Political cover and posturing in the face of a crisis

There are a lot of things going on in the local government and political community that are worth reporting on and analyzing but for at least this week I’m going to offer up for your consideration comments about how some politicians are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.

When Donald (“I alone can fix it”) Trump told us recently that he takes no responsibility at all, he wasn’t telling us something new, but at least we now have it on tape. He has fought and belittled people who by training and education are qualified to lead and instead has surrounded himself with bootlickers who have checked their brains and morals at the door for the glory of working in the Trump White House.

Having Mike Pence and Jared Kushner in charge of fighting the pandemic is laughable. Pence only does what Fearless Leader tells him to do.  Kushner is undoubtedly building up his Rolodex with useful business contacts that he can cash in on during his post-White House days.

Last fall there were early warning signs of the growing problem in China with the virus. The Trump administration ignored that stuff.

When the pace of confirmed cases of the virus started to move past China, Trump remained in denial mode. Then Trump switched to his old stand-by, trying to deflect attention.  He blamed Democrats.  He blamed the media.  He paid no attention to whatever the scientific experts told him.  He called it a hoax.  Fox News provided talking points to the base.

After the first cases showed up in the United States his denials expanded. He told us there were only 15 cases and they soon would all be gone.  He told the world about the wonderful job he and his team were doing.

Wall Street investors were selling off quickly and Trump was losing the thing he told America was the real benchmark of his great economic achievements, a rising stock market. He addressed the nation from the Oval Office.  Investors responded with another big selloff.

Trump pressured the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates, which stood to benefit his highly leveraged properties that are likely in financial trouble and could catch a break in interest charges. The Fed has responded by twice cutting their interest rates to near zero while also using their monetary powers to buy up treasuries.  They have used up most of their weapons for fighting a financial meltdown, and investors responded by pulling out even more of their money.

The focus now is on Congress. The first two relief packages were prepared by the House.  Mitch McConnell had to tell his senators to gag but vote for them.  Thank you Nancy Pelosi for showing real leadership.

We will now observe how the Republicans who used to hate deficits will get their arms around a nearly two trillion dollar bailout package.  It also seems that the bailout that Republicans are pushing includes a government ownership stake in some businesses.  That, of course, is the basic definition of socialism.

While all of this has been going on we have come to learn that two Republican senators, Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler, were busy acting like Chris Collins. Acting after receiving information they obtained in secret Intelligence Committee meetings, they dumped millions of dollars of stock related to businesses that would likely take a beating when the full dimensions of the pandemic became known.  Like what Collins is going to prison for.  Mitch McConnell and his gang should call for Burr and Loeffler’s resignations.  The same should apply to any other members of Congress or people in the White House who have acted similarly.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of this to happen.

Not to be outdone by the Trump team in Washington, local Trumpster/County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw jumped into the show. He suggested by Tweet that the County Legislature could find money to buy needed medical supplies by approving the proposed reorganization of his office.  That’s the plan would allow Mychajliw to raise former Legislator Lynne Dixon’s salary in the Comptroller’s office from about  $50,000 to $90,000.  The county is being provided with whatever medical supplies have become available, and the county’s surplus, which Republican legislators have tried to chip away at, is rock solid. It will be needed as these issues move along.

Finally, a question. Congressional candidate Chris Jacobs has run tons of TV commercials touting his strong support for Donald Trump.  Why is he so silent about the mess Trump has made of things when the nation’s health and safety are concerned?

A personal note

Today is the 5th anniversary of Politics and Other Stuff. This post is number 361.  The posts have contained approximately 394,000 words.

Readership started five years ago with some family members and friends whose email addresses I extracted via LinkedIn connections. Over time people have come to voluntarily subscribe directly, with an accompanying growing number of Twitter followers.  The number of clicks continues to be very good.

Along the way the posts have achieved added circulation through re-publication or links in The Public, Investigative Post, and Buffalo Rising.  I am grateful to the publishers of those websites for their assistance.

I am also very grateful to long-time friend and Politics and Other Stuff Editor Paul Fisk for his valuable insight and guidance in producing the posts.

Writing this blog has been fun, but I hope that in some small way it has helped contribute to public dialogue about a range of issues and public figures. I have offered lots of opinions, but have also provided many, many useful facts.  I am not expecting readers to agree with my opinions all the time, or maybe even some of the time, but I hope that what is offered here stimulates thought and discussion.

Thank you for reading. And please, stay safe.

The financial crisis will pose serious money problems at City Hall

The Coronavirus pandemic is taking its toll on those who are physically suffering through the infections and on the families who have already lost loved ones. The incredibly serious situation seems to get worse by the hour.

The leadership on this issue has come from state houses, county halls and city halls. Donald Trump is late to the game and it remains to be seen just what will come out of Washington to provide health care administrators with the medical personnel, facilities, supplies and equipment to flatten the virus’ curve.  The head-in-the-sand partisans in Washington don’t exactly have a good track record of producing results in situations such as the one we find our collective selves in at the moment.

Priority one is certainly to get the virus under some reasonable management. Control for now is another matter.

Then there are the financial issues, stretching from the kitchen tables of most Americans to those with macro-management responsibilities in DC and on Wall Street. People will be rapidly losing their jobs.  Government will be expected to help but will be stretched thin.

In New York State we have seen this movie before, after 911 and after the 2008 fiscal meltdown, but this time it is playing in 3-D on an IMAX screen (if we could only get into a theater). The depth and breadth of this financial crisis is likely to be far greater than the vast majority of those living have ever experienced.

Wall Street income is heading for an awful year, and that will cost state budget coffers greatly. More on that in a moment.

Sales tax revenues are going to plunge for an extended period of time, which will damage the finances of states and local governments. In counties such as Erie that share a substantial portion of their sales tax revenues with cities, towns, school districts and the Transportation Authority, the difficulties will be shared from Tonawanda to Springville.  People out of work will have problems paying their city, school district, town and county property taxes and fees.  The amount of these lost revenues is impossible to project at this time, but the numbers are going to be very big.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli issued a report yesterday about the state’s finances. Here is part of what he said:

“[T]he Office of the State Comptroller has analyzed the economic and revenue outlook for the remainder of the current fiscal year and for the next fiscal year. Based on information as of March 13, 2020, the most optimistic revenue scenario is that All Funds tax revenues in State Fiscal Year 2020-21 will be at least $4 billion below projections of $87.9 billion in the Executive Budget. However, given deteriorating conditions and the potential likelihood of a deep recession in the coming fiscal year, one alternative scenario suggests that tax revenues in SFY 2020-21 could be more than $7 billion below the Executive Budget forecast…

“Congress is considering legislation that would bolster unemployment insurance, make paid sick leave and family leave more widely available, and temporarily increase the federal share of states’ Medicaid costs under certain circumstances. Such provisions would be expected to have a positive economic impact that is not yet possible to quantify with specificity. Additional federal funding for Medicaid would benefit the State Financial Plan…

“The federal government is also considering delaying tax filing deadlines, which could result in billions of dollars of New York tax payments being delayed as well. This raises concern regarding the State’s cash flow in the coming fiscal year.

“In addition to the tax revenue impacts discussed above, the State faces other risks. State gaming receipts from video-lottery facilities and commercial casinos will be depressed by recent events including actions taken to limit public gatherings, although any specific estimate currently is not possible. The Executive Budget Financial Plan projects receipts from VLTs and casinos to total $1.1 billion in SFY 2020-21. Other non-tax revenue sources could be at risk as well.

“The Legislature has authorized $40 million to address costs related to COVID-19, including personal services, equipment, supplies or training. Other costs not currently expected, and difficult to estimate, may arise due to a variety of factors related to the outbreak and its economic impact.”

The State Comptroller’s Office regularly reviews localities that the Office has found to be under financial stress. The most recent list, which evaluated municipalities for their 2018 fiscal years, includes the City of Niagara Falls, which is considered to be under significant stress.

The State Legislature is due to approve the 2020-21 state budget in less than two weeks. How that is going to work out is anybody’s guess.

The State, in situations like these, has often been inclined to pass part of the financial burden on to local governments and school districts. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget, which was filed before the coronavirus issue rose to its current level, was already looking to solve a portion of its multi-billion dollar deficit by having counties and New York City pick up some additional Medicaid costs.  That effort may have now been stymied by federal legislation, leaving the big budget hole to fill on top of what is now on the horizon.

It seems probable that the State will either now, when the budget is adopted, and/or later in this year, when the full dimensions of the problem are better known, look to cut local financial assistance to counties, cities, towns, villages and school districts. The pain could be great and distributed from Montauk Point to Niagara Falls.  It has been that way with lesser financial meltdowns.

So the question will be which among the local governments and school districts and SUNY/CUNY colleges are best prepared to deal with the pain? We will soon find out.  Reserves will be helpful if available, but higher local taxes and budget cuts will need to be part of the package.

Erie County government has built up reserves to the tune of about $102 million that will come in mighty handy. Last Sunday County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced that he would ask the County Legislature to set aside $5 million out of the anticipated $8-10 million surplus from 2019 for the purpose of additional potential expenses related to dealing with coronavirus issues.

And then there is the City of Buffalo. All of the city’s reserves were used up in 2019.  There remains a “rainy day fund” of about $39 million, which is intended for a “Break Glass” situation.  The axe is being readied to do just that.

But if that happens, as seems likely, diminished State and city revenues could quickly require Buffalo to use up much of the $39 million or leave the city with no reserves at all.

For several years The City Comptroller’s office, beginning with Mark Schroeder’s tenure, has advocated re-building the city’s reserves beyond just the rainy day fund. That would have made things that are coming a little easier to handle, but Mayor Byron Brown has resisted such an effort.  The Common Council has only paid lip service to re-building the reserves.  The million-dollar Buffalo Control Board has sat on its hands and done nothing.

The national fiscal crisis is coming to a state and locality near you.  It’s not going to be pretty.

Confronting the truth is hard for Trump and Sanders; a note about Jack Cookfair

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are alike in some ways and different in other ways.

Both men are septuagenarians. Both were born in New York City.  Neither has much hair on their head, but at least Bernie is more honest about it.

Both men are totally convinced that their view of the world is the one, true and only way to see things.

Both men love expressing that attitude to very large crowds of adoring fans. Or at least they did until last week, when their styles and personalities came up against the hard truth, which could not be denied, that large crowds are a potential health hazard.  The CDC now recommends no gatherings larger than 50 people.

But, of course, Trump and Sanders are different in many important ways. Trump is all in for helping the rich to get richer and in convincing his true followers that he is with them all the way, without mentioning that he is working to reduce the availability of health care and social services, things many of them desperately need.  His tough talk about how he is guarding them against demographic developments and economic challenges belies the fact that his policies are most directly aimed at hurting them and their families.  Fake Fox News provides the talking points to keep the flock in line.

Sanders tells his supporters that he will attract millions and millions of previously uninvolved followers who will bring about a revolution that will provide free government health care, free college tuition and student debt cancellation, and higher wages. That hasn’t happened, but it sounds pretty good to a lot of people – more specifically about one-quarter of the Democratic primary electorate.

For Donald Trump the truth about the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic is a pretty hard pill to swallow. So reluctantly he decided to speak to the nation, to calm things down.  That didn’t work out like he planned.  A friend of mine reports hearing a co-worker saying “I didn’t think much of the coronavirus, but last night Trump read off of a teleprompter. That never happens.  This is real.”

Well, about as real as it ever gets for Trump.

He imposed restrictions on travel from Europe. In his address to the nation Trump said “these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo but various other things as we get approval.”

 But then, “Trade will in no way be affected.   The restriction stops people not goods,” Trump tweeted, contradicting himself moments after he completed the speech.  That overlooked the fact that European nationals would be onboard the ships delivering that cargo to the US.

After the speech Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, tweeted that the travel restrictions from Europe do not actually apply “to American citizens or legal permanent residents or their families.” For those keeping score at home, from what we know about the coronavirus infections thus far in this country, many of the confirmed cases have resulted from Americans traveling home from other countries.

Trump went on to declare that health insurance companies “have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments.”  The industry begged to differ.  They only promised to cover testing (whenever that becomes available), not the much more expensive costs of treatment of those who are found to be infected.

Trump also tried to calm the country’s economy by announcing a series of half-baked ideas for stimulating the economy, which Congress received with a bi-partisan collective yawn. Fortunately House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped in as the adult in the room to get some things done legislatively.

On the day after his speech the stock market, which Trump has used as a barometer of the country’s economic health, sent a more direct message with another record-breaking day of tanking. It seemed like the unofficial beginning of a recession.  And then, over the past weekend, the Federal Reserve announced they were cutting interest rates to near zero.  They also took other substantial actions to keep the economy moving along, perhaps eliminating any further action that they can take.  Trump responded: “I think that people in the market should be very thrilled.” Apparently not. The day after that tweet the market experienced its biggest drop in history.

Meanwhile…

The Democratic presidential primary has in the past two-and-a-half weeks moved in the most incredible of ways. Starting with the South Carolina primary on February 29th, Joe Biden’s campaign has developed big momentum which is overwhelmingly directed to one purpose – replacing Donald Trump.

Biden’s primary wins have moved on a parallel track with a steady stream of endorsements by former rivals. Former candidate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is still supporting Bernie.

Unlike what Bernie Sanders has suggested, it hasn’t been some unknown gang of Democratic elites or the Party “establishment” that have moved Biden forward. Rather, it’s been the power of the ever growing collection of Democratic voters.

As this post is being published Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio are voting and it is likely that those four contests will go strongly for Biden. The following weeks don’t hold out much hope for Sanders except in small states that will hold caucuses.

Last week, after his shellacking in five primaries, Sanders remained quiet. Then he issued a statement saying “last [Tuesday] night was not a good night for our campaign from a delegate point of view. We lost the largest state of the night, Michigan, but we won in North Dakota…

“But what has become more and more apparent, with each passing primary, is that while we are currently trailing in the delegate count, we are strongly winning the debate about the future of our country. But while we are winning — very clearly — the ideological debate, we are losing, right now, the electability debate.”

Well Bernie, here’s a news flash – the way you tell how a candidate is really winning is by knowing how many votes the candidate has received.

I’m all for Bernie having his say and taking things a little further, but at some point he needs to bring his ship that is circling at sea into port and take a realistic count of the votes he has received.

The Biden-Sanders one-on-one debate held on Sunday broke no new policy ground. Sanders may think the debate gave his campaign a lifeline, but the event will not give him any bounce.  Biden’s announcement that he would choose a woman as the candidate for Vice President stole the news cycle.

Stubbornness seems to be Sanders’ middle name. He doesn’t take criticism well because his attitude is generally I’m right, you’re wrong.  It’s my way or the highway.  Sort of like the guy in the White House.  Not exactly what we need at this time.

Jack Cookfair

Bob McCarthy’s Buffalo News obituary for political consultant Jack Cookfair provided a good summary of Jack’s life and times.  He was many things – a politician, a baseball enthusiast, but most of all, a talented and successful consultant in the rough-and-tumble world of politics in New York State.

I first became acquainted with Jack in the mid-70’s when we were both on the staff of the Erie County Legislature. Jack wasn’t much interested in the governing part of things then, but he certainly had a talent for crafting hard-hitting campaign materials.  There were some rough spots along the way as the two parties went at it.

And those were the days when not only did the parties compete feistily in the campaigns, but then on election night needed to face one another directly after the votes were counted because the parties occupied the opposite ballrooms of the Statler Hotel. Talk about awkward.

Time passes, and even at relatively young ages we all gained some perspective on what is important in life. Many nights I shared many a drink or two at Mother’s Bakery with Jack and other politicos from both parties.  As the song goes, “those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end…” Rest in peace, Jack.

Super Tuesday lived up to its name; New York’s primary will be a real contest

With Super Tuesday now in the rearview mirror, it’s on to … Idaho. And oh yeah, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Washington next Tuesday.  It’s like a mini-Super Tuesday.

Joe Biden’s wins in ten state primaries this week were stunning. The positive energy coming from voters indicates that they want Donald Trump out of office, and they will go with the candidate they view as having the best chance of defeating him. Continue reading

Baseball’s scandal seems like a political scandal

My wife Sophia and I spent a few days in Florida last week – Palm Beach County to be exact. The country’s scandal capital.

I’m not referring to Mar-O-Lago but rather to the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, a few miles west of the Trump Winter White House and hangers-on clubhouse. The Ballpark is the spring training site of the American League Champion Houston Astros.  I’m not sure whether or not I should attach an asterisk to the team name but their claims on league titles seem like they should be a bit shaky at this point in time. Continue reading

The muddled race in NY27

The race for Congress in NY27 is attracting lots of attention. Even Donald Trump, busy pardoning and setting free various criminals, has found time to become familiar with it.  The reason for the attention to the district, the reddest of the red in New York State and a seat that should be a slam dunk for the Republicans, is that they almost lost it sixteen months ago.

Former Congressman Chris Collins was seriously wounded by his indictment on charges of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and lying to the FBI but he lingered on for ten months, propped up by local Trumpsters who worked to convince voters that there was nothing wrong with electing a member of Congress who appeared more destined to be serving out a prison term than a congressional term. Continue reading