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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Scandal Rocks Albany…Again

Posted by NYPIRG on May 14, 2018 at 9:05 am
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Last week was quite a week at the state Capitol.  It started off on Monday with the shocking resignation of the Attorney General within hours of detailed allegations of sexual assaults appearing in media reports.  The week ended with the second conviction of the former Speaker of the Assembly on federal corruption charges.  And in between, an accomplice to a former top aide to Governor Cuomo pled guilty.  In that last one, the former top aide to the governor had already been convicted of corruption; the accomplice was an energy executive who admitted to lying to federal investigators about his role in giving a high-pay, “low-show” job to the former top aide’s wife.

It makes your head spin to keep track of it all; as a New Yorker, it is the latest in a nauseating string of scandals.

In the last decade or so, dozens of lawmakers have been convicted of crimes, a governor and now an attorney general have had to resign over misdeeds, another governor was forced to pay a fine for lying under oath, a comptroller was convicted of corruption, and – as mentioned earlier – a top aide to the current governor was convicted as well.

Despite the repetition, it is shocking.

And it’s not over; in June there will be a federal trial over alleged corruption in the state’s economic development programs in Buffalo and the retrial of the former Senate Majority Leader is scheduled as well.

Yet, there has been little progress on fixing what ails state government.  While the legislative session still has six weeks to go, there is scant evidence that the governor and the state legislative leaders are focused on a package of meaningful measures that would reduce the risk of corruption in New York.

During the budget, the governor advanced a proposal to limit campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts.  But the plan was weak and he did little to advance it.  The Assembly has passed some campaign finance reform measures, including closing the so-called Limited Liability Company (LLC) loophole, which allows those controlling these secretive business entities to essentially ignore campaign contribution limits.  And this week, the Senate passed legislation to increase public accountability of the state’s economic development programs.

But there has been no agreement among the major players on what should be done and the “solutions” are piecemeal.

If anything meaningful is to happen, it will take leadership from the governor.  Without the governor’s advocacy, each house will point to their own reforms and blame others for failing to actually enact impactful reforms.

Since the corruption scandals have been so numerous and the crimes so wide-ranging, there is no single “silver bullet” that will solve all the problems or weaknesses in the current system.  Instead, there will need to be sweeping changes to fix Albany.  And while there are many solutions that are needed, there are a few at the top of the to-do list:

  1. Expand the role of the state Comptroller to oversee state contracts, complete transparency in the awarding of such contracts, and dramatic campaign contribution restrictions for those seeking and holding state contracts.
  2. Close the LLC loophole. That loophole has been repeatedly exploited and of its use to funnel enormous sums has been at the heart of many scandals.
  3. Limit public officials’ outside income. State lawmakers are considered “part time” and are allowed outside income.  Such “moonlighting” has figured prominently in some of the corruption convictions.  The former top aide to the governor also exploited state laws in order to have outside income while running Governor Cuomo’s 2014 re-election effort.
  4. Establish an independent ethics watchdog. The current system of oversight is based on political appointments and provides little independence for the staff of such agencies.  One of the reasons federal prosecutors have led corruption-busting efforts is that state watchdogs cannot adequately monitor state government.  New Yorkers spend millions on ethics agencies; they deserve ones who enforce the law without fear or favor.

There are other problems that have been highlighted in the federal investigations.  But if Albany is serious about fixing its problems, a better system of contracting, new limits on campaign finance, new ethics restrictions on outside income, and the creation of an independent enforcer, are major components of meaningful reforms.

The Dangers of Indoor Tanning

Posted by NYPIRG on May 7, 2018 at 8:28 am
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Finally, Spring has arrived.  The weather is warming up and many think of lying in the sun to get some relaxation and a tan.  Others look to a short-cut: Indoor tanning.  You can see it already, with high school prom and other big events, like graduations, looming, many high schoolers are rushing to look their best, some go to indoor tanning salons.  That decision could change their lives.

Indoor tanning raises the risks of skin cancer as well as immune suppression, eye damage, and premature aging of the skin. The World Health Organization has elevated tanning beds to the highest cancer risk category – group 1 – “carcinogenic to humans.”

Subsequent research by the nation’s top medical facilities, including Harvard Medical School and the Yale School of Public Health, has reinforced that finding.  In New York, according to the American Cancer Society an estimated 4,920 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year. Tens of thousands more will be diagnosed with basal or squamous cell carcinomas of the skin.  Many of those will be the result of frequent use of indoor tanning.

UV radiation exposure, particularly from indoor tanning, is a leading risk factor for the development of skin cancers. While excessive exposure to the sun permanently increases one’s cancer risk through cumulative damage, indoor tanning compounds the risks by delivering concentrated bursts.  This results in faster mutations in the body, as the UV rays alter the configuration of human DNA. This explains why individuals who have used tanning beds have a much greater risk of developing skin cancers as compared to those who have never used tanning devices.

The risk is significant to all users, but there has been increasing data showing the impact it can have on younger people, particularly those under the age of 18.  Currently, a substantial number of young teens are using tanning beds, with use increasing with age.  Among those teens, the rates were highest among female 17-year-old high school students.

Peer-reviewed scientific studies strengthen the indoor tanning-cancer connection.  A recent review of 27 European studies concluded:

Sunbed use is associated with a significant increase in risk of melanoma. This risk increases with number of sunbed sessions and with initial usage at a young age (<35 years). The cancerous damage associated with sunbed use is substantial and could be avoided by strict regulations.

Here in the United States, a growing number of researchers have identified the use of indoor tanning to be linked to cancers.  Some key findings:

  • There has been a dramatic increase in the use of indoor tanning facilities – particularly among teenagers. Since 1998, teens reporting use of tanning beds has increased from 1% to 27%.  The more you expose yourself to UV radiation, the more likely you are to get skin cancer.
  • When the World Health Organization determined that the UV rays found in indoor tanning booths were a human carcinogen, they also stated that individuals who used indoor tanning devices before the age of 30 increase their risk for melanoma by 75 percent.
  • People who use indoor tanning equipment face a 59 percent higher risk of melanoma than those who do not, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

The American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Dermatology, the Skin Cancer Foundation and World Health Organization all have called on states to bar children under 18 from tanning salons.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states and the District of Columbia ban the use of indoor tanning beds and booths for people under 18.  New York is not one of them.

Those over the age of 18 also need to know the facts.  Unfortunately, New York’s warning labels at indoor tanning facilities and its mandated disclosures say little about the cancer dangers associated with the use of indoor tanning.  The Cuomo Administration has the regulatory authority and obligation to strengthen those warnings.

States across the nation have already responded to the weight of scientific evidence and the staggering harm caused by indoor tanning by banning its use by minors.  New York should act too.

Will New York Become More Energy Efficient?

Posted by NYPIRG on April 30, 2018 at 8:10 am
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Energy efficiency means using less energy to provide the same level of energy.  If a house is properly insulated, less energy is used in heating and cooling to achieve a satisfactory temperature.  Houses can be built facing the sun to take advantage of solar energy.

Another example is installing fluorescent lights or skylights, instead of incandescent lights, to attain the same level of illumination while using less energy.  Appliances can be designed to reduce the amount of electricity they use.  Power management systems also reduce energy usage by turning off idle appliances. Smart meters allow a building’s energy use to be monitored to assess and regulate usage.

Energy efficiency reduces the amount of energy used, which helps lower energy costs for consumers, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions which drive climate change.  Energy efficiency also helps reduce the cost of producing energy and building power plants. Utilities are also able to save money by not building new power lines, substations, and transformers.

New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s (NYSERDA) energy efficiency programs return three dollars for every one dollar invested.  And that doesn’t include health benefits or reductions in climate change.

So, emphasizing programs to make New York more energy efficient would be a “win-win”; it would help reduce global warming emissions and help consumers to save money.

But New York has been going in the wrong direction.  New York’s ranking on energy efficiency has slipped under Governor Cuomo, falling from 3rd to 7th nationally in the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) State Energy Efficiency Scorecard.  Massachusetts is the national leader.

New York’s current 2016-2018 utility energy efficiency targets are far below what the Cuomo Administration assumed in its Clean Energy Standard (CES), and significantly lower than those of other nearby states—Massachusetts and Rhode Island—that lead in energy efficiency. And to make things worse, New York missed a prior target of 15% energy savings from energy efficiency promised by former Governor Paterson expired in 2015.

Rhode Island and Massachusetts see annual incremental savings from energy efficiency programs of nearly 3%, Vermont saves more than 2% and California saves nearly 2% (California recently set a goal of 4% annual incremental savings).  Currently, New York is estimated to be saving about 1%.

In his 2018 State of the State, Governor Cuomo announced a plan to create new energy efficiency targets and appliance standards, acknowledging that “much work remains to realize the full potential of energy efficiency for New Yorkers.”  He directed state agencies to propose new 2025 energy efficiency targets by Earth Day, April 22, 2018.

Earlier this month, and in advance of Earth Day, the governor issued his plan.  The goal is to save energy equivalent to the amount used by 1.8 million homes by 2025.  All combined the new efforts would increase annual electricity savings to more than 3 percent by 2025, which if achieved, would make New York among the top tier of states in terms of savings from energy efficiency.

Promises are important and goals help focus government agencies.  There can be no doubt that if the state is to achieve its environmental goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it can only do so by making New York’s energy grid more efficient and shifting from a system powered by fossil fuels to one powered by renewables like solar, wind, geothermal power.

But saying so does not mean it will happen.  As mentioned earlier, a previous goal was not achieved.  And despite the state’s promises of investments in renewables and efficiency, the governor’s decision to spend billions to prop up out-of-date nuclear power plants has drastically reduced available resources.

When it comes to the looming catastrophe the world is facing from global warming, talk is insufficient.  Actions matter most.

Given the shockingly dangerous policies of the Trump Administration and the Congressional majorities that ignore science and instead push for more use of fossil fuels, states like New York must lead – by actions, not just goals.

Let’s hope that the Cuomo Administration not only advances laudable goals, but also offers regular metrics on how well they are moving in the right direction.

Earth Day, 2018

Posted by NYPIRG on April 23, 2018 at 10:28 am
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This week we celebrate Earth Day.  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.  In a sense, Earth Day is the day we issue a “report card” on our stewardship of the planet’s natural resources.

There is no other way to describe it, we are failing.

Just reviewing the record on climate change underscores that failure.  The planet continues to heat up and that warming trend is accelerating.  The amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere is in the “red zone.”

The results are devastating: the oceans are becoming more acidic; sea levels are rising and threatening coastal regions; deserts expand and with them famines; food shortages and extreme heat waves trigger violence; populations are displaced; and species across the planet are becoming extinct.

How should we respond?  Scientists’ recommendations are quite clear – reduce reliance on existing fossil fuel powered energy sources and keep reserves in the ground.

Yet, the opposite polices are being followed.  The Trump Administration ignores science and appoints political allies to dismantle environmental programs.  The Trump Administration wants to leave the Paris Climate Change accord, one that has been ratified by every nation across the globe.

And the Congress does nothing, on a good day.

Why do our elected leaders act in such a reckless and irrational way?  Because there is a political constituency that has been created by the oil, gas and coal industries to block science-based solutions.

Those industries wield tremendous political clout and are able to use their muscle to protect their corporate interests – even if that results in tremendous harm to the public interest and threatens our survival.

And the fossil fuel industry also has been using that 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 the industry is not all powerful.  In the early years of the Cuomo Administration, oil giant Exxon-Mobil put its considerable political clout behind an effort to get New York to allow fracking; a controversial type of drilling that allowed for the extraction of natural gas.  At that time, it had the support of the governor.  It was on a roll.

Yet today a ban is in place.  The reason for the change?  An unprecedented statewide citizen mobilization in opposition to the plan.  New Yorkers from Buffalo to Long Island decided that allowing the oil and gas industries the rights to large scale mining of natural gas reserves was simply too much of a public health and environmental threat.

And in this age of climate change they knew that fossil fuels must stay in the ground, not be burned and released into the atmosphere to make global warming worse.

The clout of arguably the most powerful economic force on the planet was not a match for widespread grassroots mobilization grounded in scientific fact.

It is no secret what needs to be done to slow down, and hopefully reverse, the terrible impacts of the world’s reliance on fossil fuel power.  The world needs to collectively agree to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, there needs to be massive investments in energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and energy efficiencies.  There needs to be a ban on the sale on new cars that run on fossil fuels.

And there must be a halt on the expansion of new fossil fuel pipelines and other facilities.  These capital investments take decades to pay for themselves and the planet simply does not have decades to continue to rely on fossil fuel generated power.

These goals can be accomplished if Americans mobilize into a national civic campaign to avert an environmental catastrophe.  2018 is an election year—the time when it’s most important to deliver a message to candidates: we want you to pledge to follow science, not lies; we want actions, not promises; we want policies designed for the public’s best interests, not the economically powerful’s campaign contributions.

Earth Day is a time to take stock, to review how well we are taking care of the world – for ourselves and our children.  It is time to act.

New York Needs to Reduce Diesel Emissions

Posted by NYPIRG on April 16, 2018 at 9:05 am
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Air emissions from the combustion engine cause many health problems.  When it comes to the emissions of diesel powered engines, the impacts are serious and potentially deadly.

Diesel-powered vehicles and equipment account for nearly half of all nitrogen oxides and more than two-thirds of all particulate matter emissions from U.S. transportation sources.

Particulate matter or soot is created during the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel.  Its composition often includes hundreds of chemical elements, including sulfates, ammonium, nitrates, elemental carbon, condensed organic compounds, and even carcinogenic compounds and toxic metals, such as cadmium and zinc.  Particulate matter is tiny, small enough to penetrate the cells of the lungs.  These small particles make up 80-95% of diesel soot pollution.

Particulate matter irritates the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, contributing to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and even premature death.  Although everyone is susceptible to diesel soot pollution, children, the elderly, and individuals with preexisting respiratory conditions are the most vulnerable.  Researchers estimate that, nationwide, tens of thousands of people die prematurely each year as a result of particulate pollution.  Diesel engines contribute to the problem by releasing particulates directly into the air and by emitting nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides.

Diesel emissions of nitrogen oxides contribute to the formation of ground level ozone, which irritates the respiratory system, causing coughing, choking, and reduced lung capacity.  Ground level ozone pollution presents a hazard for both healthy adults and individuals suffering from respiratory problems.  Urban ozone pollution has been linked to increased hospital admissions for respiratory problems such as asthma.

Diesel exhaust has been classified as a potential human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.  Exposure to high levels of diesel exhaust has been shown to cause lung tumors in rats, and studies of humans routinely exposed to diesel fumes indicate a greater risk of lung cancer.  For example, occupational health studies of railroad, dock, trucking, and bus garage workers exposed to high levels of diesel exhaust over many years consistently demonstrate a 20 to 50 percent increase in the risk of lung cancer or mortality.

For those reasons, in 2006 New York State officials took action.  They enacted a new law, the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (“DERA”), designed to curb diesel emissions by mandating the use of low-sulfur fuel and applying stringent standards to heavy-duty vehicles used by the state and its contractors.  The law required the state and the businesses it contracts with to replace or retrofit these vehicles to dramatically reduce diesel emissions.

But there has been a hitch: Despite the fact that DERA was supposed to be fully implemented by 2010, each year it has been delayed in the state’s secret budget negotiations, allowing vehicles with antiquated emission controls used by the state and its contractors to continue to pollute our air and threaten the health of our communities.  A dozen years after DERA was signed into law, once again the 2019 budget delayed its full application.

Instead of continuing to kick the can, and putting the public health at risk, New York must take action to be a national environmental leader by finally fully implementing the Diesel Emissions Reductions Act.  This is a must to improve air quality and reduce asthma rates—particularly important for communities subject to multiple pollution sources.

New York must finish the job, by fully implementing DERA to protect public health—particularly children in highly-impacted communities—and advance the state’s climate change agenda.