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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Progressive New York?

Posted by NYPIRG on December 11, 2017 at 12:06 pm
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New York considers itself a “progressive” state.  Progressive meaning that New York’s political leaders view the policies of the state as “cutting edge” in its responses to society’s problems.  And in New York State, there is a track record that backs up that view.

New York State granted women the right to vote before the rest of the nation; young adults got the right to vote early too; the state’s constitution includes protections for workers, requirements that the needs of the poor are addressed, that children are guaranteed a sound, basic education; and the state had the foresight to extend constitutional protection to the largest wilderness areas east of the Mississippi.

In recent years, the state was the first to grant marriage rights to gay couples through legislation.

So, there is a lot that New York can point to in terms of being progressive.

But when it comes to its democracy, the state is anything but progressive.

New York State’s system of campaign finance allows enormous campaign contributions.  New York allows the largest campaign contributions of any state that has limits.  Under state law, contributions of $109,000 are completely legal.

New York’s system of establishing political boundaries is hardly a national model:  When it comes to drawing state legislative district lines those with a vested interest in the outcome – lawmakers – draw their own districts.  In effect, state lawmakers choose their voters, not the other way around.

New York’s programs to curb corruption are, to say the least, sadly lacking.

When it comes to the core activity in a democracy—voting—New York has one of the most onerous ballot-casting systems in the nation.

For example, despite the fact that the state constitution makes it clear that no one can register to vote within 10 days of an election, state law goes beyond that and says that no one can register and vote within 25 days of the election – thus a previous governor and state legislature made it harder to vote.  And that 25-day deadline is one of the longest in the nation.

The state even has the longest period of time between when a voter can switch political parties and then vote in a Presidential primary.

The result of the state’s approaches to campaign financing, to redistricting, to ethics, and to voting are not progressive, to say the least.

Instead New Yorkers are increasingly cynical and frustrated by their own government.  And the evidence is clear that the policies and the public’s reactions are damaging: New York consistently has one of the lowest voter participation rates of any state in the nation.

In the 2016 election, for example, New York’s voter turnout rates were worse than states like Alabama and Louisiana.

New Yorkers deserve a better democracy.

The next opportunity to fix things is fast approaching: 2018 will be a reelection year for the Governor, the Attorney General, the state Comptroller and all 213 state legislators.  Next year will also be the year that the nation starts to grapple with the fallout from the policies enacted in Washington – laws which may strip away health insurance for millions and destabilize the budgets of some states, including New York’s.

But voters can’t let candidates for state office off-the-hook for the sad state of democracy in New York.  New Yorkers need to press the governor and legislators for specific responses to the real problems facing the state, such as:

What will they do to end the secrecy that surrounds too much of state decision-making?

What will candidates do to make it easier to vote?

What will they do to end rigged elections?

What will they do to establish independent ethics enforcement?

What will they do to curb the influence of the rich and powerful over the awarding of government contracts and enacting legislation?

The drama playing out in Washington has real-life implications, no doubt.  But it shouldn’t be used as a dodge or a shield from the work that state public officials must do, the work that transforms New York from the nation’s democracy “caboose” to its progressive “engine.”

 

Keeping the Holiday Season Safe for Children

Posted by NYPIRG on December 4, 2017 at 10:14 am
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Thanksgiving was the start of the holiday shopping season.  The holiday shopping season is a time when many adults look for gifts for children.  And while the holidays are a time for fun and giving, it is important that it be a safe time as well.

A recent survey of toys found some that posed health and safety threats to children (the New York version of the report can be found at https://www.nypirgstudents.org/pubs/201711/NYPIRG_Toyland_Report_Nov17.pdf).  Among the toys surveyed, there were examples of choking hazards and toys with concentrations of toxics exceeding federal standards.  The continued presence of these hazards in toys highlights the need for constant vigilance on the part of government agencies and the public to ensure that children do not end up playing with unsafe toys.

The problems the report identified included:

  • Toys containing toxic substances, specifically lead.Childhood exposure to even low levels of lead can undermine development, damaging academic achievement and attentiveness.
  • Toys with small parts have pieces that might block a child’s airway. Children, especially those under age three, can choke on small parts. Small balls less than 1.75 inches in diameter represent a choke hazard for children three years old and younger. Balloons are easily inhaled in attempts to inflate them and can become stuck in children’s throats. Balloons are responsible for more choking deaths among children than any other toy or children’s product. 
  • Beyond choking hazards, some small, easily ingested, toy parts pose other hazards. When two or more powerful magnets are swallowed, they can have fatal health consequences as their attractive forces draw them together inside the body, perforating intestinal walls.
  • Toys with batteries.When batteries are ingested, chemical reactions can burn through the esophagus and blood vessels, causing fatal internal bleeding.
  • Toys that generate excessive noise.Excessive noise exposure can lead to hearing loss. This is especially problematic for young children: Hearing loss at an early age has ramifications for speech development.

In addition, the advent of new interactive toys can pose other concerns.  The report alerted parents and toy givers to so-called “connected toys” that may violate children’s privacy and other consumer protection laws. As more and more products are part of the “Internet of Things,” data collection and the sharing of consumer information become greater concerns. As an example, the report listed a doll, which has been banned in Germany for privacy violations and is the subject of a complaint by several consumer groups to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission because it may violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

In July, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a warning to consumers to “consider cyber security prior to introducing smart, interactive, internet-connected toys into their homes.”

Despite recent progress in making toys safer, the report highlighted the need for continued attention to shortcomings in existing standards and vigilance on the part of the shopping public. To keep children safe from potentially hazardous toys, there is still more to do.

  • Examine toys carefully for hazards before purchase – and don’t trust that they are safe just because they are on a store shelf or available on-line. Generally, we found that retail stores were conscientious about keeping toys subject to recall off their shelves.  However, some recalled toys were still available on-line.
  • Report unsafe toys or toy-related injuries to the CPSC at saferproducts.gov.
  • Subscribe to government announcements of recalled products at recalls.gov.

For toys already owned:

  • Remove small batteries if there is any question over their security or inaccessibility and keep them out of reach of children;
  • Remove batteries from or tape over the speakers of toys you already own that are too loud; and
  • Put small parts, or toys broken into small parts, out of reach. Regularly check that toys appropriate for your older children are not left within reach of children who still put things in their mouths.

Policymakers must do more to protect children from dangerous toys.  But until actions are taken, adults should take care in the gifts that they purchase.  Smarter choices can help keep this holiday season safe.

American Democracy Hits a New Low

Posted by NYPIRG on November 27, 2017 at 9:04 am
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There has been a palpable decline in political ethics in America.  What was once suspected – that elected officials could their trade policy positions for campaign contributions – has become more and more openly discussed.  It’s as if elected officials no longer see themselves as servants to the public, but instead as servants to the rich and powerful.

Americans long suspected that this has been the case.   Poll after poll has shown that Democrats and Republicans agree on this key point.  A poll in 2015 found that 84 percent of Americans think money has too much influence in political campaigns. Criticism of the role of political money cuts across party lines – large majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents all think money has too much influence.

But now, to some extent as a result of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have eroded prosecutors’ ability to enforce anti-corruption laws, coupled with the obvious disdain that the President shows toward acceptable ethical standards, members of Congress are now openly admitting that their policy positions are directly connected to the wishes of their campaign donors, even if the public disagrees.

Earlier in the year, the evidence was based on the effort to repeal federal health insurance coverage.  Key Republican operatives concerned about their party’s midterm re-election push were warned that donors were refusing to contribute until the Congressional majorities produced victories.  In one private meeting, it was reported that “Donors are furious.”  These donors were not concerned that millions of Americans would lose their health care coverage and that some would get unnecessarily sick, instead they were “furious” because Congressional Republicans haven’t kept their promise to eliminate insurance coverage.

In another reported example, a prominent Republican donor stated that the “Dallas piggy bank” was closed until there is progress on health care repeal and tax cuts. The donor was reported as saying, “Get [health care repeal and tax reform] done and we’ll open [fundraising] back up.”

Now it’s the so-called tax reform bill.  After a private meeting of Republican Senators, Sen. Lindsey Graham told an NBC reporter “financial contributions will stop” if tax reform does not pass.

Even one of New York’s Congressional Republicans, Representative Collins from the Buffalo area was reported to have said, “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get [tax reform] done or don’t ever call me again.”’

While it’s no surprise that campaign contributors expect that their donations will influence elected officials, it is nothing short of shocking that public officials are being so open about how they transact policymaking.

Reports that the various tax reform plans are nothing more than tax cuts for wealthy individuals and large businesses, have eroded the popularity of the plan.  A poll released by the Wall Street Journal/NBC News found that only 25 percent of Americans said the tax reform/cut plan was “good idea.” (A solid majority of American also support the Affordable Care Act.)

But the eroding popularity of these ideas hasn’t reduced the pressure from the donor class.  Instead the political calculus appears to be to deliver for the political contributors now, raise big bucks for campaign warchests and try to take some of the sting out of these moves in advance of the midterm elections next year.

The nasty – and transactional nature – of American politics is taking its toll.  Recent polls find Americans increasingly unhappy with the direction of the country.  In one, 70 percent said the nation is facing its widest political divide since the Vietnam War.

This month’s Washington Post-University of Maryland poll revealed voters’ deeply depressing view of U.S. politics, widespread distrust of the nation’s political leaders and their ability to compromise, and an erosion of pride in the way democracy works in America.

What has become clear is that elected officials’ disregard for ethics, their increasingly brazen actions to transact policy for campaign donations, and public demands from the rich and powerful for action is taking its toll – not only on unpopular Congressional actions, but an erosion of public support for democracy itself.

That has to change and soon.

 

 

Climate Change: Failing to Act?

Posted by NYPIRG on November 20, 2017 at 11:13 am
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There can be no doubt that the planet is warming; 2016 was the fifth time in the 21st century a new record high annual temperature has been set (along with 2005, 2010, 2014, and 2015) and also marks the 40th consecutive year (since 1977) that the annual temperature has been above the 20th century average.  To date, all 16 years of the 21st century rank among the seventeen warmest on record (1998 is currently the eighth warmest).  The five warmest years have all occurred since 2010.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that from the environmentally catastrophic policies of the Trump Administration and its allies in Congress.  The Trump Administration has been busy rolling back the already inadequate programs of the former Obama Administration and advancing measures to stimulate the use of coal in energy production – arguably the worst fossil fuel in terms of heating the planet.

Despite the stunningly dangerous policies of the Trump Administration, the world has long known of the dangers posed by the burning of oil, gas and coal.

Twenty-five years ago, more than 1700 independent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” The Warning urged that the world must take measures to curtail environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

This month on the twenty-fifth anniversary of that call, scientists looked back to evaluate the world’s responses.  What they found, though not surprising, was disturbing: since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, the world has failed to make sufficient progress in solving the environmental challenges and, in fact, most of them are getting far worse.

Their review specifically identified the rapidly increasing threat of catastrophic climate change resulting from the rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural production.

That warning was released just as the 23rd conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23) was meeting in Bonn, Germany.  The Convention was meeting to take steps to implement the 2015 Paris agreement and to set the stage for next year’s draft rules to fully implement the Paris agreement.

Under the Paris agreement, nearly 200 nations submitted individual pledges to curb their greenhouse-gas emissions.  Under the agreement, nations vowed to limit the rise in global temperatures since the industrial revolution to “well below” 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

At this year’s meeting, the goal was to develop rules to verify whether the nations are actually reducing emissions consistent with the goals of the agreement.  Reportedly, the negotiators made progress toward that goal and the rules are supposed to be in place in time for next year’s climate conference in Katowice, Poland.

Those measurements are critical.  Goals that reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are supposed to hit goals for the year 2030, for example, need to have established, measureable annual mileposts in order to know whether environmental policies will be met and nations are meeting their pledge goals.

Given the Trump Administration’s callous disregard for the suffering that is, and will be, from climate changes, states have argued that they will follow the Paris accord.  New York to its credit is one of those states.

And the Cuomo Administration has set aggressive goals to meet the Paris Agreement:

  • A reduction in New York’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050;
  • Half of those reductions will come by the year 2030; and
  • 50% of the state’s electricity will come from renewable energy sources.

But like the Paris accord itself, a clear public reporting system should be put in place.  In January, Governor Cuomo will offer his State of the State address.  During that speech, the governor will outline both the successes of his Administration and his roadmap for future plans.  He should use that address as a way to hold himself publicly accountable by laying out what has been done to meet the state’s climate change-fighting agenda.  In that way, New York can show the world how to succeed in tackling the single most daunting problem facing humanity.

Of course, success in New York does not solve the problem.  Americans must insist that the Trump Administration and its allies in the Congress embrace aggressive climate change fighting efforts.  Failure to do so will result in catastrophic consequences.  When it comes to a dangerously warming planet, there are no alternative facts.

We must insist that governments at every level take immediate action; it is a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life.

 

Whither Reform?

Posted by NYPIRG on November 13, 2017 at 10:36 am
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Last week, New Yorkers turned down an opportunity to call a constitutional convention.  If it had been approved, delegates would have been elected and given the mandate to propose changes to New York State’s governmental blueprint.

But as it had in 1997, voters overwhelmingly rejected the option.  Advocates for the convention argued that state government is a mess – plagued by corruption, its processes too inefficient and cumbersome, and one which relies far too heavily on secrecy in its decision-making.  And polling said that New Yorkers wanted reform.  According to a recent Siena Research Institute poll, New York voters – “regardless of party, geography, gender, race, income, or ideology – overwhelmingly support term limits for legislators and state elected officials, eliminating the LLC loophole, creating a system of initiative and referendum, and making the State Legislature full-time, with a ban on outside employment for legislators.”

So New Yorkers want reforms, but yet voted down the convention option with over 80 percent voting no.  Why?

The opposition’s arguments were strongly focused on a key weakness of the convention process – how delegates would be selected.  Under a process set in the state constitution, delegates would have been elected in a manner more or less the same as anyone else running for office.  Opponents made the reasonable argument that who else but those in the political class could get enough petition signatures to get on the ballot, raise the necessary campaign contributions to successfully run, and then have the free time to serve in a convention?

Opponents argued that it would be redundant to what happens in Albany now, so why waste the money?  It’s possible that things could get even worse.

Of course, a convention is a different venue than the legislative process, but nevertheless, voters were more concerned that bad things were more likely to come out of a convention, and said no.

Unfortunately, the current process hasn’t been responsive to the public’s demands for reforms, in fact quite the opposite.

So now what?

The critique offered by supporters of the convention – that Albany is a mess, is one shared by national experts.  According to the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, “it’s fair to say that New York remains one of the most corrupt states if not the most corrupt state.”

2018 will see a number of high level corruption cases coming to a head.  Former top aides to the governor are scheduled to have their corruption trials heard in the first half of the year and the retrials of the former leaders of the Assembly and Senate are likely to also be heard during that time.

Just as lawmakers are in session, the glare from these high profile cases may shine intensely on the governor and the state legislature.  And 2018 is an election year, for all 213 lawmakers, the governor, the comptroller and the attorney general.  All have run with a promise to clean up Albany, a promise that can be described charitably as one that is as yet unfulfilled.

Reformers, both inside government and outside of it, must roll up their sleeves and get back to work.  It’s pretty clear that left to its own devices, the executive and legislature will advance proposals that sound good, but do little to achieve the cultural change that Albany needs.

Instead, an aggressive reform package must be advanced.  A plan that includes:

  • New strict accountability measures that would result in an open, ethical, and efficient way to award government contracts, an area which was identified as a key problem in the indictments of the governor’s top aides.
  • Significant changes to the state’s campaign finance system, one which eliminates the advantages granted to Limited Liability Companies, advantages that are far more generous than ones granted to other businesses. LLCs have also been at the heart of some of Albany’s most troubling scandals.
  • Real limits on the outside income for legislators and the executive. Moonlighting by top legislative leaders and top members of the executive branch have triggered indictments by the federal prosecutors.
  • And the creation of a truly independent ethics enforcement.

Voters must hold their elected representatives accountable for what they do, not what they say, when it comes to battling corruption in state government. Next election day, New Yorkers should expect to have seen concrete changes to fix Albany’s ethics.