Monday, April 30, 2018

Where does all the lottery money go?

Being that I write about public policy, I routinely get hit with this question: “Where does all the lottery money go?”

A narrative that many people believe is that when the state lottery was instituted it was intended to cover the cost of public schools throughout New York. While it’s true that lottery income was intended to help education, it was never supposed to cover it in full. Despite the number of tickets New Yorkers buy, it simply can’t.  

The New York lottery brought in $9.68 billion in revenues in fiscal year 2016-2017. After taking away prize money and sales, the system was left with $3.27 billion in profits (a whopping 34%), which was invested in school aid. For that same year, public schools had cost New Yorkers – at the federal, state, and local levels of taxation -- $62.7 billion.

So, as you can see, gambling proceeds barely put a dent in spending, accounting for just over 5% of expenses. Even if New York’s educational spending was at the national average ($11,400 versus $22,600), we’d still be looking at the lottery covering less than 10% of the total cost.

That doesn’t mean that it’s not helping. In 2016-2017, the Lottery issued $48 million to schools in Niagara County, $11 million in Orleans County, and just under $14 million to districts in Genesee County.

Had those funds not been in play, my school district Royalton-Hartland, for example, would have had to lean on homeowners for another $2.1 million in 2016-2017, all things being equal. Other examples of district-specific lottery revenues are Lockport at $8.1 million and Batavia at $3.7 million.

Since the inception of the lottery in 1967, it has paid out $48 billion to schools. $1 billion has gone to Niagara County schools alone.

I don’t care if you live in a rural school district or a big city system. That’s not chump change. It’s the difference between keeping and losing teachers, the arts, and sports. 

This manages to work to the advantage of taxpayers because New York pilfers from players at a rate that’s similar to how it taxes homeowners: Despite New York having the highest traditional lottery sales in the country, its payout rate is among the lowest. While that means more money for schools, it means less money for winners and greater expenditures by players who have try harder to come out ahead.

There are some legislators – like Senator Tim Kennedy of Buffalo -- who are trying to make those odds even worse to the benefit of public schools. He has been toying with legislation that would decrease the payouts to players by considerable amounts, which some quick math shows could increase school funding by $1.5 billion.

It would probably work because state-run gaming has been one of the few growth industries in the Empire State (maybe hopeful players are trying to overcome an increasingly-bad upstate economy?). The New York lottery’s 2016-2017 revenues were 26% higher than they were 10 years earlier while its payments to schools were up 28%.    

When the lottery began in 1967 its first slogan was "Your Chance of a Lifetime to Help Education". 51 years into the program, it has been almost a lifetime, and the lottery has been doing what was intended, helping education. It’s not the end-all-be-all for funding our schools, but it’s a start.   

From the 07 May 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, April 27, 2018

Active shooter training: A nice thing to have, just in case

Through a lifetime of drills and training we prepare ourselves for the very worst. School kids take part in fire drills. Employees do the same in their workplaces. Air travelers are besieged with emergency landing messages at the start of every flight. Concerned citizens get certified in first aid and CPR.

The chance of having to utilize anything learned in those exercises is rather slim. But, it’s good to have those tools in your arsenal because things happen: Kids have to escape their school during a gas leak; service workers have to vacate their restaurants during a fire; passengers have to get out of a plane during a water landing; and a Good Samaritan might find himself resuscitating a total stranger.  

The same outlook applied to those preparations (“it’s nice to have, but hopefully you never have to use it”) should also be practiced when it comes to active shooter incidents. Mass shootings are rare, but, still, they seem to be the domestic terrorist flavor of the day. And, they can happen anywhere, even in places that are supposed to offer respite from the evils of the world -- concerts, churches, and schools.

No place is safe. But, they might be a little safer if people are prepared. Opportunities to make you and them so are out there, and available to the general public.  

Last week, I took part in an active shooter seminar that was put on by Captain Aaron Schultz of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office. Eloquent, entertaining, and educational, he offered a lot of food for thought that I could use to prepare any of the organizations for which I work or volunteer. I found it to be a very worthwhile evening.

The NCSO is among a number of upstate law enforcement agencies that offer such classes at request. They don’t necessarily schedule public seminars because you don’t want every weirdo in town to know what places are prepared and how. Instead, they encourage businesses and non-profits to reach out to them to administer training that is more specific to the environment involved, be it a school, factory, hospital, restaurant, or church. The ball is in your court to book the training and I encourage you to do so.

Don’t be put-off by an assumptions you might have. At first blush, the average person might think that active shooter training would make you a shooter, too, someone trained to kill the perpetrator. That’s not the route such classes take. Captain Schultz spent very little time on that because it’s the policeman’s job to be the armed defender. Your average citizen isn’t ready to do that and doesn’t and can’t devote the hours and willingness of sacrifice to accept fire and then return fire quickly and accurately to take someone’s life without harming innocent bystanders in the process.   

Instead, he focused on a few critical areas that are more realistic, reasonable and useful for the masses.

First, he addressed the various aspects of run-hide-fight. As the system implies, you would hightail it in the event of a crisis; if you can’t, you barricade yourself; and if that doesn’t work, you beat the dickens out of the assailant (since most people don’t carry concealed firearms). The detailed thoughts he offered about every one of those things gives the uninitiated a solid survivalist understanding.

The Captain then talked about situational awareness. This is critical because it allows individuals to prevent things from escalating to gun violence because he gives you the tools to recognize the cues of an unstable person, or someone in need of help, and how that should be addressed.

His seminar concluded with a discussion about how to make your property and people ready for worst-case scenarios. Once you’re eyes are opened, you’ll find there are a lot of policies and minor changes to your facilities that can be done, and cheaply at that, to make everyone safer.

I would imagine that most sheriff’s departments follow and offer a similar class. Even much smaller departments shouldn’t be overlooked as a resource -- as an example, the Cuba Police Department in Allegany County has something they call CRASE (Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events).  

If you run a business or sit on a board or church council, take advantage of this free public service. We live in some strange times, so we have to be ready for some truly horrific happenings. A mass shooting will likely never occur in your presence, but if it does, or if it looks like it might, you want to do what you can to save your life and those of friends and family.   

From the 30 April 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News    

Friday, April 20, 2018

Parolees deserve the right to vote

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that would give paroled felons the right to vote through conditional pardons emphasizing that civic duty. This would impact more than 35,000 parolees in the Empire State.

Of course, Republicans across New York hurled vitriol at the Governor, saying it’s wrong to allow rapists, murderers and drug dealers to vote; Cuomo was only trying to secure votes by adding a new bloc to his base; and it was his latest attempt to “out-left” gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon.

While that wasn’t unexpected I still find it to run counter to the alleged principles of the Grand Old Party.

They claim to be the party of law and order and, at the same time, are more likely to count Christianity as offering the formative principles to this country and Republican policies. In either case, by casting aside parolees they are casting aside what the GOP counts as its foundation.

The party of law and order should have faith in the legal and penal systems. Judges, prosecutors, defenders, sheriffs, wardens, and correctional officers have an incredible task before them in helping to change those who committed crimes against society, whether it was something as minor as having drugs on their person or as significant as being engaged in gang violence. We empower and entrust them to educate convicts, teach them trades, introduce them to self-discipline, reform their behaviors, and make new men and women out of them. It’s a mammoth undertaking of resources – the US prison system costs taxpayers $228 billion per year.

If one of the returns on investment for all of that hard work, tough love and big money is parole – early release based upon good behavior and promise – we should trust those who helped get the parolees to that point and believe that those souls are ready for society.

If they are good enough to be released to the world outside of the prison walls, we would hope that they are good enough to secure and keep jobs (that is, if employers ban the box and overlook criminal records), pay taxes, and contribute to the economy and our communities. Once released, they are active members of our citizenry, with just a few conditions.

One of those conditions shouldn’t be denial of the right to choose their elected officials, vote on propositions, or have a say on their school budgets. For starters, it’s taxation without representation – something in total defiance of our republican form of government. Secondly, it’s illegal; the Fifteenth Amendment clearly states the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged. That amendment, by the way, was in response to failures of the Founding Fathers to recognize the full value of humanity, something similar to what Cuomo’s signing is attempting to overcome in our state law.

Cuomo’s detractors aren’t buying that. It seems as though the general consensus is “once a criminal always a criminal” and that they are a lesser people always and forever.

This is where the Republican Party’s co-opting of Christianity should come into play. Is turning one’s nose down on the past sins of another really the way a just people should think? The religion is based on redemption and the salvation of sinners so why shouldn’t those principles be practiced at large, especially towards those who paid their dues to society and were reformed by it? People shouldn’t claim to live up to the standards of their religion yet absolve themselves of its founding tenets.

Likewise, as another teaching of Christianity goes -- let he who is without sin cast the first stone. A lot of convicts and folks in the parole ranks were unlucky enough to get caught doing what so many other people do. New Yorker’s arcane Rockefeller Laws imprisoned folks for years for having possessed drugs -- how many people under the age of 70 can claim that they don’t know anyone who has used/uses marijuana or smokes it themselves? Similarly, how many thousands of customers leave bars and restaurants every day with a little too much alcohol in their systems and never get caught?

You’ve been reading my columns long enough to know that I’m a regular, vocal critic of many of Governor Cuomo’s policies. This time, I can’t be. I applaud him for giving back to parolees their right to participate in the inner workings of this great nation of ours. All of us want felons to ultimately become good citizens. Good citizens vote….so, let’s not deny them that right. It’s the just, legal, and American thing to do.    

From the 23 April 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News