The Buffalo Common Council is paying attention; campaign financials demonstrate the difficulty of raising funds during a pandemic

The 2020-2021 Buffalo budget

Something interesting happened at the Buffalo Common Council last week. By a vote of six to three the Council said they need more time to discuss the mayor’s new budget.

Mayor Byron Brown on May first submitted his proposed 2020-21 budget to the Common Council. The Council, by Charter, has until June 8th to approve the budget.  In years past the legislative body has acted earlier, and generally with only some minor tinkering with what the Mayor recommended.

The Council’s budgetary powers are only on the expense side. They can cut proposed appropriations or increase them, subject to possible mayoral veto and veto override.  They cannot adjust revenue estimates provided by the mayor.

Last week, however, the Council basically said, “Wait a minute.” A majority of the Council appears uncomfortable with some numbers from the Mayor.  The Council debate suggested that the city administration has one or more contingency plans in the works to cut spending, but the particulars remain under wraps.  The Mayor’s official new budget makes only minor cuts in spending.

The big problem is on the revenue side, where nearly $76.1 million in questionable revenues are included. The Council’s debate revolved around revenue estimates that the Mayor plugged in for federal relief aid and for state casino revenues and what will be done about that if the federal and state funding does not arrive in amounts sufficient to avoid making budget cuts.

The budget anticipates $65.1 million in “federal disaster relief.” The Mayor has said that he believes those funds will arrive in that amount, but aside from a placeholder House bill passed a couple weeks ago, there is no indication from Washington about when or if that money will be available.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants legislation that is considerably less expensive than the House bill.  Senate action is unlikely before the end of June at the earliest.

Another $11 million is included in the city budget from casino revenues channeled to the city through the state. Casinos have been closed since March.  They may re-open this month.  It seems highly unlikely that whatever activity the casinos generate starting July first will approach the amount of pass-down dollars the city is awaiting.

Approving a new budget in June with these holes on the revenue side could work out, but if not the mayor suggests that borrowing money or in the last resort cutting expenses will fill the gap. If you borrow money you usually need to pay it back, unless you get one of those Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans that the federal government is distributing. The city was not eligible for a PPP loan.

Borrowing money for operating expenses is like charging your groceries on a credit card. Interest charges will be required.  More importantly, plugging a big budget hole with borrowed money raises the question about what do you do about that same budget hole next year and in the years after that?

Councilmember Rasheed Wyatt pointed out during the debate that the city has relied on and subsequently exhausted its reserve funds over the past several years. He noted that while the pandemic has brought the city’s financial problems to a head, the problems have in fact been several years in the making.

The Common Council has limited options in adopting a budget, but the fact that a majority of the members is concerned that you can only kick the can down the road so many times is in a strange way refreshing. The inevitable hard work of cutting spending or raising taxes might be delayed but it cannot be avoided.

Campaign financials

I look at the money being raised and spent by state or local candidates as a good leading indicator of where elections stand at certain points in time.

While the fight in the 27th Congressional District is drawing most of the attention, there are three Democratic state legislative primaries on the ballot on June 23rd.  The candidates in those races were required to file their first campaign financial reports last week for the period ending May 22.

In the 140th Assembly District to elect a successor to Robin Schimminger the candidates are Tonawanda Town Councilman Bill Conrad and attorney Kevin Stocker.  Conrad, the Democratic Party endorsed candidate, raised $16,544 between mid-January and May 22.  He spent $1,038 and has a balance of $15,505 in his treasury.

Stocker has once again used a unique way of filing his financial reports. He raised just $846 and reported expenses at $0.  Rather than indicating that he is self-funding or loaning money to his campaign, he reported $91,397 in spending for printing, television advertising, polling and other expenses as his committee’s “outstanding liabilities/loans.”  TV stations and most printers don’t extend credit to a campaign, so the proper way to account for his spending would have been to report expenses as expenses and the money used to pay for those things as loans or donations.  Stocker followed the same reporting practice that he has used in other campaigns.

The TV spending that he identified was recent, so it probably does not reflect the “Attorney Advertising” wave of spots that he ran earlier. Those spots advertised his law practice but might have easily been taken for political ads.  Attorney ads may be tax deductible from his law office’s expenditures.

In the race to succeed Sean Ryan in the 149th Assembly District there is a three-way race.  Endorsed candidate Jon Rivera has raised $33,237, spent $11,570 and had $21,667 remaining on May 22nd.  Challenger Robert Quintana, a former Buffalo Common Council member, collected $34,998 and expended $9,967, with $25,031 remaining.  Adam Bojak’s numbers were $6,082 raised; $3,413 spent; and a balance of $2,669 in his campaign account.

Finally, in the race to succeed Senator Michael Ranzenhofer in the 61st District, there is also a three-way race.  Endorsed candidate and current Amherst Councilmember Jacqueline Berger raised $14,884; spent $123; and had $14,761 remaining as of May 22.  Kim Smith from Monroe County collected $8,425; spent $5,062; and had a balance of $9,976.  Joan Elizabeth Seamans had not filed a report as of June first, which is 10 days past the legal deadline.

What is now the 61st Senate District has been in Republican hands for decades, but at this time it actually has a plurality of registered Democrats over Republicans, with a large contingent of unaffiliated voters.  The Republican candidate in the race is County Legislator Ed Rath, who has $37,812 in his campaign account.

None of the campaigns reported here raised large amounts of money for their respective races. Whether the Albany-based State Assembly or Senate Campaign Committees will spend on behalf of the party’s endorsed candidates remains to be seen.  Stocker has apparently poured substantial personal funds into his race.   Thus far only Stocker has appeared in TV ads.  Mailings for all candidates will follow, but in a pandemic period era campaign candidates are blocked from many traditional forms of fundraising and campaigning.

The relatively small treasuries will put greater than usual emphasis on what the Democratic Party organization can do to help its endorsed candidates. This is going to be an interesting experiment in democracy during a pandemic.

Trump attacks mail voting as Republicans work to suppress turnout

Americans have their attention mostly focused on the health of themselves and their families, when they can get back to their jobs and whatever will pass for normal for the foreseeable future. But despite what Jared Kushner might say about such things, we are going to have an election in November.

Donald Trump’s erratic words and actions pretty well demonstrate that his re-election prospects are diminishing. There will be some sort of a re-bound in the economy over the next several months, but the consensus of business leaders and economists is that it will be a slow slog back.  Since Trump’s only serious bragging point for the campaign was the economy, the concern among Republican leaders is understandable.

It is going to be a long five months until November third, but as we approach June 1 it appears that Republican nervousness also extends to the races for Congress. The House is out of reach.  It now looks like there are enough seats in play for the next Senate majority to be in question.

Trump seems to realize that his base is not big enough to win, so he’s turned his attention to efforts that he sees as being detrimental to his chances. With more and more states moving to some variation of mail voting, Trump has said if voting opportunities are expanded that way “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Trump recently threatened to withhold federal funds from Michigan and Nevada because those states are planning to send absentee ballot applications to all voters. As per usual, he failed to get his facts straight and provided no specifics about what funding he could or would withhold.

There has been no evidence that mail voting favors one party or the other, and in fact states that have used mail voting include many controlled by Republican office holders.

South Carolina is one of the reddest states in the country. Contrary to the position Trump has staked out, the South Carolina Election Commission has informed state voters that “recent changes to election law allow all voters to vote absentee in the June Primaries.” And although the state rushed to re-open last month, there still seems to be some hesitation about social contact. The State Election Commission appears to be having a problem recruiting poll workers, noting that they “know many of our long-serving and dedicated poll managers, particularly those that fall into high-risk categories, have decided that working the polls in June is not worth the associated risk to their health.”

The New York Times recently reported that “[e]leven of the 16 states that limit who can vote absentee have eased their election rules this spring to let anyone cast an absentee ballot in upcoming primary elections — and in some cases, in November as well… Four of those 11 states are mailing ballot applications to registered voters… And that does not count 34 other states and the District of Columbia that already allow anyone to cast an absentee ballot, including five states in which voting by mail is the preferred method by law.”

Among the states that allow requested absentee voting with no excuse required are Idaho, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Georgia and Florida – all states that are controlled by Republicans.

In order to cut down on voter turnout, an effort which Republicans see as working to their advantage, the party has used a variety of suppression legislation which usually comes in the form of restricting voter registration; reducing early voting opportunities; and limiting in-person voting locations that result in long lines on election days.

The goal of such efforts has been to discourage people from showing up at all. These efforts were significantly aided by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that ended federal “preclearance” of voting procedures.  That Voting Rights Act provision required extra scrutiny of jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination.  Examples of voter suppression include:

    • Wisconsin, where the Legislature, supported by the Republican controlled judiciary, forced an April 7th election to proceed in the midst of the state dealing with the pandemic. The state (like South Carolina) could not find enough people to service voting locations so the number was drastically reduced. People waited in lines for hours to vote. Some voters and election workers contracted the coronavirus; several died. The Wisconsin Republicans argued that there was no problem with voting in person that day, and to demonstrate that point, here’s a picture of the Republican Speaker of the Assembly, Robin Vos, getting reading to go to vote.  He said “you are incredibly safe to go out.”200407193938-wisconsin-robin-vos-protective-gear-exlarge-169
    • Many states which require the use of voter ID cards have made obtaining such cards very difficult. Wisconsin, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas have limited office hours for obtaining cards, which often has a major impact on areas with high concentrations of minority voters.
  • The Brennan Center for Justice reports that in “Texas … one of the states previously subject to federal preclearance, approximately 363,000 more voters were erased from the rolls in the first election cycle after Shelby County [Supreme Court decision] than in the comparable midterm election cycle immediately preceding it. And Georgia purged twice as many voters — 1.5 million — between the 2012 and 2016 elections as it did between 2008 and 2012.”
  • Voter purges in Georgia in 2018, a process controlled by then Secretary of State Brian Kemp, had a direct impact on electing Mr. Kemp governor that year.

The problems with in-person voting, both prior to and now during the pandemic, have led Democrats to promote mail voting opportunities everywhere in the nation.

Trump has weighed in on that issue on numerous occasions. He has claimed that absentee voting leads to fraud, but there is no evidence of that anywhere, not even in Palm Beach County, Florida, where Trump and his wife voted absentee in 2018.

He claims that such voting will lead to “vote harvesting,” but the only known example of that was in North Carolina in 2018 when a Republican operative was founded to have tampered with ballots, which led to criminal prosecution and a do-over election.

This November’s election will come down to a referendum of Donald Trump’s job performance. No incumbent president since Calvin Coolidge in 1924 has been elected to a new term during a recession, and for that matter Coolidge had only come to the office fifteen months before the election when another scandal-ridden Republican President, Warren Harding, died in office.

Donald Trump has done nothing to expand his legendary base, gambling that an expanded turnout of that group will carry him to victory. He has driven away many elements of the electorate that Republicans could often count on, including suburban Republican women and the elderly.

On the other hand Democrats have never been as unified as they are this year, and many folks have been raring to go for three and a half years now. Regardless of Republican efforts to make it harder for people to vote, the Democrats have momentum going for them.  Fasten your seat belts.

Some facts, observations and heard-on-the-streets

As we (mostly) all move along taking appropriate personal and community safety precautions, there is still a great deal of politics in the air. So be careful out there.

The presidential campaign is sort of underway and there are some limited but important state and local political developments. Here are some facts, observations and heard-on-the-streets:

  • Doing his best to assist Joe Biden’s campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly continues to put his foot in his unmasked mouth. The Rose Garden press sessions are like a never ending blessing as they demonstrate Trump’s lack of knowledge, need for vengeance, contempt for science, and an unending effort, during the worst national crisis in the past eighty years, to divide the country.
  • Everyone wants the country to “re-open,” but no one knows what that really means and when or where it can occur. Polls show that the great majority of Americans want to go slowly.
  • The situation we find ourselves in leaves each and every one of us involved in deciding when it is safe for us and our families to go places or do things. In the immortal words of Senator John “Bluto” Blutarsky “nothing is over until we decide it is…”
  • Federal financial relief efforts appear poorly managed, much like the pharmaceutical advice coming from the White House.
  • Governor Andrew Cuomo has received much praise for his efforts during the crisis, along with criticism for the handling of nursing home issues. It’s a serious matter. His day-in-day-out attention to the overwhelming responsibilities that he has taken on will likely stand as a major part of his legacy.
  • The Republican primary race for Congress in NY27 is getting nasty. Beth Parlato’s IRS ad got shot down – use of the Service’s logo did seem to cross a line – but the commercial made a couple valuable points about Chris Jacobs’ record on taxes and on taking a large pay raise for his service in the Senate. I wonder if Parlato’s ad with Trump’s images in another one of her commercials had some sort of wink-and-nod approval from the Trump campaign.
  • The rush of Republican county chairs in defense of Jacobs seemed to be, well, defensive. Are they worried about something?
  • Missing in action in the congressional TV war so far is Republican Stefan Mychajliw and Jacobs’ special election opponent, Democrat Nate McMurray. The end of March campaign financials seemed to indicate that McMurray will at some point have the cash to get on the air. Mychajliw’s treasury was pretty paltry.
  • Two Assembly Democratic primaries (140th and 149th Districts) and another for State Senate (61st District) are on the ballot, but it’s awfully hard to get any traction during the current state of the state. We’ll see if Assembly candidate Kevin Stocker follows through with any campaign financial filing about his quasi-political law office ads.
  • The pre-primary financial reports are due at the State Board of Elections this Friday for state and local campaigns involved in a primary or special election. The congressional candidates’ next financial reports must be filed with the Federal Election Commission twelve days prior to the election, which for the special election and the Republican primary will be June 11.
  • Party Judicial Conventions will not be held until August but the ballot is more or less set with Democrat and current City Court Judge Amy Martoche facing off against Republican Gerald Greenan. Both have links to the Conservative Party, so who will the Conservatives endorse?
  • A consequence of the pandemic is that absentee voting will be much easier to do than in years past. All registered voters will get information about applying for a ballot by mail. You can also simply go to the Erie County Board of Elections website (www.elections.Erie.gov) to request a ballot, or you can complete the application online.
  • Republican Party leader Donald Trump rails against voting by mail, so what advice will Republican candidates and party leaders give their affiliated voters about voting absentee?
  • Early voting should also make it easier to do social distancing while voting.
  • The 2020-2021 City of Buffalo Budget presents City residents with an interesting situation. Mayor Byron Brown announced that everything was cool with the City’s new budget, with no need for layoffs or a tax increase. He is balancing his budget with $11 million of casino revenues that seem unlikely to arrive from the state anytime soon along with $65.08 million in new federal relief funding.
  • The House of Representatives last Friday enacted a new relief bill that, according to Congressman Brian Higgins, will provide Buffalo with more than $1 billion over the next two years; that’s twice the City’s total annual budget. You have to wonder how House folks came up with numbers like that.
  • Republicans in the House and Senate say that there is no way that they will go along with the House bill. They also do not seem to be in any hurry to vote on the next relief bill. So not only will City lose out on another Buffalo Billion, but the possibility of receiving the $65 million is far from certain. This is no way to prepare an accurate, balanced budget.
  • Brown said that the City’s sales tax and fines revenues are declining and that the City faces a $15 million deficit for the year ending June 30, with no fund balance available to fill the hole.
  • City Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams begs to differ and suggests the 2019-2020 deficit will be much higher than $15 million. She has also noted a serious cash flow problem that complicates things like making payroll.
  • The Brown administration’s answer to the cash crunch is to tap into a cash reserve that the Buffalo City School System has available and he plans to repay that money when (if?) the city receives their next state aid payment in June. Or as Popeye’s friend Whimpey might say, “I’ll gladly repay you in June for the use of your cash in May.”
  • Update from Politico, May 19, 2020:  “NEW YORK’s state government is holding back more than $1 billion of planned spending as it grapples with the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic . The delayed payments are a response to a steep revenue shortfall, Budget Director Robert Mujica said Monday. They include aid to private colleges and revenue due to counties from the sale of medical marijuana. Another $370 million of grants to some of the state’s largest upstate cities that were scheduled to be made later this month and in June will be held up indefinitely, Mr. Mujica said. ‘We are actually slowing down spending everywhere,’ he said. 
  • The City does not pay interest to the School District for the loan of that money. They do not even regularly tell the District when they use the school funds, even though the State Education Law says “[i]t shall be unlawful for a city treasurer or other officer having the custody of such city funds to permit their use for any purpose other than that for which they are lawfully authorized; they shall be paid out only on audit of the board of education or as otherwise provided herein.” The money was provided by the state for the benefit of the students in Buffalo schools, not for the benefit of city administrators who find the School funds handy when they are short of cash.
  • The City’s budget allocation to the School District has been more or less frozen at about $70 million for many years while state aid has increased regularly and substantially.
  • Meanwhile the Common Council talks and the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority monitors.

Is it time to think about ending private operations of nursing homes?

The previous Politics and Other Stuff post detailed a number of issues concerning nursing home ownership and management. This post discusses nursing facility operations during the pandemic.

How well are nursing facilities managing their patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic? From the New York Times:

At least 25,600 residents and workers have died from the coronavirus at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for older adults in the United States, according to a New York Times database. The virus so far has infected more than 143,000 at some 7,500 facilities.

Nursing home populations are at a high risk of being infected by — and dying from — the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is known to be particularly lethal to older adults with underlying health conditions, and can spread more easily through congregate facilities, where many people live in a confined environment and workers move from room to room.

While just about 10 percent of the country’s cases have occurred in long-term care facilities, deaths related to Covid-19 in these facilities account for a third of the country’s pandemic fatalities…

Some states… regularly release cumulative data on cases and deaths at specific facilities. [O]thers, provide some details on the number of cases — but not on deaths. Others report aggregate totals for their state but provide no information on where the infections or deaths have occurred. About a dozen report very little or nothing at all.

The share of deaths tied to long-term care facilities for older adults is even starker at the state level. In about a dozen states, the number of residents and workers who have died accounts for more than half of all deaths from the virus.

The Buffalo News reported this past Saturday:

County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Friday that 55% of all confirmed Covid-19 deaths involved nursing home residents – and that number may understate the nursing home death toll.

The percentage cited by Poloncarz includes nursing home residents who contracted the illness while living in nursing homes but who ultimately died in hospitals.

However, the reported nursing home-related Covid-19 deaths in Erie County do not include any cases in which nursing homes suspect a death was Covid-19 related, but in which the person who died was never tested for confirmation…

He also specifically referred to the Covid-19 outbreak at the Absolut Care nursing home in East Aurora, which has resulted in 11 Covid-19 related deaths as of Thursday, according to the state…

Poloncarz said that almost all of those cases are directly attributable to a Covid-19 outbreak at the East Aurora nursing home.

The county executive said the outbreak was likely caused by a staff member since visitors have been barred from nursing homes.

That assertion from Poloncarz, however, does not account for infected admissions, said Edward Farbenblum of RCA Healthcare Management, which has been in the process of buying Absolut Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation at Aurora.

All staff and patients have now been tested for the virus…

Five other Erie County nursing homes have reported as many or more confirmed Covid-19 related deaths as Absolut Care in East Aurora, based on state data from Thursday.

They include Father Baker Manor, with 33 deaths; Harris Hill Nursing Facility, 19 deaths; Garden Gate Health Care Facility, 17 deaths; Seneca Health Care Center, 12 deaths; and Buffalo Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, 11 deaths.

Eleven other nursing homes reported fewer than 10 confirmed Covid-19 related deaths…

The ownership and management of nursing homes has become increasingly dominated by conglomerates and other private firms that may prioritize profit over resident care, even during “normal” times. With the incredible rates of COVID-19 infection in nursing facilities, do you think it might be time that this state and others should consider ending the profit-motivated, often hedge fund controlled ownership of the facilities?  Should nursing home managers be accountable to the residents, their families, and the public, rather than bottom line profit?

If tomorrow or next month or next year you were faced with a decision about placing a loved one into an existing privately operated nursing facility, how comfortable would you feel about that?

Take a moment to indicate what type of ownership and management of nursing facilities that you think would be best.

 

 

 

 

 

Is it time to think about ending the private operation of nursing homes?

The tragedies we have been watching unfold over the past two months are very hard to bear. It has been especially difficult to see how heavily the pain of the COVID-19 illness and deaths has played out in nursing homes here in Western New York, throughout New York State and the nation.

As this post is being published on May 12th, there have been more than 150 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 deaths in Erie County nursing facilities, 30 in Niagara County, 5,200 in New York State and more than 25,600 nationally.  The national numbers are undercounted to some degree because the governors of certain states have chosen to hide public health information from their constituents and many statistically unexpected deaths were not tested. Continue reading

New Yorkers send billions of dollars to Kentucky and other states every year; Mitch McConnell isn’t satisfied

Where is Pat Moynihan when you need him?

Unfortunately the late Senator from New York is no longer with us. We could use his forceful advocacy.

Senator Moynihan, during his 24 years in office, made it a habit of reporting on a “balance of payments deficit” between and among the federal government and the states. He would annually compare the amount of money collected from New York residents and businesses in various taxes with the amount of federal money paid to New York State residents, its localities and school districts. Continue reading

A tale of two budgets

As previous posts have noted, the COVID-19 tragedy will, among other things, wreak havoc on the finances of states, local governments and school districts. The most direct evidence of these consequences appeared last Friday.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced that all county departments, including those headed by independently elected officials, would need to come up with 13.1 percent in cuts in their spending during the current fiscal year.   With only half a year left in which to implement approved cuts, they will feel more like a 25% cut to the remainder of the fiscal year. Since most county spending is mandated by the state, that won’t be easy.  Given the lingering effects of the recession and massive unemployment we are now seeing, it is likely that similar cuts will also be necessary in 2021.  It is sound policy to begin the hard work now. Continue reading