ECC’s challenges; ECMC’s challenges; a major Erie County financial issue; Chris Collins’ view of Trumpcare; Flynn’s promise-made promise-kept

Here is a short run-down of a variety of issues that impact Western New Yorkers.

ECC

Erie Community College has a new president, Dan Hocoy. His resume is appropriate to the job in-hand. The job in-hand is very challenging.

The College has some very well-known financial issues that will test Hocoy, his staff, and the Board of Trustees including:

  • Declining student enrollment, which has been an on-going concern for several years. Reportedly this summer’s session had an enrollment drop off in the low double digits, and another drop is anticipated for the fall semester. The school is heavily dependent on tuition payments to support its budget. State aid is calculated based on enrollment, so even though there have been some modest increases in per-capita aid from Albany, the actual dollars coming to ECC have declined because of enrollment drops.
  • The school has signed on to a new technology program designed to bring school record-keeping into the 21st century. The program comes with a substantial annual cost increase for such purposes.
  • The school has continued to eat into its financial reserves, which could at some point impact accreditation.
  • The College has some substantial unmet capital needs spread out among its three campuses. The Quinn administration failed to produce the school’s share of the new STEM building, which was to be one-quarter of the $30 million anticipated cost.

The College’s long-time financial vice president, Bill Reuter, recently left for a position at Hudson Valley Community College. Reuter was able to keep financial things patched together for a long time, but over the years the school has been left with fewer options to deal with the issues going forward. Filling Reuter’s position will be a high priority for Hocoy.

The new president moved to set the tone for his new administration by reducing the size of his executive staff, laying off two, having one retire, and having a fourth person transferred outside of the executive team. Annual savings are projected at $500,000, which seems a bit on the high side if one of the jobs was just a transfer within the school.

One of the two layoffs involved Jeff Bagel, Vice President in charge of the ECC Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for raising outside funds for the school. Its operations were part of the subject of the State Comptroller’s audit released in early 2016, which called for reforms in the way the Foundation was run. Hocoy extended the duties of Executive Vice President Michael Piekiewicz to include supervision of the Foundation.

The change in staff leadership of the Foundation was not done in consultation with the Foundation’s Board of Directors, which oversees its operations and has an interest in the appointment of the Foundation’s executive. In protest, three-quarters of the Board resigned. No word yet on how Hocoy will deal with that issue.

Finally, some changes are coming to the College’s Board. Former member Len Lenihan is being reappointed by County Executive Mark Poloncarz.  There are a couple other Board spots in play, which could possibly strengthen Poloncarz’s hand in influencing management of the school if he chooses.

ECMC

The Erie County Medical Center went through a rather traumatic event in April – the takeover of its computer systems by a hacker. The Buffalo News reported last week that the hackers wanted the equivalent of $30,000 in Bitcoins as ransom. The hospital refused and instead has been working through the recovery process, improving security of their systems. Hospital management has totaled its losses in terms of added expenses and lost revenues at approximately $10 million. Increases in annual technology operating costs related to improved security are also expected to be substantial.

By coincidence, $10 million is also the limit of liability insurance coverage that the hospital purchased last year. How the hospital’s claim will settle out remains to be seen. It would not be unusual for the insurance carrier to offer something less than the requested $10 million. So it might be like those non-stop TV commercials we keep seeing – “CB law firm got me X million for my claim – ten times more than what the insurance company offered.” Which is why the hospital hired a major local law firm – no, not THAT one – to represent them in dealing with the insurance carrier.

Erie County’s financial challenge

As the time begins to draw near for the preparation of Erie County’s 2018 budget, County Executive Mark Poloncarz and the County Legislature are about to face a new round of challenges. Among them will be the finances of ECC and ECMC.

Poloncarz has provided some limited increases in the county’s annual subsidy to the College, but the increases have not compensated for the school’s growing financial difficulties as enrollment declines. The County Executive proposed a joint county-college working group to study the school’s options for future operations, but the school was slow to respond. Perhaps that will change now.

A major on-going challenge to the county’s finances has been the hospital’s escalating expenses related to indigent care under a federal Medicaid program known as Intergovernmental Transfers, or IGT.

In 2016 the county was required to make millions of dollars more in IGT payments than originally budgeted. Already in 2017, per the county’s May Budget Monitoring Report, payments exceeded $34 million, or $11 million more than budgeted, with seven months remaining in the fiscal year. Total costs for 2017 will likely be on the high side of $40 million.

This issue is substantial and is not going away. It is part of the reason that an earlier post on this blog suggested that the county executive and the legislature will need to think about a county property tax increase in 2018.

The financial agreement worked out among the county administration, the legislature, the hospital, and the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority (ECFSA) earlier this year to finance capital improvements at the hospital may factor into the county’s IGT payment obligations to the hospital. The amount of money saved by the county/ECFSA bond deal, when compared with what capital borrowing would have cost the hospital to do it itself, is likely to be credited to the county by the hospital in some form. That would provide some temporary – but only temporary – financial relief to the county.

Chris Collins’ take on Trumpcare

The bumbling, stumbling efforts of Republicans in the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives to live up to their seven year commitment to repeal and replace Obamacare have been a failure of the highest order. While millions of Americans may, for the time being, breathe a little easier about their health insurance coverage, the issues are not in any way resolved. Let’s see how bi-partisanship works.

The “skinny” repeal bill that the Senate tried but failed to approve last week would have removed coverage from 15 million Americans and increased premiums by about 20 percent. Western New Yorkers would have been among the casualties of that proposal.

Here’s how Congressman Chris Collins weighed in with the New York Times last Friday about the “skinny” repeal:

Representative Chris Collins, Republican of New York and a key ally of Mr. Trump, said the stripped-down bill would be “better than nothing” if it became apparent that the Senate did not have the votes for a more ambitious bill. “It becomes a binary choice,” he said. “If it’s this or nothing, who wants to go home and say I did nothing? No one can guarantee anything,” he added, sending a message to senators wanting assurances.

Having 15 million people lose health coverage with 20 percent increases in premiums for others is “better than nothing”, Chris? Wow! Your constituents are so grateful for your efforts. You seem better suited for stock brokering than legislating.

Flynn keeps his promise

Last year’s race for Erie County District Attorney was a hard fought battle, both in the Democratic primary and in the general election. Things often get said and promised in the heat of a campaign that sometimes do not come to fruition when the winner takes office.

The election winner, John Flynn, committed himself to neither soliciting nor accepting campaign funds from employees of the District Attorney’s office if he was elected. In-house solicitation has been a common practice in the office.

Flynn scheduled a fundraiser for July 27th. He kept his promise.  The following is from the event invitation:

Friends of John Flynn is not soliciting or accepting contributions from employees of the District Attorney’s office or their spouses, partners, or significant others.

 

Pardon me, but is this tell the truth week?

As part of Donald Trump’s effort to Make America Great Again, the White House has been featuring various weekly themes that highlight all the great work of the administration. Editor’s note: the weekly themed approach was the brainchild of whoever was running the White House communications department at the time, but there is a new Mooch in town so things may change.

Among the weekly themes we have seen are so far are:

  • Infrastructure Week, intended to show how the rebuilding of America’s roads, bridges and airports would add millions of jobs. Highlight of the week: FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to Congress
  • Energy Week, intended to demonstrate that Rick Perry knew what department he had wanted to eliminate and had subsequently been appointed secretary of. Highlight of the week: Trump sort of admits to Russian interference in the election and blames Obama
  • Workforce Development Week, intended to show how getting people into apprenticeships would help people get new skills for employment. Highlight of the week: Trump’s 2018 budget announcement that would gut various federal departments, including training programs
  • Made in America Week, intended to show how Ivanka Trump’s line of clothes are made in Asia. Okay, so that was not the intended purpose. Highlight of the week: The Senate’s inability to repeal and replace Obamacare

So here we are in the week of July 24th. Jared Kushner testified privately to investigators of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday and with House Intelligence Committee representatives on Tuesday. Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort were supposed to appear publicly before the Senate Judiciary Committee today but for now there will be private interviews.  So what better week to declare it Tell the Truth Week©?

Tell the Truth Week© will feature various Trumpkins pretending to tell the truth. Kushner has hired some high-priced lawyers and public relations consultants to advise him on how to tell the truth. He might do somewhat better than Donald Jr. and Paul. The latter two have the apparent disadvantage of having been already thrown under the bus by Jared, who got to a congressional committee before they did.

Jared began Tell the Truth Week© by releasing an eleven page opening statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee. He informed the committee that he “did not collude” with that woman, Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya. Nor did he collude with Russian lobbyist Rinat Akmetshin. Nor did he collude with the Russian banker Sergey Gorkov. Nor did he collude with Russian money launderer Ike Kaveladze. Nor did he twice collude with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. And Kushner only suggested using Russian facilities to communicate with Moscow because Russian generals did not want to come to America to talk.

Jared explained that the revisions to his 100-page SF-86 Security Clearance Form were necessary because a careless assistant answered questions untruthfully under penalty of falsifying the document, which is felony carrying a five-year term in federal prison. Jared failed to note that he signed the false documents in four places. I can hardly wait to hear that assistant’s testimony about the Security Clearance Form.

Separately Jared also has had problems explaining why his family continues to promote Chinese investments in Kushner properties by noting that Jared is, after all, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor. He also seems to have forgotten the stuff about getting a $285 million loan from Deutsche Bank, which itself is in trouble for some money-laundering matters with the Russians.

And then there is the question about the campaign’s demographic and analytic information that Jared supervised. There’s certainly no reason to think that the straight-laced Jared might ever slip such information to the Russians, whose hackers seem to have had amazing insight into which states and counties to dump their fake news into social media during the election.

No siree, no colluding with Russia on Jared’s part. Nyet.

Then there is Don Jr., whose email chain had the subject line “Russian – Clinton – personal and confidential” helped get Kushner invited to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Don Jr. fessed up to things day after day, adding additional Russian characters to the famous meeting as he went along – sort of like a Russian nesting doll.

And let’s not forget Paul Manafort. Manafort graciously took no salary from the Trump campaign, which he joined fresh off his multi-million dollar deals with the Ukrainians who are Putin buddies. More recently Sean Spicer tried to describe the former campaign manager as a short-term volunteer on the campaign. Just why was Paul buying up housing around the country after getting paid millions from Ukrainians (or Russians)? Money laundering sounds like a good possibility there. But then Manafort’s real estate deals were small potatoes compared with the $95 million sale of a piece of Palm Beach Florida property by Trump Senior to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev.

And of course there is good old Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Attorney General of these United States of America, our premier defender of America law. Jeff plum forgot all sorts of details about his meetings with the Russkies. Heck, he couldn’t even remember that he had such meetings with them, what with his responsibilities helpin’ to run the Trump campaign and all. Trump is showing his gratitude now by pushing Sessions out the door, probably to get rid of the Robert Mueller investigation into the Russian mess.

I won’t get into lesser Trumpkins like Carter Page, who like other small role Trump-hangers-on lusts for attention, any attention, which often leads Page to tell about his Russian dealings, minor though they might have been.

Thinking about all of these Trumpkin twists and turns, at least Michael Flynn tried to get immunity to testify about what he knows.

And to be sure that she is not left out of the limelight we have Kellyanne Conway saying pay no attention to the Russian bear behind the curtain. Look at all the shiny objects that we left on the table. Even Congressman Chris Collins was brought back into Trump service to try to minimize the Russia thing.

As we move to the completion of Tell the Truth Week© we are left to ponder why, if there is no real Russia problem, is there all this talk about pardons? One of Trump’s defense team, Andrew Sekulow, said on ABC “[w]e have not, and I continue to not, have conversations with the president of the United States regarding pardons.” For those who learned their English style and form in the last century, re-read that sentence and try to diagram it.

Of course on the same day as Sekulow’s comments, newly appointed communications director Anthony (“the Mooch”) Scaramucci told Fox News, referring to pardons, “I’m in the Oval Office with the president last week, we’re talking about that — he brought that up.” So is Sekulow lying or is the Mooch, or are they both telling the truth and is it just POTUS who is again talking out of both sides of his mouth?

To my Republican friends who have read this far into this post, I kind of, sort of feel bad for you. Now that your party controls all of Washington it seems appropriate to expect that you would get the legislative package you yearn for. But with every passing day Obamacare repeal becomes less likely, Trumpcare is on the horizon, tax reform may or may not get approved after being skinnied-down, and immigration controls will be limited. There will be some problems with passing the 2018 federal budget and extending the debt limit.

Most of all, you have Twittering Donny hanging around the party’s neck, uncontrollable and doing damage to the party brand on a daily basis. But at least he is your president. Good luck.

Republicans challenging Republicans

It was not supposed to be like this. Republican Party leaders in Washington and throughout the country railed against Obamacare for seven years, wanted to take a butcher’s knife to entitlements such as Medicaid, and most of all, planned major changes in the tax code to make the rich richer.

We need a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, they said. With substantial stirred-up opposition to Obamacare and the considerable help of gerrymandered districts, with some voter suppression thrown in for good measure, the Republicans in 2010 won the House.  In the subsequent elections they increased their majority to the largest number for the party in decades.

We need a Republican majority in the Senate, they said. As in House races, the significant opposition to Obamacare fueled the Republican takeover of the Senate in 2014.

And finally, we need a Republican president to sign all the great roll-back legislation that will be passed, they said. With 80,000 well-positioned votes in three key states and with some help from Vladimir Putin, the party elected Donald Trump president.  So finally all the pieces of the puzzle were assembled to legislate a conservative revolution.

By changing the rules of the Senate the Republicans were able to put a far-right justice on the Supreme Court. Trump has signed executive orders by the dozens, but most of them were for show.  Cabinet members who have best demonstrated their mettle by a go-around-the-table show of ass-kissing were appointed.  Some of them still seem to have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time.  It reminds me of the scene in Blazing Saddles when Governor LePetomane signed legislation creating the William J. LePetomane Gambling Casino for the Insane and then complained that one of the members of his cabinet didn’t give him an honorific “harrumph.”

The one Trump appointee who seems to be having a grand old time, from his point of view, is Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt. He is moving at break-neck speed to do everything he can to turn over “environmental protection” to the oil and coal companies and the Brothers Koch.

When it comes to real legislating, however, 2017 has so far not been a bang-up year for the Party. House Republicans failed in their first attempt to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, and then just squeaked by in passing the bill that even Trump described as “mean,” a bill that had the support of 16 percent of the American people.

Now it is the Senate’s turn. The bill that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell placed on the table is not any more popular than the House version.  The two wings of the Party have spent the past two weeks staking out their positions and sniping at the other side.  The Independence Day recess seems to have made it even less likely that a bill can be passed and sent to Trump before the August recess.  (Doesn’t it seem that all the congressional recesses make them appear like an elementary school?)

The dreamers like Speaker Paul Ryan still talk like everything is going as planned, with tax reform and infrastructure spending teed up and ready to proceed just as soon as the “repeal and replace” bill is taken care of. I doubt that Ryan, McConnell or other party leaders really think they can thread all of the needles that need to be threaded to get all that legislation through.

As important as those priorities may be, they will get trumped by two more, at this time, more important, urgent, can’t possibly be delayed issues. Raising the debt ceiling and passing a 2018 federal budget cannot be put off for long, and as Trump might say, they are complicated issues.  Who knew?

In both the upcoming debt ceiling and budget debates the Republican Party’s two bases will be challenging one another severely. The far-right, having grown comfortable with the luxury of not being in control of all the levers of government, may want to use the two financial issues to impose their machete-like will on domestic spending and will insist on major cuts as their price for support.  The establishment wing of the party, particularly those representing urban and suburban constituencies, will resist that approach.

We have seen this show before. After the two wings of the Republican Party fail to agree on the debt ceiling and the budget, the despised House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer will be brought in to rescue the whatever limited number of Republican members of Congress who are prepared to raise the debt ceiling and pass a budget.  This is why John Boehner is sitting somewhere at pool side, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of merlot in the other.

So that is a summary of how Republicans are challenging Republicans in Washington. There seems to be an even more interesting intramural party show playing out far removed from Washington.

In Kansas the Republican controlled State Legislature overrode vetoes of new taxes and spending by Governor and soon-to-be-ambassador-to-somewhere-far-removed-from-Topeka Sam Brownback. Basically they are reversing Brownback’s let-a-state-show-how-real-Republican-tax-cutting-philosophy can work in practice.  What’s the matter with Kansas?

Similar challenges and legislative fights have also broken out in other states including Arkansas and South Carolina.

Even more interesting than the state legislative challenges is the response of states around the country to the request by Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity for extensive data about voters’ names, middle names or initials, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, party registration, voting history, portions of voters’ social security numbers and other assorted things such as felony convictions and military status.

In one form or another forty-four states thus far, including those managed by Republicans as well as those managed by Democrats, are declining to provide any information other than what is already available on the websites of appropriate state offices, usually the secretaries of state. The Commission effort is being led by the Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has made a career out of conjuring up false voter fraud theories and then pushing efforts to suppress voting.

Some of the states’ responses to the Kobach request for the data have been just polite denials. Others, however, have been more energetic.  My favorite was the answer from the Republican Secretary of State in Mississippi, Delbert Hosemann, who told Kobach and company that they “can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great state to launch from. Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our state’s right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes.”

The thought of all the requested data being funneled into some computer server in the White House is frightening. I could see at a future Trump-Putin meeting (okay, I couldn’t see it, just imagine it) where Trump shakes Putin’s hand and slips him something as Trump mumbles “you’ll like what you find on this flash drive, Vlad.”

The skirmishes that have occurred in Washington concerning proposed legislation have mostly seen Republicans acting politely to one another and to Trump. How that might change if the key first year of the Trump administration fades away with no legislative achievements will be very interesting.

But even more interesting is how Republicans in the states are standing up to and defying Trump and his Commission. This action will probably not be replicated in other matters, but open differences at this stage are rather remarkable.

Democrats have much more of a history of intra-party fights and there will be some new fighting coming up. But having the Republicans control all the levers of power and then dividing up into two openly warring factions is a fascinating political development.  Democrats are warned:  do not overdose on schadenfreude.

Chris Collins, stockbroker?

Chris Collins began his public career when he was elected Erie County Executive in 2007. He served one term and lost his bid for re-election to Mark Poloncarz. Then opportunity knocked.

Congressman Chris Lee got into a minor personal scandal and decided to resign, leading to a special election in May 2011. County Clerk Kathy Hochul was elected to succeed Lee in Congress. In 2012 new congressional districts needed to be drawn but the State Legislature punted on their responsibilities, which led to a New York City judge drawing the new congressional lines. In Western New York the newly drawn districts resulted in Hochul’s new district becoming the most Republican affiliated in the state.

Which led to Collins’ second try for a congressional seat. He had lost an election to Congressman John LaFalce in the 1990’s. The Hochul-Collins campaign was a tough and expensive one which Collins won by a very small margin. Continue reading

The Republican commitment to enacting Trumpcare comes to a fork in the road; In Memoriam, Father Vincent M. Cooke, S.J. and Bill Mariani

So this is what all the waiting was for? A warmed over hybrid of Obamacare and the House “repeal and replace” bill is all the United States Senate Republicans could come up with? They hid in a secluded room for weeks to produce this?

I’ll give them this: amending Obamacare is hard and complicated work. Who knew? Continue reading

Trump’s infrastructure plans could lead to re-installing Thruway tolls

I grew up in Kaisertown. I watched the Niagara Section of the Thruway built right before my eyes. The Ogden toll barrier was in sight of our front porch.

That toll barrier collected millions of dollars from drivers over a period of more than fifty years. It slowed traffic pouring into the city. What a crazy idea – charging people in a mid-sized metropolitan area a fee to enter the central city.

That barrier, of course had a sister location along the Niagara River, near Breckenridge. That was so that area residents coming into the central city from the north towns could also pay to enter. There was no fee to leave the city.

A few years ago those barriers came down after an aggressive campaign by local political and business leaders. Traffic finally, after more than fifty years, flowed freely into Buffalo. Continue reading