Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Albany Dithers While the Planet Simmers

Posted by NYPIRG on July 15, 2024 at 8:10 am

The planet is getting hotter and will continue to do so from now on.  This week the Northeast will be enduring another heat wave, the second one of the summer.  The impacts of rising temperature are well-documented and increasingly obvious: health consequences, more intense storms, worsening air quality, flooding, and rising sea levels.

The intense heat defines these “waves” – three days in a row hitting 90 degrees or more – based on the overall temperature of a region.  It can be hotter or cooler depending on the area where you live.  For example, asphalt absorbs a lot of heat from the sun.  As a result, urban areas tend to be even hotter than rural ones.  Recently NASA released new thermal imaging showing just how hot it was in Phoenix, Arizona in mid-June.  According to NASA, while the daily high in the city was a super-hot 106 degrees, the asphalt in the city registered between a staggering 120 and 160 degrees!  Surfaces that hot can cause serious harm.  The opposite was also true.  Areas with large green spaces were the coolest parts of Phoenix, while those with less greenery were the hottest.

The trend line for average temperatures is up, meaning the summers will get even hotter.  That’s why climate scientists have been calling for action to curtail the primary driver of global heating – the burning of fossil fuels.

Since the problem of the worsening climate is a worldwide one, the solution lies with all of us.  The world’s biggest economies can and must do the most since they not only have the resources to do so, but they’re the ones who have benefited the most from the reliance on fossil fuels. 

New York State is the fourteenth biggest economy in the world.  It has a gross domestic product of $1.78 trillion, trailing only California and Texas within the U.S.  As a result, New York is obliged to take on climate change aggressively.

That’s why five years ago New York approved legislation that set climate targets that were among the most ambitious of any in the nation.  The 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (the “Climate Law”) requires New York to be powered by zero-emissions electricity by 2040, as part of a plan to phase out its greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.  As an interim measure, the Climate Law requires that the state generate 70% of its electricity from renewables like solar and wind by 2030.

The Climate Law sets laudable goals, based on science.  The rhetoric was there, but five years later the current reality is falling short.

In a state report released earlier this month, it looks like New York will miss its interim goal.  The lack of effort should be obvious.  Right now, the combination of hydroelectric power, solar, wind, and other renewables is just under 30 percent.  Even that number is sort of “padded.”  The overwhelming majority – nearly 80 percent – of that “clean power” is from hydroelectricity.  And the state’s hydro power comes from plants that were built a long time ago.  Thus, the vast bulk of renewable energy comes from power plants that were built well before the consensus on climate change emerged. 

Some have argued that it’s not that the state has failed, but that New York’s goals were simply too ambitious.  If so, then other states would be in the same situation.  But that is not the case.

New York ranks 16th in the nation in its reliance on renewable energy.  New York ranks 13th in the nation in its production of solar power, behind northeast neighbor Massachusetts (ranked 5th).  Of course, differences in geography and climate can drive these rankings, but New York only generates around 5 percent of its electricity from solar, while often overcast Germany generates 10 percent.

The more likely explanation is that the state is simply being too passive and not matching the Climate Law’s mandate with a vigorous regulatory commitment.  A recent report by the state Comptroller echoed that view when it identified serious weaknesses in New York’s programs to build new renewable energy sources.

Despite New York’s economic power, it falls behind in using that clout to help save the planet.

The failure is a political one, not one based on science-based goals.  If New York is serious in its rhetoric about leading the charge in taking on the climate-change menace, then it needs to do the necessary work. 

So far, it has not.  While the goals were not set during the tenure of Governor Hochul, they are the law of the land in New York.  They are goals based on science and are part of a worldwide response to the looming climate catastrophe.  New York’s success or failure will be based on the work the governor does.

The climate clock is running out.  We’re hurtling towards a climate point of no return.  New York, the nation, the world, needs deeds, not words.

As Higher Ed Finances Erode, Albany Offers No Change in Direction

Posted by NYPIRG on July 8, 2024 at 7:32 am

Summers eventually give way to falls and with that change comes the openings of colleges and universities.  In New York, most colleges open their doors in the third week of August, a mere seven weeks or so from now.  The summers are the time for colleges to take stock of their previous academic year and plan for the one ahead.

For too many years the financial situation for colleges — both public and private — has been eroding.  Closures of private colleges have been matched with shrinking numbers of academic programs at public colleges.  The universities — both public and private — have largely been spared from having to confront weakening finances, but four year colleges and community colleges have been weathering a worsening situation.

Some of this was to be expected.  Enrollments have been declining due, at least in part, to a smaller 18 to 24 year old demographic.  And the Covid pandemic accelerated the financial problems of colleges that were already struggling.  For example, even before the Covid pandemic, SUNY had been hemorrhaging enrollments.  Covid made it worse.

While it is true that the young adult demographic is shrinking, more than one half of college-age individuals do not attend college.  Surely more would attend college if it was accessible and affordable.

What has been unexpected is Albany’s failure to develop any real plan to respond to the situation. After all, New York has the largest public higher education system in the country.  If there has been a state government review and plan, it has not been made publicly available.  No hearings have been held, no blue ribbon panels convened, no overall plan on how — or whether — the state will respond.  This is true despite SUNY touting that “[s]ince its founding, the SUNY system has evolved to meet the changing needs of New York’s students, communities, and workforce.”

As lawmakers were putting on the finishing touches of the 2024 legislative session, advocacy groups used that time to publicly call for action on legislation still in play.  Notable among the end-of-session advocacy was when the union representing SUNY faculty held a news conference outside the state Assembly chambers to decry the continued failure to adequately support all of the SUNY campuses.  The leaders then marched down to the SUNY main offices to issue their demand that state funding be targeted to the colleges that are the most financially struggling.

Choosing the state Capitol as the location for their presser made it clear that the ultimate failure to provide a meaningful road map to address the worsening finances of SUNY’s four year colleges lies with Governor Hochul and the legislative leaders.  It is these leaders who develop the budget that public colleges rely on and it is they who provide financial assistance to students attending private colleges.

This year, both the Albany-based College of St. Rose and Wells College, located in central New York, closed their doors after their Spring semesters ended. 

The closures of colleges is not unique to New York.  According to one recent estimate, colleges have been closing at a rate of one per week this year.  Yet, just because the nation is also experiencing a crisis does not mean that state leaders can ignore the situation.

A failure to act does not simply reduce the choices for would-be college students.  And it isn’t simply about the disruption for those students attending a college that abruptly shuts its doors.  Colleges and universities have important jobs: they train the next generation of workers and help them to better understand civic life.  In addition, they are economic engines that create jobs that stimulate and anchor local economies.  They offer a stimulus to local economies that are virtually guaranteed to succeed with proper support.

Policymakers too often look at the newest “shiny object” when it comes to economic development policies.  In New York, we have seen very expensive plans fail and in some cases even become mired in corruption.

Why not view public investments in colleges and universities as the cornerstone to economic development instead of a pay-as-you-go experience for college students and their families?

Yet, there appears to be an unspoken view that New York has too many colleges and that letting higher education “natural selection” take its course will lead to a more efficient system.  While that form of higher education “Darwinism” may have some economic appeal, it ignores the reality of the impact on communities all across New York. 

In many places, it is the local college that provides the jobs, stimulates business growth, and boosts overall economic vitality of local communities.  A failure to recognize the important benefits of local colleges undermines the state’s efforts to enhance its economic development.  The public expects leaders to make smart choices under challenging circumstances.  That requires fact finding, analysis and planning.  The governor and Legislature should get cracking this summer as it has plenty of “homework” to do when it comes to higher education.

The Public Gets a Glimpse of Lobbying in New York

Posted by NYPIRG on July 1, 2024 at 10:24 am

New Yorkers got important insights into who spends the most to influence state and local budgets, legislation and policies last week.  The annual report of the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (COELIG), which oversees lobbying activities in the state, documented the spending of the wealthy and powerful as they sought to influence the laws you live with.

According to COELIG, total reported lobbying spending in 2023 once again set a new record.  Interest groups spent more than $360 million lobbying in New York or a nearly 9 percent increase from the previous year – which had also set a new record.

Before we get into the numbers, here is what New York considers to be lobbying and what must be reported to COELIG.  New York has one of the most expansive definitions of what constitutes lobbying in the nation.  According to state law, if an interested party or lobby firm is expecting to spend – or get paid — $5,000 or more to influence public policy, they must report.  The definition of which policies are covered include attempts to influence certain state or local government (not all local governments, only those with population of 5,000 or more) decision-making, such as the passage or defeat of any budget item, legislation or resolution, and other government activities.  If the activity is covered in state law, it’s lobbying; if it’s an activity that falls outside of that definition (such as attempting to influence the governor’s appointments), it’s not.

Who spent the most?  Much of the lobbying was focused on policy areas in which New York has the most control: health care, education, and public investments.  Each year COELIG releases that year’s “Top Ten” lobbying spenders.  Usually the top ten includes lobbying on health care, education, public spending, and sometimes lobbying that is specific to that year cracks the top ten.

2023 was no different.  1199SEIU Labor Management Initiatives, Inc. Healthcare Education Project once again was the year’s top spender.  This “Project” represents the joint advocacy spending of the management of New York hospitals and the union that represents many hospital workers.  The “Project” is largely one that represents the interests of the union, but often carries the water for management as well.  The “Project” spent more than $8 million lobbying.  The management side of the “Project” – hospital trade groups – also spends on its own lobbying.  The Greater New York Hospital Association alone was ranked third, spending over $4.7 million on lobbying.  Other health care related lobbying spending included in the top ten were the Tobacco-Kids Action Fund, which lobbies for tobacco control policies, and AARP, which lobbies on health issues such as prescription drug affordability, but on other policies as well.

Among those rounding out the list of other top ten spenders was the world’s largest casino interest, Genting New York, which spent nearly $3 million; the charter school advocacy group, StudentsFirst New York Advocacy; the public investment firm Siebert Williams Shank & Co.; the New York State Trial Lawyers Association; and a union representing government workers, the Public Employees Federation.

A newcomer to the top ten was “American Opportunity” – an entity almost entirely funded by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – which lobbied to advance the policies of Governor Hochul.   American Opportunity was ranked second, with nearly $5 million spent on its lobbying.

According to COELIG, over 6,200 lobbyists report their activities, and those lobbyists represent nearly 5,000 clients.  The vast bulk of the spending is on lobbyists but there is considerable spending on advertising too. 

It’s important for the public to know which groups spend the most seeking to influence governments.  It is an important indicator of the information flow to lawmakers. 

In American democracy – thanks in large part to the interpretations of the US Supreme Court – money “talks” both in terms of lobbying spending as well as well as the funding of electoral campaigns.  Essentially, if you know what you’re doing you can spend an unlimited amount to influence lawmakers.

And New York’s lax rules make it easy for those two types of spending to occur simultaneously by allowing campaign fundraisers to occur in Albany during the nights of the legislative session.  Half the country puts restrictions on that type of activity.  New York could beef up the laws by limiting the size of campaign donations that lobbyists make; it could curtail fundraising during the legislative session days; and it could require more information about who is making and delivering campaign donations.

Until reforms are put in place, New Yorkers are left with the required reporting that is the basis for the COELIG annual report.  What this year’s report shows is that those with the money are spending record amounts to get what they want out of New York government.  The fact that they keep spending more each year shows that they believe the spending works.  Money provides the “megaphone” for the wealthy and powerful special interests to get their message out.  The way the system works, for the rest of us, our message registers as a whisper. 

This election year, a good question to ask candidates is what they will be doing if elected to amplify the public’s voice.

New Yorkers Go to the Polls – Some of Them Anyway

Posted by NYPIRG on June 24, 2024 at 7:41 am

Congressional, state Senate, and state Assembly primaries are being held Tuesday June 25th.  Not all districts have primaries, but some do, and, in those cases the primary winner likely will be the candidate who prevails in November’s general election. 

Primaries are important in American elections.  In fact, in many places primaries have become more important than general elections in determining the winner, especially in congressional and state legislative elections where one party typically dominates.  Due to a combination of the natural partisan divides (rural areas tend to be more Republican, urban areas more Democratic, and the suburbs “purple”) and partisan gerrymandering, the number of competitive seats for Congress and state legislatures has declined since the 1970s.  Most are “safe” seats—reliably Republican or Democratic.  As a result, primaries—when voter participation is typically lowest—are increasingly determinative of the general election outcome.

How low can voter participation be in primaries?  In a state like New York, turnout can be miniscule.  A review of the four most recent gubernatorial elections sheds some light.  Democrats have had four gubernatorial primaries in the last 20 years, with the highest turnout 24 percent in 2018.  On the Republican side, there have been only two primaries for governor over the past two decades, with the highest turnout at 16 percent in 2010.

In only one election did both major parties have gubernatorial primaries and that was in 2022.  In that election 1.1 million voters cast their ballots.  To put that in some context, there are over 13 million registered voters in New York.  Thus, roughly 10 percent of all registered voters selected the two major party candidates that the rest of us had to choose from.

Under New York law only those who are enrolled in a political party can vote in that party’s primary.  Not all states have adopted that approach.  There are five types of primary systems.  New York’s primaries are considered “closed,” meaning only party enrollees can vote; the primaries are “closed” to all others.  There are nine other states that have such “closed” systems.  Some states have primaries that are considered “partially closed.”  In those states, political parties are allowed to decide whether to allow unaffiliated voters or voters not registered with the party to participate in their nominating contests.  There are nine states that have such systems.

Some states are considered “partially open.”  These states permit voters to cross party lines, but their ballot choice may be regarded as a form of registration—essentially meaning that by casting a primary ballot the voter is registering in the political party in which they chose to vote.  Four states have a form of this system.

The fourth category allows unaffiliated voters to participate in any party primary they choose but does not allow voters who are registered with one party to vote in another party’s primary.  There are seven states that allow unaffiliated voters to participate in any primary.

The last category is the obvious one:  Some states allow any voter to vote in any primary.  These states are considered to have “open primaries.  In an open primary, voters choose the party in which to cast a primary vote, but this decision is private and does not register the voter with that party.

Here in New York, given the miniscule voter participation in primaries it makes sense to reexamine how the state conducts its political business.  New York’s Constitution has long held that elections are to be run jointly by the two major political parties. 

But does that system make sense in the current political environment?

Clearly, primary voter participation rates in New York are dismal.  Add to that the below the national average turnout in the general election—in which all voters can participate—and the upshot is that when it comes to voting, New York ranks in the bottom third of the nation.

In New York unaffiliated voter registrations—sometimes called “blanks” because the party enrollment part of their voter registration forms are not filled in—has seen the biggest growth over the past 20 years.  In 2006, 5.5 million voters registered as Democrats.  In 2022, that number had risen by more than one million to 6.5 million—or an 18 percent increase.  Republicans saw their registrations drop during that period.  In 2006, 3.1 million New Yorkers registered as Republicans; by 2022, only 2.9 million had. 

However, “unaffiliated” voters saw their numbers jump from 2.3 million in 2006 to nearly 3.1 million in 2022, a whopping 30 percent increase.

Yet, despite their numbers and their incredible growth, they are “second class” voters.  They have no representation in elections administration, and they cannot vote in primaries.  When Election Day rolls around they are simply left to choose among the candidates blessed by the political parties. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.  As mentioned earlier, there are other primary models to choose from.  And the administration of elections could be wrestled from the hands of the two major parties and handed to independent elections professionals. 

This week, a small number of New Yorkers will choose Congressional and state Legislative candidates for the general election.  From now until November, it is our opportunity to press our representatives to make New York’s elections more open and accountable to all voters.

New York Feels the Heat

Posted by NYPIRG on June 17, 2024 at 10:27 am

Last fall, many schools across the nation closed due to excessive heat.  Acknowledging that the planet is getting hotter and that students may be unsafe in schools when temperatures soar, New York lawmakers approved legislation to require schools to evacuate students if classrooms reach 88 degrees.  The bill, if approved by Governor Hochul, would mandate that students be moved to another location or sent home when temperatures hit 88 degrees.  The bill also requires that once the temperatures reach 82 degrees, school districts take immediate action to offer students an opportunity to get cool, but they would not have to leave.

There are a host of questions both in terms of what happens to students if temperatures soar and how to pay for the costs of cooling school buildings – many of which are not designed for a hotter climate.  Moreover, will school buses have to offer air conditioning, too?

While the legislation makes its way to Governor Hochul’s desk, the impact of a rapidly heating planet plays out beyond schools.  This week, much of the nation will be sweltering through the first massive heat wave of the summer season and for those in the northeast the heat will feel like over 100 degrees for most of the work week.  (Some schools are moving to protect students too, moving to half days.)

If you’ve noticed that we’re experiencing more heat waves than in the past, you’re right.  The reason?  Climate change.  Research has shown heat waves now occur three times as often as they did in the 1960s.  Heat domes (which are more stationary heat waves) are also 150 times more likely due to climate change.  As we all know, extreme heat is particularly dangerous — among the deadliest of all extreme weather events.

Across the world the hotter planet has caused carnage in many parts of the world.  According to the World Health Organization, “The number of people exposed to extreme heat is growing exponentially due to climate change in all world regions.  Heat-related mortality for people over 65 years of age increased by approximately 85% between 2000–2004 and 2017–2021.”

This week’s expected heat wave has triggered some governmental responses.  Citing the heat and humidity expected this week when temperatures will “feel like” 100 or more, Governor Hochul urged that “New Yorkers should take every precaution they can over this next week to stay cool and stay safe.”  She also urged that for those who do not have sufficient ways to keep cool that the state will make available “cooling centers” for those in need. 

Reducing the heat in schools and offering “cooling centers” come with a price tag.  And those costs can be added to the tens of billions of dollars that New Yorkers will face over the coming years to deal with the climate change impacts of intense heat, more damaging storms, floods, rising sea levels, and an overall worsening environment.

There is simply no getting around these costs and others.  New York, the nation, and the world will have to deal with these and other climate-related catastrophes over the remainder of the century.  The only thing we can do now is to act to avoid the worst of the possible outcomes.

Of course, it didn’t have to be this way.  If the oil companies had just alerted the world to the dangers when they knew about them (at least four decades ago) and led the charge to respond, the world likely would not be facing this existential crisis.

Things, however, are what they are, and we must act.

The Hochul Administration’s public warnings and services to those in need are important.  Yet, they are not sufficient.  The taxpayer costs for dealing with the climate catastrophe will be staggering and will total in the tens of billions of dollars.  Unfortunately, those costs – like the temperature of the planet – are expected to keep rising.

What can the governor do?  She can sign the “Climate Change Superfund Act,” which puts the world’s largest oil companies on the hook for at least some of those costs.  The bill requires those companies most responsible for the emissions of greenhouse gases to pay the state $3 billion annually for the next 25 years.  The major hangup had been concerns that the annual assessment will be passed on to the public.  That concern runs counter to basic marketplace economics, a view echoed in an independent economic paper published by the respected Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law. 

Global energy-related CO2 emissions hit a record high last year, according to the International Energy Agency, and 2023 was the hottest year on record.  The state, the nation, and the world need to stop using fossil fuels as quickly as possible.  Governor Hochul can help protect taxpayers by ensuring that Big Oil contributes to the cleanup of the mess that they made – which unfortunately includes kids baking in their classrooms before the calendar even says it’s summer.