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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Earth Day, 2017

Posted by NYPIRG on April 24, 2017 at 10:56 am
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Earth Day was last week.  Earth Day is an annual event that started in 1970 and is an important opportunity for our society to examine how well we are protecting the environment.  And this year’s Earth Day occurred at a critical juncture: the planet is heating up as the result of human activities, most notably the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal).

Yet, the national government is now under the control of those who ignore the basic science of climate change.  They have been hell-bent on rolling back the limited climate change policies that are in place.

The science is clear: the burning of fossil fuels has ravaged the atmosphere and climate.  People are already suffering and will suffer more.  A hotter planet will mean more drought, harm to food supplies, dislocation and misery for hundreds of millions.  The hotter planet will destabilize governments and trigger conflict, resulting in violence and horror.  The impacts are already becoming clearer.

But the burning of fossil fuels is not the only way the use of oil, gas and coal harm the environment.  The mining, the transportation, the distribution, and the industry’s infrastructure also harm the environment on the ground.

In a report released last week, environmentalists revealed the impact that one company has had in New York.  The report showed that oil giant ExxonMobil and its corporate predecessors have been identified by New York State government to be apparently responsible for an estimated 3,500 spills and leaks.  Some of these spills were small, some staggeringly large.  These spills and leaks occurred all over New York State; from Buffalo to Albany, from the Hudson Valley to the tip of Long Island.

According to extensive government and corporate documents obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, in many cases these spills have impacted the environment and in some cases, pose threats to the public’s health.  Most alarming is that in many instances these spills have not yet been cleaned up to state standards for decades.

It’s not surprising that New York, which has been an industrial state for well over one hundred years, would have environmental pollution resulting from that legacy.  What is surprising is that those spills have not yet been cleaned up.  ExxonMobil is one of the most profitable companies in the world and has the resources to clean up its messes.

So how is it that the oil, gas and coal lobbies can wreak havoc by warming the planet and despoiling the earth while the national government looks the other way—or worse acts as industry handmaiden?  The industry has tremendous political clout and is able to use its muscle to protect its corporate interests – even if that results in tremendous harm to the public interest.

Without question, there is a significant difference in the policy orientation of the federal government, which has so far shown a fawning relationship to the industry, and New York government, which has been significantly tougher and in many ways enlightened when it comes to the future of energy production.

But the fossil fuel industry is powerful.  And the industry has been using its power to create an atmosphere of doubt around the science of climate change.  It is their public relations and political campaigns that have allowed it to have a stranglehold over national policies.

But those campaigns of deception are now under the scrutiny of the New York State Attorney General.  In 2015 New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced an investigation into ExxonMobil over whether it misled investors and the public about the reality of climate change.  His investigation came shortly after media reports revealed that, as early as the 1970s, top executives at ExxonMobil were well informed about the climate risks resulting from the use of their products based on their own research.  Yet, instead of issuing warnings, the company reportedly spent decades investing in major disinformation campaigns to sow doubt about those risks and undermine the urgency of policy action.

It’s important that New Yorkers’ back Schneiderman’s efforts to find out the truth about ExxonMobil.  He’s got scientists in his corner: as part of the run up to Earth Day’s “March for Science” events, over 100 scientists from across New York state sent a letter urging the New York Attorney General to pursue his investigation into ExxonMobil to “the fullest extent of the law.”

Earth Day was last week.  The fairest assessment of the state of the environment is that the situation is alarmingly bad.  But the problem is not a scientific one – it is one caused by the failures of policymaking.

The public response has to be one of advocacy – demands that the federal government take actions to curb the burning of fossil fuels; demands that state government force the clean ups of all toxic hazards, including oil spills; and demands that corporate leaders be held accountable for their decisions that harm the public interest.

The Governor Touts Tuition-Free* Public Colleges

Posted by NYPIRG on April 17, 2017 at 11:00 am
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Every year since his first as governor, Governor Cuomo uses the time after passage of the budget to take a statewide “victory lap” to stress what he sees as the most significant achievements.  This year has been no different:  The governor has used the week or so after passage of the budget to focus public attention on his plan to offer tuition-free public college.

The governor’s rationale for the program boiled down to this:  Progressives at the dawn of the 20th Century correctly advocated for universal K-12 education, and progressives in the 21st Century should consider a college degree the extension of that promise.

The governor held public events to draw attention to his success.  At one with Hillary Clinton, a placard on the lectern stated “FIRST-IN-NATION TUITION-FREE COLLEGE FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS.”

The governor has received attention both within the state and nationally for his plan.  Not surprisingly, the “Excelsior Scholarship” program, as his tuition-free plan is called, has drawn both praise and criticism.  The criticism comes from two sources: those who have an ideological opposition to entitlement programs and those who see the plan to be more rhetorical than real.

The Excelsior Scholarship program’s “tuition-free” promise should come with an asterisk.  It does not cover everyone and is designed to minimize costs for the state.  The plan only applies to families whose income is less than $125,000.

And not everyone making less than $125,000 a year would qualify.  The governor’s plan is a “last dollar” program, meaning it will only apply once all other forms of government aid have been applied.  New York’s financial aid programs already offer tuition coverage for the poorest public college students.  Thus, the prime beneficiaries of the Excelsior Scholarship are families with incomes of roughly $50,000 or more.  The program has credit and performance limitations as well; if a student doesn’t obtain 30 credits in one year, for example, they lose the scholarship and would likely be forced to take out a loan to pay for the credits they did receive.

These limitations were efforts to limit the cost of the program and in doing so, limit the number of students who will likely benefit.  While the Administration has publicly stated that upwards of 900,000 New York families would be eligible, others have estimated that the number of families that would actually receive benefits is more like 32,000.

The limitations on the program are real, that is without doubt.  And the governor’s “sales job” creates an impression that the program is more than it really is.

But is that a reason to oppose it?  No.

As many of us may recall, in the early Obama years, there was a debate over offering health insurance to those without coverage.  Ultimately, the Affordable Care Act passed, but did not contain a public option and did not offer universal coverage.

But for the millions who did receive coverage, it mattered.

In this case, for those who receive the Excelsior Scholarship the benefits will be real.  In some cases, it may offer a path to a college degree that did not exist – or would have led to significant college loan debts.  For those individuals, there will be tangible benefits.

Part of the blowback to the program is the fact that the governor is overhyping the impact.  What is true is that this program is innovative and offers real benefits and could lay the foundation for efforts to expand it over time.

For many, the Affordable Care Act was one step toward universal coverage, a step that benefited tens of millions.

The question for Governor Cuomo is whether this is the first, or last, step.  If this is the beginning and will be followed with something that was missing from his initial plan – public debate and hearings – then a stronger program will result; a program that will meet the reality of the governor’s rhetoric.

If it’s just one plan that is now done, then the political benefits to the governor will erode and will fit into a pattern all too familiar in Albany: policy changes that deal with real problems, but do so in such a limited way that it undermines the program and fuels public cynicism.

For the benefit of all New Yorkers, let’s hope that this is the beginning of a real effort to make college as affordable as K-12 education.

New York State’s Budget Finally Gets Done, But in Secret

Posted by NYPIRG on April 10, 2017 at 11:38 am
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More than a week after the deadline, Governor Cuomo and lawmakers finalized a deal to wrap up the state budget.  The roughly $160 billion budget was from a procedural point of view a mess.  But there was good news as well.

One of the most notable budgetary matters was the agreement to make public colleges less expensive for middle income families.  Under a plan first advanced by the governor, certain students will be able to attend the State University system without having to pay tuition.

The agreement requires that the state waive the cost of two- and four-year public colleges and universities for families earning less than $125,000 per year.  The “Excelsior Scholarship” applies only to students attending the State University of New York or the City University of New York systems.

The budget deal also creates an Enhanced Tuition Award with a maximum of $3,000 for students who attend private colleges as long as the college matches the amount and freezes tuition while students receive the award.

The budget tries to offset the cost of textbooks by providing an $8 million investment in resources like electronic books. Other than that provision, there is no additional support for non-tuition expenses like rent or food—key drivers of student debt.

Other big changes in the budget:

The state’s income tax brackets stay as they are (they were set to expire). Keeping the tax brackets in place primarily impacts New Yorkers who earn over $1 million a year.

The budget grants $2.5 billion to improve the state’s drinking water systems by fixing septic systems and paying for other projects statewide.

As part of the budget deal, the governor and the legislature agreed to changes in criminal law that will result in the vast majority of 16- and 17-year-old nonviolent offenders being sent to family or youth courts, rather than adult criminal courts.

The budget also spends $200 million to expand and upgrade state hiking trails and bike paths.

Unfortunately, the governor’s proposal to cut funding for public health programs, including screening for possible breast, cervical and colon cancers was approved.

Some of the budget proposals advanced in the debate didn’t make it into the final product. For example, the governor’s proposal to collect taxes on internet retail transactions was blocked.  Despite the unprecedented scandals at the state Capitol and New York’s miserable voter participation, the budget deal does not include proposals to improve voting laws or the state’s ethics and campaign financing systems.

Inexplicably, there was even a proposal that the governor, the senate and assembly agreed to – a plan to regulate electronic cigarettes in the same manner as conventional cigarettes – that was dropped out of the final deal.  Dropping that supposedly universally agreed-to provision is a big win for the tobacco industry, which owns many of the e-cigarette companies, but what was the rationale for that decision?

Unfortunately, the process by which these decisions were made was awful and arguably worse than in the recent past.  Virtually all the deliberations in developing the budget were conducted behind closed doors.  There were no hearings, no open meetings, and with the three day legislative review period waived by the governor lawmakers were voting on bills that they had little time to comprehensively review.

It seems like Albany forgets just whose money it is spending.  New Yorkers deserve adequate services delivered efficiently and promptly, but they also deserve a role in the decisions over spending priorities.  The closed process only allows access to the politically well-connected; the public is left in the dark.

In 2010, then-candidate for Governor Andrew Cuomo promised that state government would be transformed into the most transparent in history.  If anything, Albany has become even more secretive.  New Yorkers deserve openness and accountability, not secrecy and scandals.

The Budget Slides Off the Tracks

Posted by NYPIRG on April 3, 2017 at 12:56 pm
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After years of more or less on time New York State budgets, 2017 is now clearly late.  The previous two budgets were enacted late, but within a day of the deadline, with much work done by the March 31st deadline.  But this year’s chaotic budget process reminds New Yorkers of the bad old days when state budgets were chronically late – often months late.

The slippage from on-time budgets to late ones tracks the spiraling corruption that seems to have permeated all of government.  Why?

A good guess is that the excessive secrecy in governmental actions breeds a system in which the demands of the elite and the desires of special interests supersedes the public good.  The more secrecy, the less accountability.  The more secrecy, the less the public is involved and the more interest groups can wield their power.  Special interests thrive behind closed doors.

And there can be no doubt that Albany is shrouded in secrecy.  The Cuomo Administration has developed a reputation for giving short shrift to the state’s openness laws.  The secrecy surrounding state contracting practices contributed to the allegations of self-dealing and pay-to-play that led to the indictments of top staffers in the Administration.

The notorious weaknesses and opacity of the state’s ethics laws allowed both former leaders of the Assembly and Senate to think they could get away with using their public offices for personal gain.  Both are facing prison sentences as a result.

And they are not alone, dozens more have been convicted of corruption in recent years.

As the ethics situation got worse, the secrecy around the budget process increased.  The legislative conference committees, which are supposed to be open forums at which details of each house’s approaches to the budget are publicly discussed, are nothing more than a pretense.

The state Constitution requires that all bills be publicly available for review for three days prior to action.  But that restriction contains a loophole:  The governor can issue a “message of necessity” so that lawmakers can ignore the three-day review period.

That rule was designed to allow for action in an emergency, but it’s now often used to jam controversial bills through without allowing for public comment.  The most important parts of the budget are now forced through the legislative process with a message of necessity waving the constitutional public review time period.  Lawmakers are reduced to voting on bills that they have had no time to read.

For those who complain about the excessive secrecy and the too-little-time for public review, the response has been that it is necessary to get things done on time.

That response does not work anymore.

Years ago, the same excuses were used to defend lousy public accountability practices.  The state ended up having some of the latest budgets in the nation.

The mounting scandals and late budgets help contribute to a culture where anything goes and the public interest is ignored.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the budget doesn’t contain good things:  Apparently, there will be billions for drinking water programs, more financial aid for college students, and improvements in the way minors are treated by the criminal justice system.

But there are enormous problems as well: nothing to address Albany’s corruption, and apparent cuts to the state’s breast, cervical and colon cancer screenings for the uninsured, to name two.

Until the process opens up, how can New Yorkers have confidence that Albany is working on behalf of the public, not the interests that pay lobbyists and fork over the campaign contributions?  How can they be sure that public servants are acting in the best interests of New Yorkers if government is structured to minimize accountability?

There are a lot of things that need to be done to fix Albany.  Here are some:

  1. Comply with the letter and spirit of the state’s openness laws. No Administration should ignore Freedom of Information Law public records requests or set up charities in which it can funnel taxpayers’ dollars without government accountability.
  2. Create independent enforcement agencies. In recent years, the governor and lawmakers have cut back the powers of the state’s fiscal watchdog (state Comptroller).  Instead they should be boosting his power to review government spending and contracts.  And while they are at it, the governor and lawmakers should overhaul ethics enforcement by moving away from self-policing by political insiders.  Create similar restrictions that the Congress has on lawmakers’ outside income.
  3. Overhaul the campaign financing system. Limit donations from those receiving government contracts, as well as from  Eliminate the loophole that allows Limited Liability Companies to give far more than other businesses.  Create a voluntary system of public financing so that grassroots candidates can mount serious electoral challenges to entrenched incumbents.

Albany is broken, Governor Cuomo must aggressively take steps to fix it.  And he should do so soon.

The State Budget Deadline Looms

Posted by NYPIRG on March 27, 2017 at 10:31 am
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Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers are now heading into the final week of the fiscal year.  New York’s fiscal year starts on April 1st and in order to have a budget in place, the governor and the legislature should have a plan in place by midnight Friday, March 31st.

During the Cuomo tenure, the state budget agreement has occurred either by April 1st or within hours of the deadline.  Getting a budget in place more or less on time has been a metric by which the governor makes his case that he has brought order to chaos in Albany.

Of course, there are other metrics – such as the number of public officials indicted and convicted of corruption that tell a different story – but the governor does get credit for pushing through state budgets that are “on time” and keep within growth estimates set by the governor.

This, however, is the governor’s first state budget being hammered out during a Republican Administration in Washington; an Administration that is making noises about cutting programs that could hurt New York State.

It appears that the state dodged its first fiscal “bullet” when the Trump Administration and the House Republican leadership could not agree on a measure to eliminate health insurance for tens of millions of Americans.  Had that plan been approved, the state could have experienced a budget hit worth hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in federal aid.

The failure in Washington should make it easier for the governor and the legislature to put together a state budget.

There are a number of state issues that loom large and are still under consideration.

First, will the state extend – or increase – its tax rates on high income earners?  Despite the failure of health insurance changes in Washington, there can be no doubt that federal aid will be curtailed to some extent.  The state’s current income rate tax structure expires this year.  If it reverts to previous law, the state could lose big in its revenues.  Can it afford to do so?  Or will another extension curtail economic activity?

Second, what will the state do about college affordability?  The governor has advanced perhaps the most important change in higher education in a generation.  His Excelsior scholarship program, which would make the State University tuition-free for those with incomes up to $125,000, would help many middle income New Yorkers attend public college.  Yet, his higher education budget keeps state support stagnant for public colleges, and he cuts programs to help lower income students.  Will the governor’s initiative lead to broader access or essentially lead to cuts?

Third, will anything happen to curtail political corruption?  The former legislative leaders were convicted of corruption and joined a long and growing list of public officials facing prison time.  Currently, top associates of the governor are under indictment for allegedly using the state’s contracting process as a way to get rich and funnel campaign contributions to the governor.  The governor has proposed measures that would essentially add new oversight entities, but that are reportable to him, not independent.

Given the silence surrounding reform plans, will Albany kick the can again?

Lastly, the governor’s multibillion dollar bailout of upstate nuclear power plants has drawn the ire of lawmakers in both houses of the legislature – not only for the price tag, but for the secrecy surrounding the deal.

Will the legislature, a co-equal branch of government, use its constitutional powers to put a halt on the deal in order to ensure that there is a full public airing?

Budgets are about meeting the demands of the public.  With limited resources, and faced with unlimited demands, budgets are also the government’s primary tool to set policy priorities.

How Albany answers the budget this year will determine the quality of life for all New Yorkers, not just college students, ratepayers, and others who rely on the state for direct public help.