Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York's newspapers:
The Albany Times Union on calls to end cash bail.
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The presumption of innocence is one of the most sacred principles of the American criminal justice system. Too often, though, it doesn't apply to poor people.
Take, for example, Christopher Kunkeli, a Dutchess County resident charged in October with shoplifting. At his arraignment, a local town justice set bail at $5,000. Because Mr. Kunkeli's annual income was only about $10,000, he languished in jail until last month, when state Supreme Court Justice Maria G. Rosa ruled that setting such a relatively high bail, which the defendant could obviously not afford, violated his Constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.
In ordering the defendant's release, Judge Rosa said people are being treated differently and unfairly based upon their indigent status. She and others see the need for reform of New York's cash bail laws, so that judges could have more options to ensure defendants show up for future court appearances — which is the sole purpose of bail. This can include better monitoring, which is less expensive and avoids what amounts to a lengthy jail stay before trial.
When people are unable to raise bail — even as little as a few hundred dollars in nonviolent cases — they often lose their jobs, can't share child care duties and even may be evicted from their homes. The impact of a brief incarceration can last for years.
Mr. Kunkeli's situation is not unique. Thousands of New Yorkers spend time behind bars because they cannot afford bail, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Vera Institute of Justice. The latter organization, which advocates for reform of the justice system, estimated last year that in the Capital Region people awaiting trial spend an average of 33 to 40 days in county jails.
A lengthy jail stay frequently has another negative outcome. Just to get out of jail, defendants end up accepting plea bargains, sometimes even when they are innocent. In the Dutchess County case, Mr. Kunkeli accepted a plea offer; he was sentenced to time already served.
In his State of the State address last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on the Legislature to change the law and eliminate cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. He said it was necessary to end the current two-tiered system that treats the rich and the poor unequally.
A bill to do just that, by broadening options for judges to help ensure defendants make scheduled court appearances, has been introduced by state Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from New York City. Opponents worry it may cause police to waste resources chasing down defendants who don't show up, but a recent study found cash bail made little difference. Releasing people accused of nonviolent crimes also reduces jail costs.
The Senate's Republican leaders must allow the Gianaris bill to get out of committee for a full floor debate and vote. Failing to consider this now will only perpetuate an injustice that falls unevenly on New Yorkers based on their income.
The Poughkeepsie Journal on suing the federal government over changes to the tax code.
Given the sheer complexity of the matter, it would be flat-out wrong to say all New Yorkers will be hurt by the recently passed federal tax bill. Millions will be helped, at least initially. But, on balance, the state is bound to be a loser, especially when you consider that — even before this massive deal was approved — New York has been giving to Washington far more in taxes than it has been receiving back in funds and services.
In fact, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has reported that New York is sending nearly $41 billion more to Washington than it is receiving back in federal spending — and that number has been growing.
Put another way, for every dollar New York taxpayers are sending to D.C., annually, they received back just 84 cents. Changes to the federal tax law will make that situation worse.
Specifically, the alterations to the tax code limit state and local deductions, including property taxes. This will hurt not only high-income earners but people living in high property tax areas, such as New York. As a result, the governors of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey are planning to sue the federal government over the changes.
"There is a very strong argument that the bill is a fundamental violation of states' rights and repugnant to the very concept of federalism that formed this nation," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a conference call with Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.
Perhaps the governors are right, and they will get their day in court. But neither Cuomo nor the people he represents should count on winning such a lawsuit. Cuomo also is contemplating changes in state law, which is likely a more realistic way to address this burden. The governor and New York lawmakers are going to have to get deeply involved in figuring out ways to hold taxpayers harmless from certain federal changes. Ideas include moving from an income tax to a payroll tax, creating a charitable contribution program so homeowners can still fully deduct their state and local taxes and/or decoupling the state's tax rates from the new federal ones.
But, surely, it shouldn't be lost on state officials that, while President Donald Trump and Congress didn't get this precisely right, tax reform is needed, and some of the changes will clearly benefit most New Yorkers. The governor needs to account for the tax breaks most New Yorkers are getting under the changes, such as lower income-tax rates and higher child deductions.
Along those lines, the state has plenty of its own work to do. New York's taxing structure is far too convoluted and complicated. For instance, rather than cutting taxes across the board, the state over time has implemented a series of piecemeal programs, including offering rebate checks that haven't always proved effective. These programs can be confusing, leading people to apply for ones they are not eligible for. State lawmakers like to rely on rebate checks because they believe people are more likely to recognize the break that way as opposed to if the cuts were reflected in their regular school-tax bill. But the rebate mailing system has proven wildly inconsistent over the years, with some homeowners not receiving the checks in time to pay their school bills, while others got the checks with wrong amounts.
To lower the financial burden on New Yorkers, the state would be better off streamlining the tax structure and also reducing the considerable mandate burdens it places on localities and school districts.
In all likelihood, a lawsuit against the new federal tax law will end up as a bust or merely bluster. But the state does have the ability to make meaningful tax changes on its own and should get to it.
The Utica Observer-Dispatch on fighting the flu.
Avoiding the flu this season has become a challenge. Diagnosed cases and hospitalizations have broken records across the state, and local health officials say numbers are up, too, in Oneida and Herkimer counties.
And it's not over yet.
If you've managed to escape so far, there are things you might do to keep it that way.
First, if you haven't gotten a flu shot yet, get one. It's not too late. While vaccination isn't a panacea, it can help.
"We still find that folks that have gotten the flu vaccine are having milder symptoms and aren't requiring hospitalization," said George Markwardt, a nurse practitioner and clinical director of the Regional Primary Care Network.
Markwardt said they still recommend the vaccine despite the fact that it doesn't protect against certain strains of the virus.
Symptom management, prompt diagnosis and proper hand-washing remain crucial to preventing the spread of the flu, too, he said. The antiviral medication Tamiflu can help treat the illness, but it's most effective if taken within the first two days after symtoms develop.
There are other seemingly obvious ways to prevent spread of the flu. First, follow Mom's age-old advice: Wash your hands. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that regular handwashing, particularly before and after certain activities, is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick, and prevent the spread of germs to others. It recommends a simple five-step process: wet, lather, scrub (20 seconds recommended), rinse, dry. Do it often. Carry hand sanitizer and use it when soap and water aren't available.
Also, if you have a fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and pains or other symptoms like nausea or vomiting sometimes associated with influenza, stay home. From work. From school. From any place where other people gather.
This is where employers need to be understanding. Some workplaces don't take kindly to absences and employees might be reluctant to call in sick. All employers must strongly encourage those with flu symptoms to stay home. Better to have one or two people out than your whole staff.
And, obviously, cover coughs and sneezes — preferably with a tissue, but into the crook of your arm — not your hands — if a tissue isn't available.
Take the flu seriously. It can be deadly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month reported 53 flu-related deaths among children so far, and the season has yet to peak. The entire 2016-17 flu season produced 110 pediatric flu deaths. No statistics on local flu deaths — if any — were available.
Statewide, 15,753 confirmed flu cases have been reported, and with many more who never were tested and officially diagnosed; of those, 2,349 hospitalizations were reported. Both broke records. In Oneida and Herkimer counties — there were 387 cases in Oneida County (compared to 339 cases the previous week) and 72 cases in Herkimer, up from 54 cases a week earlier.
And CDC officials say they expect to see increased flu activity for another several weeks.
So do what you can to keep the flu in check.
The Plattsburgh Press-Republican on importing Canadian medications.
Allowing the purchase of imported drugs for Americans who can't afford domestic products seems virtually inevitable.
Soaring prices by U.S. manufacturers are keeping too many from obtaining the medicines they need.
Back when Rouses Point was home to a major drug-manufacturing Pfizer plant, the North Country might have felt differently about allowing imported drugs to out-compete locals. But the truth is that too many Americans are sick and dying because they can't afford the drugs that could make them healthy and keep them alive.
One reliable survey says that 45 million Americans last year did not fill prescriptions they needed because of the cost.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill in 2003 that would have allowed the purchase of imported drugs.
But it had a provision that the secretary of Health and Human Services had to guarantee that imported medications posed no additional risk to public safety and would save money. That negated the usefulness of the idea, since no HHS secretary has yet agreed to ensure that no imported prescription posed a threat to health.
Four former commissioners of the Food and Drug Administration signed a letter to Congress arguing that drug importation remains too much of a risk to permit.
"It could lead to a host of unintended consequences and undesirable effects, including serious harm stemming from the use of adulterated, substandard, or counterfeit drugs," said Robert Califf, Margaret Hamburg, Mark McClellan and Andrew von Eschenbach, who headed the FDA at various times between 2002 through 2016.
But a recent proposal by Sanders and others drops that requirement. Instead, it sets up a regulatory system where Canadian pharmacies that purchase their supply from manufacturers inspected by the Food and Drug Administration would be licensed to sell to customers in the U.S. — individuals, drug wholesalers and pharmacies.
After two years, HHS could allow importation from other countries that meet standards comparable to those of the United States.
One example of a well-known and commonly used drug in America is the cholesterol-lowering Crestor. In the United States, one pill costs $6.82; in Canada, $2.58.
Why the disparity is a terrific question. Would allowing Americans to buy Canadian Crestor force lower prices here? Would it harm the manufacturers and, eventually, the American economy?
These may be questions with unknown answers, but, with so many people unable to afford the drugs they need, they are worth investigating.
It is not only individuals needing the drugs who should be taken into account, but the federal government and its taxpayers, as well. After all, we all pay for Medicare and Medicaid, and they are paying exorbitantly high prices, too.
The first order of business is to get people the means they need to stay alive and ensure their health.
If allowing drugs to be bought across the border will do that, it must be pursued.
The New York Daily News on possible changes to the food stamps program.
The Republican Party, which professes to believe in vouchers, consumer choice and the free market for all, wants to convert billions of dollars in food stamps — which let low-income Americans shop for what they need, when and where they need it — into a direct-from-the-government box of provisions.
The idea, which seems to have gone straight from scrawl on the back of a grocery receipt into President Trump's budget, is the administration's way of covering for the fact that it proposes gutting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by $17 billion next year.
That's more than a fifth of the program's total funding.
Who needs to properly fund food stamps, says Trump's Agriculture Department, when half of every recipient's allotment can buy a publicly packaged box-o-goodies that saves taxpayers $130 billion over 10 years, what with the feds driving down costs by buying items wholesale?
Except nobody's thought for a second about how to build the costly and complex infrastructure necessary to assemble all those products for the 16 million households that rely on government nutritional assistance.
Or the logistical systems needed to routinely deliver heavy boxes of shelf-stable milk, juice, cereals, pasta, grains, beans, peanut butter, canned meat, vegetables and canned fruits and vegetables to all those doors, including in remote rural areas.
Our business-friendly government and famously food-picky President seem to have conveniently forgotten the fact that different homes have dramatically different dietary needs.
Some don't drink milk or eat meat. Some keep kosher or halal kitchens. Some kids are deathly allergic to peanut butter.
Where are homeless people, whose addresses change with frequency, supposed to get their deliveries? And what about the damage done to local supermarkets, which help hold many a small community together? Food stamps drive 7.5% of their sales.
It's all too easy to mock budget director Mick Mulvaney for likening "America's Harvest Box" to Blue Apron, the $140-a-week gourmet food delivery service.
But the corporate analogy isn't just tone-deaf; it's perverse. The biggest reason the proposal offends is because it cynically abandons years of supposed conservative wisdom about empowering the poor by giving them access to the marketplace, replacing that with old-school, big-government paternalism.
Put that hypocrisy in a box and ship it.