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FRACKING ECONOMIC CRASH UNDERSCORES WISDOM OF NY’S BAN

Posted by NYPIRG on April 25, 2016 at 12:03 pm
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Last week, the world’s leaders gathered on Earth Day to formally agree to the climate change deal hammered out last December.  While there are still lots of questions about how effective the global agreement will be in limiting the damage from planetary warming, one message is clear; the world has got to move away from relying on fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – to generate energy.

That international policy conclusion strongly bolsters New York State’s decision to ban hydraulic fracturing.  Last year, the Cuomo Administration took the unprecedented step of banning the use of horizontal hydraulic fracturing – aka fracking – due to the potential environmental and public health damage that could result from the practice.  At that time, New York State was the first state with significant natural gas reserves to ban fracking.

Since then, there has been a growing body of evidence that fracking does pose environmental and public health risks.  And what has become clearer still is that the world needs to keep fossil fuels in the ground – not burn them so the resulting gases rise into the lower atmosphere and become a heat-trapping blanket.

According to the world’s experts, human activity in the form of burning fossil fuels is the leading contributor to the warming of the planet.

But the decision to ban fracking not only had an environmental benefit, but it appears to have had a fiscal one as well.

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Oil and gas prices have hit rock bottom and the job impacts are growing.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employment in oil and gas extraction and support activities in the nation has shrunk by nearly one-fifth over the past year.

Jobs in the oil and gas extraction business has been reduced by 15,700 nationally while related employment in the mining sector has lost close to 100,000 jobs since January 2015.

The reduction in jobs has impacted states differently.  States with less diversified economies have felt the impact of job losses most significantly.

Thanks to price declines, North Dakota’s extraction tax revenue fell from than $3.5 billion in 2014 to $2 billion in 2015, despite oil production remaining largely flat throughout 2015.  The North Dakota governor has ordered state agencies to slash their budgets by 4 percent to close a $1 billion budget shortfall.

Alaska is now facing a $3.8 billion budget deficit, or two-thirds of its budget.  As a result, its governor is proposing to, among other things, implement an income tax, cutting government spending, and raising other taxes.

Louisiana has announced across-the-board program cuts to deal with its estimated $900 million gap in the current fiscal year. Next year’s shortfall is expected to be more than $2 billion.

Oklahoma is contending with a $1.3 billion budget gap, nearly 20 percent of last year’s spending. As a result, state agencies are faced with cuts totaling 7 percent in annual state allocations. Public schools, for example, will have $110 million cut from their budget for the fiscal year ending June 30.

Of course a state like New York – with its enormous budget and complex economy – would likely have weathered this fracking economic collapse better than these smaller states.  But had New York gone forward in 2014, it would have joined the market just as it was collapsing.  And as everyone knows, you want to get into economic endeavors when they are taking off, not when the bubble is about to burst.

In retrospect, the Cuomo Administration’s fracking ban has turned out to have benefitted the state in important ways: it stopped drilling, which would have had to have had a serious environmental cost – just like any industrial-scale mineral extraction process; it kept the state’s finances from taking a significant fiscal hit and … it kept a fossil fuel in the ground.  And in the ground is where fossil fuels must stay if the world has any chance of minimizing the damages caused by climate change.

NEW YORK’S STRICT REGISTRATION LAWS BLOCK SOME VOTERS

Posted by NYPIRG on April 18, 2016 at 7:53 am
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For the first time in years, New York State’s Presidential primary is important in determining who will be the nominees from both the Republican and Democratic parties.  No one knew how this primary season would play out.  A year ago, the Democrats looked like they were lining up behind Hillary Clinton – now many voters are “feeling the Bern” as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders makes a spirited run.  On the Republican side, no one predicted the rise of Donald Trump as the leading candidate.

But both parties are having highly contested primaries and New York voters can play an important role.  Well, at least some of them can.

New York State has very restrictive political party enrollment rules.  For all elections, New Yorkers have to be enrolled at least 25 days before an election in order to vote.  That deadline is among the longest in the nation.  In order to vote in the upcoming November general election, voters will have to have been enrolled by early October.

The same rule applies to the Presidential primary.  If a New Yorker has never been registered to vote, they could have done so by March 25th.  Any new voter who registered after that day cannot vote in the Presidential primary.

But for those who wished to vote in the April Presidential primary, and who were already registered to vote, they needed to have been registered in the political party of their choice before October 9, 2015.

That’s right, for New Yorkers who wished to change their party enrollment because they were inspired by the visions offered by the Republican (in addition to Trump, there are candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich – Ben Carson remained on New York’s ballot as well) or Democratic candidates they would have had to make that decision nearly six months ago.

Of course, virtually no New Yorker knew of any of these rules and there are likely to be many angry New Yorkers at the polls during this week’s Presidential primary.  In fact, many may be confused since they have been watching the ongoing presidential battle, where people in some states simply show up for caucuses to vote.  In states with early voting, residents have weeks to vote, and in some states voters can cast ballots in any party’s primary.

But not in New York.  As a result, there have been media reports that some counties know that and are trying to short-circuit the problem.

On Long Island, for example, it has been reported that Suffolk County’s elections commissioners have sent warning letters to nearly 7,000 voters who switched parties after the deadline.  The board’s letter notes that “New York is one of 11 states with ‘closed’ primaries in which residents who are registered in a party can vote in that party’s primary.

According to the newspaper Newsday, the letter sent to these voters stated, “Since you submitted your change of enrollment . . . after the legal deadline, your change of party . . . will become effective seven days after the general election day 2016.” That means their first presidential primary vote will have to wait until 2020.

And to add to the confusion, in some areas of the state there will be special elections to fill vacated legislative seats.  For example, the legislative positions held by disgraced former Assembly Speaker Silver and Senate Majority Leader Skelos are up for consideration.  For those elections, all voters can vote – and had to have been registered by March 25, but still could not have switched parties after October 9th.

If a New Yorker wants to know of their status, the state Board of Elections does have a website where he or she can check, go to voterlookup.elections.state.ny.us/votersearch.aspx.  Or the voter can contact their county Board of Elections.

Keeping track of all of these deadlines can make a voter’s head spin.  But those are the rules in New York.

Those rules must change.

Leaders like Governor Cuomo have the opportunity and responsibility to do a better job pressing for reforms, like Same Day Registration and Automatic Registration, and ending disenfranchising statutes—like New York’s inane rules for changing party enrollment. That process can have some voters waiting 22 months after changing their party to vote in a Presidential primary election.

ALBANY’S RECESSION-PROOF LOBBYING INDUSTRY

Posted by NYPIRG on April 11, 2016 at 10:38 am
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Despite the gloom over many upstate New York businesses, there has been one very bright light – its lobbying industry. For decades, New York’s lobbying industry has had an almost unbroken streak of growth – with almost each year setting a new spending record.

2015 was no exception.  Last week the state agency responsible for regulating lobbying released its annual report, which found that in calendar year 2015 a record $243.1 million in lobbying spending occurred, a $17.1 million increase as compared to 2014.

How was all of that money spent?  The agency, known as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, analyzed the data and found that spending on lobbyists made up the bulk of that spending – $206.7 million of the $243 million, 85% of the total.

The remaining 15% of the spending – nearly $20 million – was spent on advertising, events and other grassroots activities.

Lobbying over education spending was at the top.  Entities representing pro-charter schools or tax credits for the costs of private schools battled the teachers unions.  Roughly 11%, or $26 million, of all lobbying spending was the result of the fight over school spending.  The teachers unions were dramatically outspent in that fight.

JCOPE also reported that in 2015, New York had over 6,000 individual lobbyists representing over 4,000 clients. Of that group, nearly one quarter were involved in lobbying state or municipal governments in an effort to obtain public contracts.

The numbers provided by JCOPE is only part of the story.  New York’s lobbying industry is a big donor to elected officials’ political campaigns.  Campaign contributions are not reported to JCOPE, thus it is hard to know how much money was spent by all of the groups that spend money on lobbying.  But we do know that elected officials are well aware of the importance of lobbyists’ campaign dollars.

In 2015, there were over 170 campaign fundraisers held during the legislative session.  In a typical session, lawmakers are in Albany 60 days and 40 nights, during that time they are able to cram in campaign fundraisers within walking distance of the Capitol – often within the government complex itself. Who do the state’s elected officials think will show up during weekday campaign fundraisers held in Albany?  You guessed it – lobbyists.  They same people who are plying the halls of the Capitol during the day are forking campaign contributions to electeds at night – one of the most brazen aspects of Albany’s “pay-to-play” culture.

Why do businesses and other interest groups spend so much money on lobbying and campaign contributions?  Because they think it works.  They believe they get what they want.  New York’s titans of American capitalism do not spend millions of dollars unless they think they get something in return.

And when it’s been happening for decades – and that spending keeps going up – they must be getting what they want.

The most recent scandals in New York – notably the convictions of the top legislative leaders – add another dimension to this pay-to-play culture.  Not only are these industries spending big on lobbying and campaign contributions, they are also sources of personal money to corrupt officials.  In the convictions of the former Assembly Speaker and former Senate Majority Leader, groups with business before the government provided millions of dollars in outside income to enrich the two men.

Sadly, Albany’s unsavory pay to play culture is not unique in America.  But other states have done something to limit the power of interest groups.  Dozens of states place limits on the campaign fundraising of lobbyists; the federal campaign financing system and many states and localities require that campaign donors disclose their employers – thus making it easier to track the contributions of powerful interest groups; and voluntary systems of public financing allow candidates to rely on clean public resources instead of contributions of those with business before government.  Ironically, one of the best public financing systems has existed for decades in the City of New York.

There is no shortage of examples for reform.  What is in extremely short supply in Albany is the interest in taking on Albany’s political culture.  Governor Cuomo has repeatedly said that he will make ethics his top priority for this session.  Let’s hope he means it, and that he plans to tame Albany’s fat cats.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY OF THE 2016 STATE BUDGET

Posted by NYPIRG on April 4, 2016 at 7:57 pm
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The big news last week was the new budget agreement. As is increasingly the case, issues that had at best a tangential connection to the budget were part of the final agreement. The issue that headlined the agreement included a hike in the state’s minimum wage. The increase is phased in over a number of years and increases at different rates in different regions of the state. The budget also included a requirement that employers offer paid family leave and lowered tax rates for New Yorkers making less than $300,000.

Here is a sampling of other issues that Governor Cuomo and lawmakers tackled – “the good,” “the bad,” and “the ugly.”

“The good.”

The governor’s proposed extension of the “SUNY2020” annual tuition increase law was rejected. No tuition hike for the first time in five years. However, the $73 million additional funds that the SUNY Chancellor recently said was necessary to hold the line on tuition was not included, leaving the picture somewhat unclear.

The new budget adds a $100 increase per full-time enrolled student (FTE) in community college base aid over that proposed by the governor—an increase of $25 per FTE over the 2015-2016 final budget. The budget restored the governor’s proposed cuts to the state’s opportunity programs and added additional funding beyond last year’s amount.

The budget increased by $130 million funding for the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), boosting it to $300 million overall. For the first time, the budget creates a separate Climate Change Account within the Environmental Protection Fund, which will include support for electric vehicle charging stations. The budget includes funding for a $2,000 rebate for zero-emission vehicles.

“The bad.”

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”)—a greenhouse gas cap and trade program that auctions pollution credits to generate monies for clean energy programs—was raided of $68 million, including $30 million for diversion to communities where old, uneconomic power plants are shutting down.

Full implementation of the 2006 Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (“DERA”)—intended to reduce emissions of the microscopic particles spewed by diesel trucks and machinery that cause asthma attacks, lung damage and premature death—has been delayed again.

Governor Cuomo put into budget a package of ethics reforms in reaction to the staggering number of scandals that led to the resignations or prison terms for dozens of state lawmakers – including both the former Assembly Speaker and the former Senate Majority Leader. Almost immediately, the governor dropped the issue and spent virtually no time marshalling public support behind his plan. He says ethics will be a top priority for the second half of the legislative session. We’ll see.

“The ugly.”
Undoubtedly the budget negotiating process was one of, if not the, ugliest ever. Despite the fact that the $156 plus billion being appropriated is New Yorkers’ money, Governor Cuomo and the leaders of the legislative majorities did not even pretend to allow public involvement in the process.

Not only was the process being decided in secret among the governor and the legislative leaders, the meetings were often held at the governor’s mansion with no public notice. The leaders were almost contemptuous in their disregard of their responsibilities to the public they are sworn to serve.

Bills were jammed through with no real opportunity for legislators to even read the bills, much less analyze them. One end-of-session bill even moved to the floor without being written!

It was a godawful process. I’ve been through many budgets. In terms of process, one in which the public could feel confident that their money was being spent appropriately, it was terrible.

Governor Cuomo ran for office in 2010 promising to clean up Albany and to develop the most transparent government in state history. Those are two promises he has not delivered on. New Yorkers deserve better.