tens of thousands of dollars of campaign funds spent on steak and golf -- who was one of the chairs of the panel. I was not impressed with the preliminary report they issued which was practically word for word what the Governor wanted them to find, which detracted from the Comission's independence. And of course, note that the Commission was only investigating the Legislature, not the Executive -- something that did not impress the gang under the microscope, not surprisingly.

And so, again not surprisingly, during the budget negotiations, the Leg told Cuomo to ditch it, and he asked them to try public financing, at least on one state-wide race (Comptroller), and maybe they'll talk about some clients of their day jobs, and maybe the Board of Elections will be a bit more aggressive, but that's about it.

One's left wondering whether the Sonova Governor, who had (several weeks ago) some $33,000,000 for his re-election campaign, was really all that interested in solving ethics problems; after all, he told us he's above the fray on that personally, and other than needling the Legislature, what was really accomplished? 

Prisoner Education to be Privately Funded
Apparently a Cuomo administration official (anonymous, of course) has advised that the Governor's plan to provide college education to prisoners didn't fly, and so these efforts will continue to be privately funded, as they have been for the many years. Cuomo had planned on spending $10,000 - $15,000 per prisoner to hep them get associates and bachelor's degrees; this would be on top of the $60K we pay each year to keep them behind bars.

I'm happy that we will not be paying for this, not because it's a horrible concept, but because it's another frustrating expenditure when taxpayers are struggling themselves, and who are not finding themselves in jail.   I'm hopeful that someone in the administration or in the Legislature will take a really hard look at what we're getting for the 60 grand we spend on our inmates. Maybe there's a way to do it for $50K this year, and then maybe $45K next year, and so on, til we're paying something similar to what other states pay for the privilege of housing inmates. And maybe by then, we'll be in a better position to pay for college for these folks.

SUNY Upstate Spends $660K on Out of Town Ad Agency
Why is it not surprising that a SUNY facility, our own Upstate Medical University, spent $660,000 on an ad agency from Alabama to help improve their image?  The ads, which you may have seen in the local paper or on TV, talk about the 9,000 people who make Upstate what it is, and note that many of the docs there are born and raised New Yorkers, and how all of the employees contribute to our overall welfare.  All of those things may very well be true, and we are fortunate to have a facility of this caliber, a regional powerhouse if you will, in our own back yard.

Know what else we have here in New York? Advertising agencies. Lots of them. A very good one,  headquartered maybe a mile from Upstate, for example. Now, I don't know if the local agency would have bid on the image campaign for Upstate, which has taken a hit lately.  They might not have been interested. But I have to think that one thing our SUNY schools should be doing, what all of our governmental agencies should be doing, is buying goods and services from New York.

Just as several years ago when it was discovered that the I Love New York tourism hot line was answered by a call center in Georgia or somewhere, we should be outraged that any state agency is not using New York companies for their services. Even in this case, where Upstate took the money from what seems like a really big petty cash fund, it just feels wrong that we're sending the money out of state.

Can't we do better?

March 30, 2014

Little Difference Between Ds and Rs

Seems there's very little difference between Republicans and Democrats these days, at least when it comes to money in politics. I mean, we've known for a while that our Sonofa Governor Andrew Cuomo believes he flat-out cannot be influenced by money, and we now know that Republicans think they're not influenced by money either.

Cuomo made it very clear a while back in an interview with Susan Arbetter, host of  the Capitol Pressroom radio show, that we need campaign finance reform because elected officials can't be trusted and there's too much money in politics and we need to solve the problem by having tax payer dollars injected into the process to protect us from bad people - but not from the Governor himself, because he is pure.

Cuomo thought it was "baloney" that people would think he'd be more responsive to his donors (the majority of whom have given at least $10,000) or to New York City corporations (some giving "in the hundreds of thousands of dollars" to his war chest) than he would be to you or me. When pressed, here's what he said:
s drummond photo
What the people want to know, what they say to me is, look, we want to know that you're working for us and you're not working for anyone else. Because there are some politicians out there who can be bought for $10, and some politicians who cannot be bought for $10 billion. It's a question of the person, it's a question of character, and it's a question of values. It's not how much does it cost to buy a politician, it's a politician who can't be bought. 
He added
I'm going to make the decision I think is right for them because at the end of the night I go home and I put my head on the pillow and I have to be able to fall asleep and I can't fall asleep if I don't believe I'm doing the right thing.  
You mull that one over, or picture him sleeping through the night on his pillow of righteousness, while I explain how he's just like a Republican.

Steve Kimatian, an occasional contributor to the Syracuse Post-Standard, wrote a recent article about how it was easier to be a Democrat than a Republican. He made it clear that Republicans aren't influenced by money either.

Kimatian's premise, as I noted last week, is that the Dems buy votes and campaign contributions with entitlements (and unfettered access to strip-joint ATMs), and by gutting welfare reform.  He also notes that the Democrat "platform of giving...can be a slippery slope to servitude."
While the Democrat position may appear altruistic, at its core it is essentially self-serving. To appreciate those who give you things is human nature. The Democrat offer encourages a complicit compact with the voter.  If you can befriend a voting block by giving benefits, then you can secure votes and contributions for your re-election. 
Let's replace the word Democrat in Kimatian's essential argument with Republican, and see what happens.
While the Republican position may appear altruistic, at its core it is essentially self-serving. To appreciate those who give you things is human nature. The Republican offer encourages a complicit compact with the voter. If you can befriend a voting block by giving benefits then you can secure votes and contributions for your re-election.
Wow -- that sounds almost exactly the same, doesn't it? And doesn't it ring equally true? Because we all know that the Republicans are not pure, any more than Cuomo is. They just get their influence from a different side of the fence, that's all.  For example:
  • What about the Grover Norquist Tax Pledge? You know about that, right? Republicans at every level of elected office have signed onto this, swearing they'll not raise taxes for any reason. Let them even whisper about having a remote thought or a vision in the night about raising taxes, and their constituents will have an email telling them their taxes are going to go up, and suddenly the incumbent Republican is in a primary scrambling to hold onto office, to future security, and to continued altruistic opportunities. Does anyone wonder why the Rs are so afraid of raising taxes?
  • What about political organizations, trade associations, unions, and 'social welfare' groups? According to, trade associations spent around $60M, unions about half that, and 501(c)(4) groups spent over $250M in the 2012 election cycle. By 'viewpoint', the vast majority of the money was in support of conservative issues. Kimatian raised the dastardly public employee union as one of the things that makes it easier to be a Dem;  and we know that one of those 'conservative issues' that's being addressed with this money is getting rid of public employee unions. No correlation here, right?
  • Similarly, Super PAC spending by ideology significantly favored conservatives, $406.8M to $195.5M for liberal issues.  And certainly nothing to see here, either. 
Does the Norquist threat have no meaning? Do these hundreds of millions of dollars from support groups not have any influence on Republicans? Do they not help get Republicans elected, and help keep them in office? How is it that the Republicans can be immune to this?

If  "to appreciate those who give you things is human nature," is the lack of influence all from all this money proof that Republicans aren't human? Hmm...

Perhaps the most important question for Republicans, Andrew Cuomo, and voters alike is a simple one: would these groups be spending this kind of money if they thought there was nothing in it for them?

The answer, clearly, is no.  No person, union, trade association, social welfare group, or political action committee would spend this kind of money if they believed for one second that it wasn't going to benefit them.

As I noted (regarding Cuomo's sleeping habits):
I can't fall asleep at night because our house is noisy and our cats are restless and My Sweet Baboo snores and there's a firehouse down the street and because I lie awake at night sometimes wondering why a politician would take hundreds of thousands, no millions of dollars from corporations when it's people that vote.
You can be sure that the corporations and Super PACS  and unions and social welfare organizations and $10,000 donors wouldn't be sleeping well at night if they thought their contributions and lobbying and interest ads and smear campaigns were not money well spent.

Yeah, it's easy to be a Democrat.  And it sure is easy to be a Republican too.  It's getting hard to tell them apart, isn't it?

March 25, 2014

Tuesday's Number: $913,796

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

Each week, I track health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

·         This week, there were 24 new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $648,297.

·         There were no satisfied judgments.

·         And, there were two health care related bankruptcies, totaling $265,499.

New this year, I’m tracking filings for each of the four Syracuse hospitals. Here’s the breakdown for this week:

·         Crouse had three, totaling $44,201
·         St Joe’s had three, totaling $216,140
·         SUNY Upstate had 19,totaling $646,219
·         Community General, a part of Upstate, had none  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

It's Easy to be a Republican Columnist

See, with the stroke of a pen, I can write a headline almost as entertaining as the one that accompanied Steve Kimatian's latest guest column in The Post-Standard. Kimatian, a former local television station executive and Republican candidate for mayor of Syracuse, suggests that the Dems have an 'easier sales pitch' to voters, when they offer beliefs like these:
increasing entitlement benefits and minimum wages, extending unemployment insurance and that recipients don't need to work to receive any of these benefits.
Poor Republicans, on the other hand
offer(ed) fewer entitlements, said you would have to work for some of them, that they would provide training to develop your employable skills with the added caution that they were concerned about debt limits and balancing the budget.
Voters, being the blood-sucking leeches that we are, would 'hands down' take the first option, the one presented by the Democrats.  And sure, there probably are some folks who vote that way -- we all of course saw the crazed woman in the ad yelling about her Obama phone. The phone program actually started under Ronald Reagan, in an obvious attempt to buy votes. But she does not represent a single Democrat I know, or even one that Kimatian knows.

Kimatian goes on to describe the Democrat's position as 'self-serving, noting
The Democrat offer encouraged a complicit contract with the voter. If you can befriend a voting block by giving benefits, then you can secure votes and contributions for your re-election.
Hmm.  Let's pretend I'm one of those Democrats, living large on my unemployment benefit (2013 average maximum benefit? Around $400/week) after losing my $100,000 job in the Great Recession.  Assuming I'm getting lots of other safety net benefits, I'm guessing that I have at least one boatload of money to hand over to a politician to ensure my continued glorious lifestyle, maybe even two boatloads. Of course, that's only if I haven't spent it all a a strip joint, porn shop or casino.

Because, as Kimatian points out,
The extremes to which Democrats will go to ensure that benefits continue is shockingly displayed by the Speaker of the (NY) State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, who for the last two legislative sessions has blocked a vote on preventing state electronic benefits cards being used at ATMs located in strip joints, porn shops, and casinos.  Apparently the last thing Silver wants to experience is a disappointed voter's porn backlash and so he goes to great lengths to keep the benefits flowing, even for as blatantly a sordid use of public tax monies as this usage. 
I do believe I have the vapors; I might have to step away from my keyboard.

Kimatian fails to provide any statistics for his outrageous comment, but here are some figures that were reported in the press back in 2013.
A database of 200 million Electronic Benefit Transfer records from January 2011 to July 2012, obtained by The (NY) Post through a Freedom of Information request, showed welfare recipients using their EBT cards to make dozens of cash withdrawals at ATMs... (and then goes on to list several specific establishments not in our area)
That's right:  200 million transactions searched, dozens of these horribly abusive cash withdrawals identified. Oh. My. Lap dance.

He also doesn't mention the key reason this type of legislation is being considered (not just in New York but across the country). There's a risk that states will lose federal safety net funds if they don't illustrate controls over how this money is spent.  According to one Republican State Senator's website,
Federal Law passed earlier this year (2012) requires states to limit electronic benefit transactions in locations including liquor stores, casinos, and strip clubs by welfare recipients before February 2014.
For New York, that's a cool $120M in federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funds.

Disregarding for a moment that a bill signed into law in 2012 would have been signed by a Democrat, I find it ironic that Kimatian puts forth an example that seems to disprove his own theory. Remember the premise: Democrats offer unencumbered benefits so that people who receive the benefits will become addicted to the benefits and therefore vote for and make campaign contributions to Democrats to keep them in office.

Well, if that's the case, wouldn't one expect Shelly Silver to be bending over backwards to ensure that we don't lost the $120 million? Because if we lose the federal dollars, we would almost certainly have to cut benefits in New York, which would almost certainly antagonize that voting block the Dems work for.

Are there other ATMs that could be used for honest, non-sinful withdrawals of EBT? Sure. Should benefits be spent this way? No. Is continuing this benefit ensuring the continued employment of Shelly Silver? Likely not. Unless, of course, those blatantly sordid ATM users are donating so much money to Silver, or voting in such huge numbers, that he can turn up his nose at 120 million bucks. Where's that data analysis, I wonder?

Folks, this is the same argument as the Republicans make about people buying lobster with their SNAP benefits; it's about as important from a policy perspective, pretending for a moment that there actually is a policy perspective buried in there somewhere. It's a red cape in front of a bull. You know it, they know it, I know it.

And FYI, bills like this also would ban using EBT for lottery tickets.  Now, I don't know about you, but apparently many in government believe that lotteries and casinos are the proper way to fund education and to grow our economy.  Can't we just consider that the benefit-sucking Democratic voters are really just trying to do their part to create jobs and pay for school books? Or, if that's too altruistic for you, that they've fallen for the advertizing the government does, that whole "dollar and a dream" stuff?

Another argument Kimatian puts up is that President Obama killed welfare reform. The same case was made by Mitt Romney and Republican minions during the campaign in which Obama won his second term.

I talked about this in a post back in September 2012, noting that the Republican platform included not one but two mentions of this 'gutting' of welfare reform.  And, the post also noted what actually happened:
  • the Department of Health and Human Services acted in response to requests from several governors to give them more flexibility in how the incorporated work requirements in their benefit programs
  • HHS would consider waivers to the current law in order challenge states to engage in a new round of innovation for helping families succeed in employment
  • HHS would only consider waivers to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF
  • HHS was committed to ensuring that any demonstration projects approved under the waivers would be focused on improving employment outcomes and contributing to the evidence base for effective programs
I included other information in the post, direct citations from the actual documents that were sent to the states by HHS, all of which was easily available for reference. Nowhere in there did I see the part about creating addictive benefits to obtain campaign contributions. Don't fall for it, I said back then, and I say the same thing now.

Yeah, it's easy to be a Republican columnist. Or a moderate blogger.

Kimatian and I apparently agree that continuing to expand the safety net is not the way to run a rodeo, and that there should be some responsibility on the part of recipients to not seek these benefits in perpetuity, and on the government to make sure that real fraud, waste, and abuse of these programs is addressed and stopped.

Where we differ is in our approach. Over the weekend, I published two posts -- one on what Republicans are focusing on that they shouldn't be, and one on what the Dems are focusing on that they shouldn't be, if the goal is to create real jobs, the kind that will get folks out of the safety net and into being productive, taxpaying members of society.

Kimatian, on the other hand, chooses the road more taken -- the demonizing path, the class warfare path, the 47% path.  Sadly, in the dumb-down-the-issue, sound-bite world we wallow in, his take on this is likely to be the winning one.

March 23, 2014

Sidebar: Equal Opportunity Angry Voter image
 Listen, Democrats - if you think my Angry Voter  Knock Knock post   yesterday means you're off the  hook, you are sorely mistaken.

 Because you're spending too much time on the wrong  things, too, just  like the Republicans are. At the  federal level and at the state level, just  like the  Republicans are.

 Need some examples?
  • limiting bullets in ammo clips does not create jobs
  • universal pre-k does not create jobs
  • extending unemployment benefits does not create jobs
  • raising the minimum wage does not create jobs
  • regulating the size of a soda is not going to create jobs

There's more, but I'll stop with these.

Now, don't get me wrong: I believe that we can have reasonable limits on guns -- I've talked quite a bit about that (here, here and here, for example). And I believe we have a problem with gun violence that is not going to be solved simply by changing gun laws. And while bullet limits might make us feel better, we're not going to see more than a handful of jobs created (to make ammo clips smaller) in the overall scheme of things.

And yes, I understand that having a good start at the pre-k level is important, but not if we stop there.  I believe that we need to do something about education in America, something that neither demonizes nor blindly rewards teachers, something that doesn't just take another pile of money and throw it at the problem, and we should ensure that what we teach in schools matters.  Meaning, we should not be teaching to the test if the testing is not going to accomplish anything.

I also think we should not be giving incentives to people to take their children out of public elementary and secondary schools in favor of private schools; in fact, the opposite would make more sense. Give tax breaks to people who keep their kids in public schools.

While universal pre-k is believed by many to help get kids and families on the right track, help them move down the path to eventual gainful employment, it's not going to create a whole lot of jobs, and all of that preparation could end up being wasted if we don't have jobs when these kids get out of school.

And yes, unemployment benefits are always an important and necessary evil in our economy, even when it was booming back in the day. In today's economy, the need is higher, but making sure the safety net is larger or longer-lasting doesn't address the foundational issue, which is that we are not putting people back to work fast enough.

Raising the minimum wage is something we can debate forever; there are significant areas of disagreement on the benefits of doing this, and there are examples on both sides of how beneficial or horrible it will be if we paid everyone at least $8 or $9 or $10 or $15 an hour for typically unskilled jobs, and the implications on jobs that already pay that amount to people who have skills and qualifications.

I'm conflicted on what the minimum wage should be, and whether there should even be a federal minimum wage. But I'm not conflicted on this: raising the minimum wage is not apt to create a ton of jobs, and the jobs that would be created at this wage level are not the kind that will help grow and sustain our economy over the long term.

One place I think we don't need to be conflicted at all is on how many jobs regulating the size of a cup of soda will create. I mean, talk about a drop in the bucket. I think everyone can at least understand where this type of thing comes from -- as a whole we drink (and eat) far too many empty calories and in the short- and long-term that's not good for us and leaves us open to significant health issues and potentially disability and that will tax the safety net and cost us more money and so on.  I get that - but I don't for a moment believe this is something that we need to have politicians spending time on.

We need jobs. Good paying jobs. We need a solid education system that will prepare the next generation for what's to come in the workplace, whether it's renewable energy or high-tech manufacturing or low-tech manufacturing or pharmaceuticals or old fashioned energy jobs or long-haul truckers or infrastructure repair experts or teachers or physicians assistants and nurse practitioners or diabetes educators or registered dietitians or personal trainers or ammo clip makers or yoga instructors or wolves of Wall Street.

We need jobs that allow people to work full time, to earn enough to take control of their own lives, to get unentwangled from the safety net.

And we need them yesterday.

So, Dems, figure out a way to talk to the Republicans and find some common ground. Because I'm not really any happier with you than I am with them.

March 22, 2014

Knock Knock. Who's There? Angry Voter

Angry voter who?

An angry voter who is already sick and tired, and getting even more sick and tired, of politicians wasting precious time (and oodles of taxpayer dollars) on things that simply do not matter, instead of focusing on the clearly obvious things that do matter.

I've spoken many times on these pages about being a middle-of-the-roader, one who believes, like these folks do, that we can be a bit more fiscally conservative and a bit more socially moderate - and be successful. My sense continues to be if we can't figure out how to do that, if we insist on living life on the fringes, we're in for a very rocky road ahead.

I've also asked Republicans in particular to stand for something, rather than standing against everything that is suggested by the other side, whether the ideas come from President Obama (someone they've committed to obstructing for the past few years) or someone they've known for far too long on the other side of the aisle.

Sadly, I'm no happier with them now than I was in January, when I scolded them for comments on rape, and begged them to get out of our bedrooms and clinics and doctor's offices, to get the church out of their legislation, and to stop treating women and gays so poorly.

We don't need a bigger safety net they've told us; we don't need to make the 47% even larger, they said. We need jobs. We need to fix the economy. And they're just the ones to do it. They're right -- we do need jobs, lots of jobs.

And now I'm back, imploring them to do what they swore they would do. Republicans, the party of jobs, I can assure you that

In fact, most of what you're spending your time on does not create jobs. It may perpetuate your own, but it doesn't help the rest of the country.

If you are a politician in Washington DC, remember that almost no one thinks you're doing your job well. A significant majority of Americans believes that we would be better off if all of you were no longer in office. We don't like you, even when you are our own representative. Think about that the next time you walk into your office.

Please -- I beg you -- start devoting your energy to creating jobs. Real jobs.

Because when people have jobs, they are substantially better equipped to buy their own groceries, pay for their own health insurance, pay their own rent, help pay for their own education, buy their own school lunches, pay for their own day care, and so on.

They are able to spend money on travel, tourism, arts and culture, sporting events, clothes, cars, toys, computers, houses.

They are able to save money for a rainy day, invest in their future, participate in their communities, support their favorite charity, send their kids to charter schools, tithe to their church, and pay taxes.

You know, all of the things that a smaller government aims to achieve. All of those things the 47% are not able to do today, much to your disdain.

Do these things, and maybe, just maybe, you'll give me a reason to vote for you. 

March 18, 2014

Tuesday's Number is $244,242

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

Each week, I track health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

·         This week, there were 21 new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $244,242.

·         There were no satisfied judgments.

·         And, there were no health care related bankruptcies.

New this year, I’m tracking filings for each of the four Syracuse hospitals. Here’s the breakdown for this week:

·         Crouse had twelve, totaling $98,065
·         St Joe’s had none
·         SUNY Upstate had four, totaling $94,351
·         Community General, a part of Upstate, had two, totaling $20,429

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

March 14, 2014

Trump the Chump Dumps the Stump

Well, maybe His Hairness is not the Chump, it's the New York Republicans who prostituted I mean prostrated themselves, chasing Donald "I Never Met an Office I Ever Intended Running For" Trump up and down the East coast, back and forth across New York, only to be left, as everyone knew they would be, empty-handed, lips chapped from all the ring kissing.

There was no way Trump was going to run. There was no way he was going to 'write a check for $50M' to pay for a campaign against our Sonofa Governor.  There was no way he was ever going to do anything other than get his name out there, and say "Soon" so many times you'd swear he was from Oklahoma.

How did we know this? His Hairness told us. 

He told us in December, in an appearance on Fox and Friends:
I'll make a decision at some time pretty soon. Let's see what happens. I had something else in mind, this was not actually something that I wanted to do. 
He told us in January, in an interview with Greta Van Susteren, again on Fox:
A group of people, a great group, a big group of people, over 50 just came in to my office and I was very honored by it. As you know, the state of New York is doing very, very poorly.  Tremendous unemployment. Tremendous. And the highest taxes in the United States.  So, they are talking to me.  And I have given them certain ideas and certain parameters. And we will see what happens.  But certainly it's something I'm considering and I will make a decision pretty much by the end of the month or early February... Let's say 50/50, a 50/50 number (when pressed by Van Susteren to give her the odds of him running). If we have to go with numbers. I want to see unity in the Republican - the state is three to one Democratic. It's not something that's easy to do. f you do it, you have to do it right. But when you have sound bites that you are the number-one taxes state in the nation, that's a bad sound bite if you happen to be the incumbent governor. 
 He told us in February, talking to reporters:
We'll see what happens. If we get a unified party - a unified, New York State party - No. 1, I would run. And No. 2, I think I would win. The Republican leadership has come to my office on numerous occasions They were there today. Virtually all of them want me to do it, other than Ed Cox, who doesn't know how to win. He's never won anything, so he doesn't know how to win, and I guess he hasn't made up his mind. But we'll see what happens.
And again, in February he told us:
You can't have people going in, knocking the hell out of each other in a primary, spending millions of dollars and then someone comes out wounded and limping.  If they can't unify, I have other things to do.
And then came March.  He told us again:
Republican leaders want me to run so badly... I think it can be won....the Republican Party in New York is a mess. 
And the topper was this one, spoken by Monroe County Republican Chairman Bill Reilich:
Donald Trump has spoken to me directly and told me that when he announces his candidacy, he's prepared to put $50 million in a bank account. It takes some effort to amass this. That's occurring, as I understand it, now. As soon as the filming is complete he's then going to focus towards the May convention. I don't think he's out of it in any shape: he's just got to get his house in order. And the bigger the house, the longer it takes to get in order. 
If Bill Reilich were on The Apprentice, he would absolutely hear the words "You're fired" -- I can't imagine that The Donald would want someone this gullible working for him, can you?

Here are the tweets bowing out, straight from the horse's mouth:

Note that, even as he walks away from running for something for the umpteenth time -- he threatened to run for President four times (1988, 2004, 2008, and 2012) and for Governor (2006) -- he's blaming the people who came to him, as if they could have ever done enough to win his approval, and his commitment, and his cash.

Onondaga County's Republican chair Tom Dadey, said this last December about Trump:
Who? Now, is that the guy who throws his name out there so he can sell shirts and ties and always throws his name out there as a political opportunist? 
Um, yeah, Tom. That's the guy.  That's the Donald Trump you just met.  Maybe he'll share with you what those "much bigger plans" are.  Maybe you can pick up one of those political opportunist shirts cheap.

And maybe, just maybe, Rob Astorino will take your call.

March 13, 2014

Get out of the Gate on Fracking

We spent some time in New York's Southern Tier and just across the border in Pennsylvania a little bit ago. We had a handful of goals for the long weekend --get some time away from work, get some winter pictures, and have someone else make our bed and breakfast, and we succeeded on all counts.

Some of those pictures we took in Pennsylvania, and while we were there we got to thinking about fracking. While New York has some clear ideas on gambling, and keeping money here in NY that is currently flowing to states like Pennsylvania, fracking is one of those things that happens only there (in PA) but is still just being thought about here. Thought about, and thought about, and thought about, and thought about, and thought about but not decided upon. I looked for but did not see any obvious signs of fracking around Wellsboro PA, so either it's well hidden, I don't know what to look for, or we weren't in the right area to see anything.

NY DEC illustration
I've long been of mixed opinion on whether we should allow high-volume fracking, the kind that's all the rage in other states, here in New York, where we've allowed the low-volume kind since the 1950s.

The map at left shows, in the brown outlined area, the location of the Marcellus shale formation in New York State, which is where we'd frack if we were so inclined.

If we were to allow it, the most attention would likely be in the area near the NY/PA border, where we stayed on our long weekend, and where the gas is collected way below the surface -- 7,000 feet or more -- rather than throughout the rest of Central New York and the Finger Lakes, where the gas is considerably closer to the top and accessible without as much effort (or risk).

These are the three key things that impact my thinking on this:
  • a concern for protecting our water sources, as well as our other natural resources
  • a concern for property owners to reasonably use their land
  • a concern for at least some kind of 'home rule'
Now, as noted above we're still studying, and there's a ton of information in the draft report (available on the DEC's website) about what would be done or could be done or couldn't be done. We even sent people to Pennsylvania to study what's happened there, and how to regulate differently (it not better) to avoid some of the problems they had in the early going. But in summary, here's what the proposed regulations would offer:
  • High-volume fracturing, or fracking, would be prohibited in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, including a buffer zone
  • Drilling would be prohibited within primary aquifers and within 500 feet of their boundaries
  • Surface drilling would be prohibited on state-owned land including parks, forest areas and wildlife management areas
  • High volume fracturing would be permitted on privately held lands under rigorous and effective controls
DEC goes on to note that 
The recommendations, if adopted in final form, would protect the state's environmentally sensitive areas while realizing the economic development and energy benefits of the state's natural gas resources.  Approximately 85 percent of the Marcellus Shale would be accessible to natural gas extraction under these recommendations. 
So - regarding my first bullet, the water and natural resources -- the regulations would address my immediate personal needs (not messing with the Syracuse watershed), and they would also go quite a ways to protect some of our other precious natural resources in New York, by keeping state-owned lands free of wells, and by regulating wells on private lands.

One could make the case that protecting the municipal water supplies of Syracuse and New York City by not allowing landowners unfettered rights to use their property sort of trumps my second bullet. However, the 'reasonable' quotient applies here. I mean, one farmer who happened to end up on top of some gas-rich geologic formation doesn't get to trump the better interests of the larger population of the state, does she? And, by allowing rigorously regulated fracking on 85% of the Marcellus Shale formation, the DEC seems to offer a significant population of landowners the opportunity to obtain reasonable use of their property.

Of course, let there be no mistake: nobody does rigorous regulation like New York, and it might end up that some folks who think they're sitting pretty on top of a natural gas mother-lode may find out that their gas isn't worth enough for anyone to go to the effort. In which case, the landowner will continue using their land the way they are now, sell to a developer for a non-fracking purpose, or do whatever else constitutes a reasonable use of their property.

My bullet #3, on 'home rule' of some kind, is about allowing local governments and citizens the opportunity to control their own destiny through hopefully hearty discussions, and the resulting laws that come out of them. While I've been accused of being one of those darn liberals who thinks the government should tell us what to do, I believe that the people who are going to have to live with the consequences of laws that are passed should have a very loud voice in what gets passed. They should use that voice regularly with their elected officials, and particularly when it comes time to vote.

This is not an all or nothing kind of thing, as noted with bullet #1, for example. I also think that we have way too many 'local' jurisdictions here in New York, and frankly some of them sometimes make what appear to be bad decisions -- but generally I think the local people should be allowed to make the decisions they want to live with, and be allowed to live with the decisions they want to make.

So, with all that said and out of the way, here's one way I think I could live with fracking:
  1. The fracking companies put a specified amount of money in an interest-bearing escrow account. It could be based on how many wells they're putting in, how much gas they expect to tap, a per capita figure for all residents in the area, or on some other number, but the point is they set aside money as a guarantee, if you will, that they are committed to the area and to being responsible stewards of our resources. The fund would grow by additional contributions should the formula's multiplier increase. More wells put in, more gas extracted, that kind of thing. Sort of like a 401(k).
  2. If needed, a portion the money in the account could be withdrawn and used for specific and immediate needs, such as those outlined in #3 or #4 below, as long as those needs are described in the fund documents.  The documents should also include the time frame for replenishing any withdrawals. And any funds taken out must be replaced all at once, not a little bit at a time. So, a million bucks out means a million goes back in, and if the rules say within 30 days, they that's how long the fracking company has to replace the money. The interest cannot be touched. Violations of the fund rules mean the fund balance including interest goes to the municipality. 
  3. The fracking companies sign a document saying that they will be responsible for ALL costs associated with cleaning up ANY accident that might occur.  This means any incident below ground, above ground, issues with the drinking water, removal and transport of the fracking solution and related ingredients, and so on. All means all; any means any
  4. The fracking companies also agree to a net-zero impact on the municipality for things like police, fire, DPW, and any other department that might need to provide services should an unfortunate incident occur.  So, for example, overtime costs that would otherwise be borne by the residents would be paid by the fracking company, and would NOT be added to the municipal employee pensions. That kind of thing.  Net zero means exactly that.
  5. The municipality would agree to set aside a percentage of the money flowing to them as a result of the economic boom from fracking (taxes, licensing, sales tax on materials, new housing, etc.) and dedicate that money towards infrastructure -- including reliable, low-cost Internet for all residents, for example; and new roads, and water mains, and considerations for placing utilities underground, and so on. This shares the wealth with all of the residents who are impacted by the introduction of fracking to the neighborhood. 
  6. A further percentage should be set aside by the municipality for their rainy-day fund, so that they don't end up high and dry when the boom is over -- because, sooner or later the boom will be over.  The rest of the money can be distributed as seen fit by the local voters. Maybe they choose royalty payments to residents, similar to what Alaska does with oil revenue.  Maybe they reduce property taxes, or dedicate the money to schools, or youth programs, or set up a legal fund for land owners to help get the best deal from their leases. It's up to them how the money is spent.
  7. The fracking companies pay for independent on-site research/monitoring and testing for air and water quality. This is not a one time deal, it's continuous monitoring - the canary in the coal mine.
  8. The DEC establishes a satellite/regional office in the neighborhood, and makes sure no corners are cut. If corners are cut, the boom is lowered, the escrow account is forfeited, that kind of thing. 
  9. The State collects taxes and fees in accordance with whatever rules are in place at the time; ideally, the rules would be similar to how the gambling rules are set up, where the home county gets a specific return, and the rest of the money is distributed to the region, with a smaller percentage going to the state. 
The point of all of these rules and restrictions?  The companies that stand to benefit have significant skin in the game, they accept the risk for what they're doing, and they put their money where their mouths are. The municipality agrees to the terms and conditions, and accepts the frackers into their homes and lives. The citizens also gain - not only the lucky ones who have the leases in hand, but the rest of them: the schools, the diner owners, the home builders, the cleaning companies, the landlords, the bar owners, the florists, the grocery stores, the interior decorators, the doctors, pharmacies, the veterinarians, environmental waste removers, and so on. And they're as protected as they can be if something goes wrong. 

And me? Like the rest of the residents of New York who are not in an area that will directly benefit from fracking, we'll reap some small economic benefit from taxes flowing to Albany. More importantly, we too are as protected as we can be should anything go wrong, and will not be on the hook for the costs.  

We can talk and study and think until we're blue in the face, but it's time to give everyone a chance to make their decisions, and to live with them.  There are scientists on the pro-fracking side, and there are scientists on the anti-fracking side. There are farmers and other landowners who are fine with it and farmers and other landowners who are not fine with it. There are politicians on both sides, and plain old ordinary people on both sides.

I'm in the last bucket - a plain old person who wonders why we can pass gun legislation in the  middle of the night, or why it costs $60K to keep a criminal in prison each year, or why any of the other myriad things that happen in NY happen here, but we can't get out of the gate and make a decision on fracking. 

Frankly, whether my ideas makes sense or not, someone's ideas have to. Our DEC needs to get their thinking over with and make a decision. If we're going to allow fracking, get the regs out and let the chips fall where they may. If we're not going to allow fracking, tell people, so they can figure out what to do next. 

March 12, 2014

Working and Paying Taxes

Today is my 24th 'work anniversary'. It was way back on March 12, 1990 that I stopped being a temporary worker at, and became a full time employee of, what eventually became upstate NY's largest regional health insurance carrier.

Over the years, I've been a claims processor, an analyst, a trainer, an analyst, a process improvement analyst, a manager, a business integration expert, a director, an analyst, a process expert, an analyst, a process manager, a requirements analyst, and a compliance program administrator.

I've been trained on lots of practical things (specifically related to our business, products, and the like) as well as how to run effective meetings, how to communicate effectively, how to lead effectively, how to use software effectively to me look smarter.

I've had Lean/Six Sigma training, and learned about the Six Thinking Hats, and Maslow's Paradigm, and where to find my cheese now that it's been moved, and how to find my strengths. I know how to lead from where I am, and how to row in the same direction as everyone else.

I'm a Change Agent. I'm a Communicator. I'm a Participant.

I'm the kind of person you might want working for you, if you were coming in with one of those new tax-free businesses where the employees don't have to pay income taxes for 10 years.

Yesterday, the Onondaga County Republicans entertained and were entertained by The Donald, His Hairness, Mr. Trump himself.  He chatted up the crowd for just over half an hour, but did not announce his intentions to run for Governor, although he did say on a radio show that he would announce by the end of the week. (We'll see whether that happens).

I'm not a fan of Trump. I think he's an obnoxious blowhard, and a master self-promoter, which in some respects makes him sort of like a politician but a little more like the Duck Dynasty Dudes.  But even Trump realizes the craziness of  the Tax-Free NY program, which makes a separate class out of those of us who work for employers like mine and folks who come in to new companies that, because of a crazy idea cooked up by our Sonofa Governor Andrew Cuomo and business lobbyists, don't have to pay income taxes.  Trump calls publicity for the program, which he says he saw running during his golf tournament, political ads that should have been paid for by the Cuomo campaign.

Even State Senator John DeFrancisco realizes that this is a bad idea, and that it's unfair competition for existing businesses.

One guy who doesn't get it is my guy, Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli, who thinks the plan is fantastic because the new businesses will not be in direct competition with existing businesses, they'll be focusing on new technology and leveraging our educational system, blah blah blah.  We get that part, Bill.

However, these new businesses will need people who have skills in some traditional areas that businesses need to focus on, like finance, and human resources, and compliance, and so on.  They'll have to come from somewhere, either with the business that moves here, or from the existing workforce, or be outsourced to some other company.  And if they come with the employer, or leave a local company to work for the new kid on the block, those people will be here, using state services, for free.

And me, with 24 years and counting at my now 78-year-old company, well, I'll be helping pay their way. Happy Anniversary to me.

March 11, 2014

Tuesday's Number: $212,123

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

Each week, I track health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

·         This week, there were six new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $198,830. 
·         There was one satisfied judgment listed, for $13,293. 
·         And, there were no health care related bankruptcies.

New this year, I’m tracking filings for each of the four Syracuse hospitals. Here’s the breakdown for this week:

·         Crouse had three, totaling $169,341
·         St Joe’s had none
·         SUNY Upstate had four, totaling 42,782
·         Community General, a part of Upstate, had none  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

March 9, 2014

Sidebar: State Sponsored Gambling, Then and Now

According to several articles I read in the NY Times archives from 1965 - 1967, there was a great deal of angst surrounding the question of whether to allow a lottery for education funding, as there was leading up to our falling hook, line, and sinker last November for the hype and promise of expanded casino gambling for the same purpose.

Opponents of the plan believed that it was immoral for the government to be in the gambling business, particularly for the purpose of funding education; there was also a line of thinking that lotteries would lead to more: "off-track betting, slot machines, and all other forms of gambling," according to Rochester Republican senator Thomas Laverne. He also noted that "There is very little difference, other than how you lose your money." Others opposed to the plan felt that 'infiltration by the underworld' was sure to be a consequence.

Proponents, on the other hand, felt that the State had already lost the moral high ground when they approved taxing betting at horse tracks and allowing bingo games. And, in contrast to Senator Laverne's thinking, Republican Edward Speno of Nassau County noted that
I don't think that anyone in this chamber can deny the very apparent propensity of people to gamble. This is an intelligent experiment which we as legislators cannot permit to go untried. 
Guess who was not in favor of the lottery-for-education proposal?  That would be the Board of Regents, the state's education governing board.  Here's part of their statement, from an August 1966 article, announcing their unanimous opposition:
The obligation of the State to provide adequate funds for education is so fundamental that it should not be discharged, even in part, by the encouragement of public participation in a state lottery, which will result in uncertainty as to adequate revenue available for education and in an inequitable distribution of the public burden.
We are opposed in principle to a constitutional earmarking of funds for education, or indeed for any other specific governmental service. The insertion in the Constitution of the proposed earmarking provisions would, in our opinion, lead to further similar attempts to earmark funds in other areas and in the long run might well be injurious to the advancement of education.
Additionally, we believe that attempts to support education by the lottery involve serious moral considerations and, in our opinion, are inconsistent with the goals of education.
How about that for taking a stand? And there's this impassioned statement from Senator Samuel L Greenberg of Brooklyn:
To tell the kids of our state that their teachers' salaries and their books are being paid for with the $3 that Mama spent on a lottery ticket is the wrong way to bring up children. 
Well, we know what happened after all the hand-wringing: voters went to the polls in November 1966 and saw this simply-worded amendment before them:
Shall the proposed amendment to article one, section nine, subdivision one, of the constitution, in relation to the authorization of state lotteries for the support of education in this state be approved? 
By a 3 to 2 margin, voters said yes, and slowly, off they went to the bank -- yes, the bank! -- to buy lottery tickets.  In June of 1967, there were 4,100 ticket outlets, 3,100 of which were banks. How far we've come, so to speak, that lottery outlets now outnumber bank branches in most NY neighborhoods.

The proposition we voted on was certainly in stark contrast to the ones our parents faced:
The proposed amendment to section nine article one of the constitution would allow the legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York State for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues produced. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?
Only a child-hating, property-tax-loving idiot would vote against that, right? Well, apparently only 43% of current voters meet that definition, because the bill passed last year.

Here's a look at what's been happening since then:

(1) Developers are starting to put packages together, and lo and behold, there's already a battle royal brewing in the Catskills. Seems that some folks think Orange County, which is much closer to New York City, and is doing much better economically than neighboring counties to the north, could be a great site for a casino...except if you're one of the counties to the north, like Sullivan, or Ulster, which have higher unemployment rates, and tons of old vacation resort properties which could use refreshing.  As gambling consultant and former Racing and Wagering Board chair John Sabini notes,
As it moves forward, there'll be no shortage of bad blood, sniping and hired guns.  It'll get ugly because the stakes are so high. People have already spent millions of their own money.
(2) Some people are already starting to spend their casino-proposition money.  For example, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, who's now Andrew Cuomo's BFF, is going to put the county's $2.5 million share of casino revenue towards the Onondaga Lake revitalization plan. We can't have an OnSino, because we're in the Oneida Nation exclusivity area, but we'll get revenue, and won't be shy about spending it.

(3) The erosion of the middle class is having an impact on casinos. According to Goldman Sachs analyst Steven Kent
For example, luxury gambling properties like Wynn and the Venetian in Las Vegas are booming, drawing in more high rollers than regional casinos in Atlantic City, upstate New York, and Connecticut, which attract a less affluent clientele who are not betting as much.
So, regarding the destination casinos authorized last November, if we build them, will the right people even come? Or will the high rollers, the ones who can (theoretically) afford to spend money gambling, still be flying out to Vegas?

Tioga Downs (Elmira Star-Gazette photo)
(4) Consistent with the bullet above, Tioga Downs had its worst two-month slot revenue in three years. The racino, in Nichols NY, competes with a re-invigorated Mohegan Sun casino in Wilkes-Barre PA, where they have a hotel, luxury suites, and other amenities -- and where they also lost revenue on slots, as did 10 of the 11 casinos in Pennsylvania that were open this time last year.

But that's OK, because the owner of  Tioga Downs is going to compete with a handful of other bidders to be the Southern Tier's resort casino,and that will right the ship.

And speaking of casinos located just across the Empire State's borders, you just have to love comments like this one from our Sonova Governor, after he voted last year?
We literally hemorrhage people from the borders who go to casinos. I think it will keep the money in this state...
If I was a betting woman, I'd put money on those hemorrhaged people being figurative not literal, but "hey, you never know."

(5) It's worth noting that, at Tioga Downs, "it's just a game" and everyone is encouraged to play responsibly. But that lost revenue, whether it's related to the poor economy or the shrinking middle class or the poor weather or those dirty bastages in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and Connecticut and Canada and Massachusetts who are raking in money hand over fist from our hemorrhaging New Yorkers, well, that means that we'll have less money for education, right?

Is education funding really just a game? If it's really just a game, do we need the NY Lottery's ad campaign thanking us for helping the kids?

And hmm...lost revenue...that sounds a lot like the "uncertainty as to adequate revenue available for education" that the state's Board of Regents lamented back in 1966, doesn't it?

Folks, I'm torn.  Should I run out to buy a lottery ticket, or get my fanny down to Tioga Downs to play the slots? Does anyone know if they have happy, singing-and-dancing kids there?

March 8, 2014

Thank YOU, New York Lottery

Have you seen the latest New York Lottery commercial? In case you've missed it, take a look. Then we'll talk.

OK. Did you hear the voice-over, or were you captivated by the happy-go-lucky singing and dancing children? The moving walls of cereal that opened up to the angelic chorus?  Did you notice the sparkling clean, no-beer-or-tobacco-in-sight store? Or just the happy-go-lucky singing and dancing kids?

Here's what the voice-over says:
Every time you play a New York Lottery game a portion of the sale goes to aid New York school children just like them.  New York Lottery.  Everybody wins. 
I know when we started the NY Lottery back in the 60s there was a promise of  huge riches for education in the Empire State.  That was the selling point and is, today, still the mission of the Lottery.
The New York Lottery's sole mission is to earn revenue for education. Fundamentally, the Lottery is run as an entertainment business. A dedicated team of some 350 New York Lottery employees work with business partners and more than 17,000 retailers statewide to provide innovative, fun, and entertaining games for our customers. 
Sadly, it appears that we New Yorkers have forgotten the mission, enough so that the Lottery felt the need to come up with the ad campaign, a contest for schools to have kids singing the Thank You song for a chance to win funding for music programs, and in the process try make it look like the places where you can buy lottery tickets are all bright, happy, safe and wholesome stores -- the kind of places you'd love to have your kids hang out and sing.

According to the Lottery's acting director Gardner Gurney,
(they) wanted to spread the word of the New York's Lottery's commitment to our mission for education, and what better way to do that than with students thanking New Yorkers who help support their education through the purchase of lottery tickets.  
What better way to do that?

I think it would be hard to come up with  a worse way than exploiting kids by having then literally sing for their supper, er I mean lottery dollars. Ironically, during National Problem Gambling Awareness Month.

Thanks, New York Lottery.

March 4, 2014

The Update Desk: Consensus on Consolidation

In a recent post on the Consensus commission, the group that's going to help us here in Onondaga County and the city of Syracuse figure out how we can reduce the number of jurisdictions we have, I mentioned two examples of why we need to come up with ways to do exactly that.

One example was the village of East Syracuse, faced with an almost 22% tax increase; the village board was looking for opportunities to help reduce that burden, and looking again at possibly making the painful decision to get rid of the village police department and instead have police services provided by the town of Dewitt.

Last night, the village board voted to eliminate the police department, by a vote of four to one. The one board member who voted against the local law noted that the voters made their decision back in 2012 when they voted down a similar opportunity.

Times have changed since then - I think the tax increase is indicative of that. And while this decision wouldn't completely eliminate the cost of police protection for village residents, it is projected to save about $164 in taxes annually on a house assessed at $100,000, or more than half of the 2014 increase, if my math is correct.

Next step? Another public vote, coming on April 2nd.  We'll see if things will be different this time, or if the residents stick to their guns (and the higher taxes) again.

Tuesday's Number: $732,153

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

Each week, I track health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

·         This week, there were 31 new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $722,302.

·         There was one satisfied judgments listed, for $9,851.

·         And, there were no health care related bankruptcies.

New this year, I’m tracking filings for each of the four Syracuse hospitals. Here’s the breakdown for this week:

·         Crouse had five, totaling $142,926
·         St Joe’s had none
·         SUNY Upstate had 24, totaling $463,991
·         Community General, a part of Upstate, had one, for $5,580 

 The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.