Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Will Albany Protect Voters From Illness?

Posted by NYPIRG on May 22, 2023 at 9:47 am

While you weren’t looking, it got harder to vote in New York.  A voting practice that made it easier to vote has ended and unless state lawmakers act in the next couple of weeks, it will be much harder to get a mail-in ballot.

Due to the COVID pandemic, New York State allowed voters to cast absentee mail-in ballots if they were concerned about contracting or transmitting that deadly illness.  For the elections of 2020, 2021, and 2022, New York recognized that such concern over COVID was a justified way for a voter to obtain a mail-in absentee ballot.  The pandemic ballot rule expired at the end of last year, restoring a more restrictive pre-pandemic rule.

Currently, all states will mail an absentee ballot to certain voters who request one.  The voter may return the ballot by mail or in person.  In 19 states including New York, an excuse is required, while 28 states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an excuse.  In New York, the law limits access to an absentee ballot only in cases where the voter “may be absent from the county of their residence or … if [the voter] may be unable to appear personally at the polling place because of illness or physical disability.”

In response to the pandemic, New York interpreted the definition of “illness” to include a voter’s concerns about the risk of contracting or spreading a disease-causing illness. That was how New York voters could cast their ballots by mail, if they chose. 

New York’s state Constitution is clear: All citizens have a right to vote.  And while the Constitution also defines when a voter may obtain a mail-in absentee ballot, it also states that the Legislature has the authority to determine “the manner” in which the provisions are applied. 

The Constitution clearly grants the power to implement that right to state lawmakers, but it is a “right,” not a privilege.  And policymakers must, from time to time, ensure that obstacles to the exercise that right are as few as possible.

Such is the case with allowing absentee ballots.  The state Constitution explicitly allows voters the opportunity to vote via an absentee ballot when they either may be absent from their county or unable to appear personally because of illness or physical disability.  That provision of the Constitution specifically states that the Legislature is empowered to interpret how to best ensure that such voters will be able to obtain an absentee ballot and vote.  It states that an absentee ballot may be used by a voter who “may be” unable to appear at the polls due to being outside their county of residence or due to illness or disability.  Not “shall” or “will be” unable to appear, but “may” be unable. 

In this way the Constitution appropriately leaves it to the voter to assess their situation in advance of an election and request a vote-by-mail ballot.  This maximizes voter participation without intruding upon personal decisions about how to order one’s life. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for the state to broaden the interpretation of “illness” for the purposes of allowing absentee balloting.  Since the pandemic’s onset, New York voters could interpret “illness” for purposes of requesting an absentee ballot to include avoiding the risk of contracting or spreading COVID and vote by mail.  The courts have reviewed the action to define “illness” to include protection from disease and determined that the Legislature was within their power to do so.

For older voters, or those with chronic illnesses, that lack of choice could now place their health at risk – or force them not to vote at all.

Thousands of New Yorkers voted in this manner.  It has been their choice.  Those voters have chosen to cast their constitutionally protected right to vote via the mail and to do so in a manner that protects them from a deadly disease and/or protects poll workers from exposure.  Absentee voting by mail is a choice that has now become part of the fabric of New York’s democratic process.  But that choice has been taken away — unless Albany acts in the next few weeks. 

As lawmakers head down the homestretch of the 2023 legislation session, and with primaries for local offices a month away, they must make sure that New York is doing all it can to meeting that constitutional right to vote while protecting the health of voters themselves.

New York State Can Protect Tropical Forests

Posted by NYPIRG on May 15, 2023 at 9:09 am

New York State’s policies can have an outsized national, and sometimes global, impact. The economy of the State of New York is reflected in its gross state product in 2022 of over $2 trillion, ranking third biggest behind the larger states of California and Texas. If the state were a separate country, it would be the world’s 12th largest economy. Its Gross Domestic Product is comparable to that of neighboring Canada and slightly smaller than Brazil.

When it comes to state budgets, New York’s ranks second to California in spending. So, when New York acts it can drive important policies. Sometimes just what it chooses to buy – or not buy – can have an impact.  An example:  Legislation to ban state agencies from purchasing tropical hardwoods is heating up in Albany and would have a dramatic impact worldwide.

Trees and other forms of vegetation are critical tools in fighting the climate crisis – they serve as natural carbon sinks, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and help keep the planet cool. However, deforestation of tropical forests is worsening the global climate crisis. It has been estimated that global loss of tropical forests contributes approximately 20% of global carbon emissions annually.

An area of 18 million acres, more than half the size of New York State, is lost every year due to deforestation. Not only is this contributing to global warming, but it also contributes to violations of indigenous land rights in many countries and loss of habitat for hundreds of animal species.

The loss of trees and other vegetation can cause climate change, desertification, soil erosion, reduction in crops, flooding, increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and a host of problems for Indigenous people.

When an area is completely deforested for farming, the farmer typically burns the trees and vegetation to create a fertilizing layer of ash. After this slash-and-burn deforestation, the nutrient reservoir is lost, flooding and erosion rates are high, and soil often becomes unable to support crops in just a few years. If the area is then turned into cattle pasture, the ground may become compacted as well, slowing down or preventing forest recovery.

Tropical forests are home to millions of native (indigenous) people who make their livings through subsistence agriculture, hunting and gathering, or through low impact harvesting of forest products like rubber or nuts. Deforestation in indigenous territories by loggers, colonizers, and refugees has sometimes triggered violent conflict.

Deforestation occurs for a number of reasons. The most common reason is agriculture, with 80% of deforestation resulting from extensive cattle ranching, and logging for materials and development. It has been happening for thousands of years, arguably since people began converting from hunter/gatherer to agricultural-based societies, and over time required larger, unobstructed tracks of land to accommodate cattle, crops, and housing. However, after the onset of the modern era, it became an epidemic.

Here is where New York can play an important role. New York has been taking significant action to address climate change within the state’s borders, but it can further those actions by taking on the issue of tropical deforestation. Current law has a prohibition on a limited number of types of tropical hardwoods that the state can purchase but does not ban them all. 

Legislation has been advanced that would make a tangible contribution to battling the loss of tropical forests by dramatically expanding the types of tropical hardwoods that the state cannot purchase. It would also add new measures to ensure that goods derived from tropical forest-risk commodities and sold to a state agency or authority, are not contributing to tropical primary forest degradation or tropical deforestation. Essentially, the legislation, if approved, ensures that companies contracting with the state are not contributing to tropical primary forest degradation or tropical deforestation directly or through their supply chains.

New York State is expected to spend nearly $230 billion this fiscal year. Ensuring that state purchases of wood products are not contributing to the devastation of tropical rain forests is an important goal. Lawmakers are heading into the final 14 days of the 2023 legislative session. A good use of some of that time would be acting to ensure that New York is doing all it can to protect tropical forests. 

Albany Wraps up the Budget, Sprints to End of Session

Posted by NYPIRG on May 8, 2023 at 10:03 am

The big news out of New York’s capital last week was that Governor Hochul and state lawmakers finally adopted a budget.  The final budget – over one month late – with a price tag $9 billion more than last year (roughly 4.5% more) and made numerous changes to policies not closely tied to the budget. 

Governor Hochul had jammed up budget negotiations in order to secure changes in the state’s bail laws to give judges more discretion to require that defendants post bail or stay in jail after arrest.  The issue of the state’s rising crime rate hurt the governor when she ran for election last year and she was determined to get changes to the bail law.  While the connections between bail standards and the rising crime rate are, at best, debatable, she was able to obtain the changes that she wanted.

In another largely not-tied-to-the-budget issue, the governor and state leaders approved a measure that will require that new buildings constructed later this decade will have to rely on electricity, not fossil fuels, to power them.  Environmentalists largely cheered the agreement since it will significantly limit the use of fossil fuels going into the future.  New York is the first state to approve such a mandate.

The $229 billion budget was approved without many significant cuts to programs as the state has been awash in cash as the pandemic ebbed and federal funding was still available.  College students and their families should be happy – the governor’s proposed public college tuition hike and her proposed cuts to financial aid programs for the needy were rejected.  Instead, the state will provide resources to the State University of New York (and the City University of New York) to fund necessary spending.  Left unaddressed in this area is adopting a state plan for reversing the financial decline at many public and private colleges.

The budget would also add to the “rainy day” fund as it is expected that the state will face increasing fiscal difficulties in the years to come as federal COVID financial support dries up. 

Now that the budget is finally finished, lawmakers now turn their attention to non-budget policy issues.  With the end of session scheduled for June 8th, that leaves little time to grapple with complicated legislation.

One issue that impacts the budget and will be central to state spending and policies is how to address the state’s aging infrastructure – in particular roads, bridges and coastline protection – in the age of climate change.

New Yorkers have already spent hundreds of millions on climate damages and resilience this year alone.  Governor Hochul recently announced a taxpayer funded $4 million coastal resiliency project in Jefferson County, part of a $300 million resiliency project for Lake Ontario.  And in just the first two months of this year, she announced a combined $750 million in taxpayer funds to pay for climate change-driven damages.  The Long Island Regional Planning Council is projecting $75 to $100 billion in taxpayer funds for new roads and other infrastructure improvements, thanks to worsening storms and sea level rise.

In addition, a new study from NYS Comptroller DiNapoli found that over a ten-year period (the last five and next five years), 55% of New York localities’ municipal spending outside of NYC was or will be related to climate change.  Separately, the State Comptroller’s office looked at New York City’s FY 2023 budget and found that the City plans to spend $829 million on projects fully intended for climate change adaptation and resilience just this year.  The City also plans to spend an additional $1.3 billion on projects that are partially for these purposes.

Right now, New York taxpayers are on the hook to pay for climate change resiliency and damage projects.  And those costs will only increase.

In the budget, the state Senate advanced a plan to make the biggest oil companies pay $3 billion annually for the next 25 years to help cover those costs.  The Senate plan was also designed to ensure that Big Oil could not pass those onto the public.

Yet the governor reportedly opposed the plan and it was rejected from the budget. 

The climate costs are projected to rise to as much as $10 billion annually.  Governor Hochul apparently wants those costs to be completely borne by the public.  Legislation in both houses seeks to change that by putting the biggest oil companies on the hook, advancing the Senate’s budget plan in a separate bill.  We’ll see how that legislation progresses post-budget.  Will both houses approve the plan and force the governor to decide whether she stands with fossil fuel companies or New York taxpayers when it comes to paying for climate costs?  By early June, we’ll know.

Budget Deal May Be Close; What Will It Mean to Colleges and Universities?

Posted by NYPIRG on May 1, 2023 at 8:55 am

The big news out of Albany last week was Governor Hochul’s announcement of a “conceptual” budget deal.  The governor said that she and the state’s legislative leaders had agreed to a final budget that would spend $229 billion and that the agreement would include changes to the state’s bail law, increase the minimum wage, add to the number of active charter schools, and provide a state infusion of cash for the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The final agreement – which will be over a month late – is expected to include a $1 per pack increase in the state’s cigarette tax, as well as a ban on the use of fossil fuels to power new buildings that are constructed later this decade.

Details on the budget deal are spotty, and “conceptual” budget agreements do not, of course, represent the final agreement.  The actual final budget will be contained in the bill language that should be made available this week.  But the agreement marks the beginning of the end of budget negotiations, a battle that should have been concluded by April 1st.  Assuming that the “conceptual” agreement holds, lawmakers will begin approving legislation this week.

There is one area of the budget that we’re still left in the dark on: the state’s support for higher education.  Governor Hochul had proposed annual public college tuition hikes to bolster state funding for higher education.  According to media reports that proposal has been rejected.  It is expected that the final agreement will increase state support to offset the loss in revenue that the governor’s plan would have derived from college students and their families.

The bigger concern, though, is whether the final budget will reverse the course of New York’s financially hemorrhaging colleges.  A darkening financial cloud covers many institutions of higher education.  Generally speaking, independent and public universities are in reasonably good financial shape; community colleges and four-year independent and public colleges are facing serious problems.

Most recently, the small liberal arts Cazenovia College announced that after nearly 200 years, it would be closing its doors after this Spring semester.  According to the State University of New York’s faculty union, nineteen SUNY campuses are facing financial shortfalls.  A significant part of the financial difficulties stem from declining enrollments, but much of it is the result of public policies.

For example, thirty years ago New York used to provide over $100 million in support to colleges in the independent sector.  Today it provides only one-third of that amount – and that’s not inflation adjusted, it’s the actual amount.

Until the Cuomo Administration, New York had an informal policy that whenever public college tuition went up, it was matched with an increase in the maximum financial assistance provided by the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).  In that way, the state ensured that the poorest public college students had the cost of tuition covered and it helped private colleges since TAP covers those students, too.

The Cuomo Administration severed that relationship when it decided to increase public college tuition automatically over several years but did not increase TAP awards.  Instead, it required the colleges to make up the difference in lost state aid to the students.  That policy resulted in what became called the “TAP gap,” which undermined SUNY campus finances (as well as those of the City University of New York) and contributed to today’s dire financial situation.

How will the new budget address that problem?  Will it offer a stopgap measure that staunches the financial bleeding this year, but does not reverse the downward trend?  Placing a Band-Aid over the short-term problem is the most likely outcome.

That raises the larger question:  What will the state do to reverse the financial problems facing higher education?  Does the state have too many colleges?  If so, is there a plan to deal with that?  Or is the problem simply one of failing to adjust to the needs of college students of today? 

Colleges and universities not only provide an education for the state’s future leaders, but they are also economic engines in their communities.  When one closes down, the whole community suffers, not just the individuals who work there. 

These are important questions.  New York’s decisions on higher education policy today will affect the quality of its workforce, our civic life and the state’s economy for decades to come.

Next year, New York will mark the 50th anniversary of the state’s TAP program.  For 50 years, TAP has helped ensure that needy college students got the financial help that they needed to attend college in New York.  Over that half century, much has changed.  If this year’s budget offers only one-year relief, New York policymakers should use that time to begin a public process to assess the state’s higher education sector and plan for the future.  New York deserves a plan that embraces college in the 21st Century, protects the economic benefits provided by local colleges, and ensures that the state is a national leader in higher education.

How Will – and Who Will – Pay for the Mounting Cost of Climate Change?

Posted by NYPIRG on April 24, 2023 at 8:00 am

Last week, state Comptroller DiNapoli issued a new report identifying a growing cost facing local governments. 

According to the report, a sample of local governments across New York reported $1.34 billion in actual and anticipated spending on capital projects over a 10-year period, with about 55% of the total in response to climate-related hazards, such as increased flooding and storm damage.

The report represented only a tiny sample of localities and did not include New York City’s costs.  Only 95 communities out of 353 surveyed (roughly 25%) responded.  Those entities estimated that a combined $737 million would be spent over the 10-year period from 2017 to 2026 in response to climate change, with flooding and increased storm activity far outweighing other issues.  Respondents reported that they funded or anticipate shouldering a majority of these costs locally (about 52%), with grants or other aid from state and federal sources accounting for the remainder.

In other words, local residents will have to pony up more tax dollars to cover the anticipated damages caused by a worsening climate. 

A large chunk of that spending will involve big-ticket items like retrofitting or rebuilding infrastructure, such as wastewater or drinking water facilities.  The estimated total cost of all such projects totaled $632 million, $401 million (64%) of which was attributed to climate change adaptation.  The local cost of these totaled $368 million, with $235 million attributed to climate change.

DiNapoli’s office conducted a separate analysis of the costs to New York City.  The report found that the City would this year spend $829 million for projects that could be considered full adaptation and resilience and another $1.3 billion that were partially for these purposes.  Looking ahead, bigger financial hits were expected with the biggest costs including sewer projects ($2.3 billion over the four years), water pollution control ($1.8 billion) and the broad category of resiliency, technology and equipment ($1.6 billion).

Of course, all localities will spend more as the years progress since climate change will only be getting worse in the short term.  If the world acts, eventually things could improve.

The findings of the DiNapoli report came on top of another analysis showing the looming costs New York faces from an aging and decaying infrastructure.  The Reason Foundation released its 27th annual highway ranking, a national report on states’ spending and performance on roadway quality.  That report had New York near the bottom of the survey, which underscores the need for additional spending on the state’s roadways.

Bottom line – New York taxpayers are, and will be, on the hook for significant infrastructure costs – much of the spending is driven by climate change.

These reports are consistent with others.  A report released by the think tank Rebuild by Design estimated that the climate costs to New York could be $55 billion by the end of this decade.  Furthermore, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that it would cost $52 billion to protect NY Harbor alone.  And while storms get worse, sea levels and groundwater tables are rising posing higher risks of flooding – and we don’t know how much.  Clearly, New York is facing staggering – and growing – climate threats and costs.

While we may not know the ultimate climate costs, what we do know is that unless something changes you and I will be paying those bills. 

Shouldn’t the biggest oil companies pick up the tab?  After all it was the world’s largest oil companies that had conducted the cutting-edge research in the 1970s that concluded with precise accuracy what would happen if fossil fuels continued to be combusted.  And wasn’t it the oil lobby that spent big bucks on public relations and lobbying campaigns to undermine independent science and block public health initiatives?  Had those reforms been embraced years ago, the world would not be facing the climate crisis it is today.

Unlike most New Yorkers, the oil industry has the money.  They’ve been raking in record-setting profits over the past few years. 

Yet around the state Capitol, little has been said about these looming costs.  It appears that Albany prefers to stick its head in the sand and hope that New Yorkers won’t notice the increasing costs – or worsening infrastructure – resulting from climate change.  The state Senate did advance in its one-house budget a plan to make the largest oil companies pay $3 billion annually to cover these costs.  Unfortunately, the Assembly did nothing and the governor is reportedly resisting the Senate plan.

How the state assesses the costs of climate change will be decided one way or the other in the state budget.  Right now, the default plan is to make average New Yorkers pay more.  Hopefully, the real culprits in the climate change catastrophe will be forced to pick up their share.  We’ll soon know what Albany decides.