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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Running the Government During a Pandemic

Posted by NYPIRG on March 30, 2020 at 8:24 am
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For those confronting it, a crisis hits first with the shock and then unfolds – hopefully – as a growing recognition of what has to be done to respond to that crisis.  Earlier this month, Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature (like the rest of us) was presented with the shock of a growing pandemic. 

Governor Cuomo, the head of the executive branch, moved quickly to establish himself as New York’s pandemic “commander in chief.”  He acted swiftly to respond to the crisis in a clear and commanding manner that instilled confidence in New Yorkers and the nation at large.

The Legislature has yet to figure out how to respond to the shock of the crisis.  It was able to approve legislation that allowed the governor freedom to act, largely without the Legislature.  But one month into the crisis the Legislature is just now trying to figure out how it can go about its business during a pandemic.

In many ways, it is harder for the Legislature to respond.  Unlike the executive branch, which has one elected leader, the Legislature is organized around the majorities formed out of 63 state Senators and 150 state Assemblymembers.  They are considered a co-equal branch of government and their role is to be able to bring to state governmental decision-making the feedback they get from their constituents.  They are the closest to the grassroots.

But their decision-making requires them to act collectively in small groups and ultimately as legislative bodies, and act in public.  They do so through committee deliberations and votes by the entire house.  No one person makes the call.

During the legislative session hundreds of lobbyists and constituents flock to the Capitol to make their case to state lawmakers, charged with making the decisions on hundreds of pieces of legislation.  Legislators spend much of their days in face-to-face meetings with those pressing their budget and other legislative priorities.

That’s during normal times, but we no longer live in normal times.  With 213 state lawmakers, hundreds of legislative staff and hundreds more lobbyists and constituents all in one building, the recipe for contagion is obvious.

Meanwhile, a $178 billion state budget must be approved and New York must take steps to deal with the crisis as well as the hundreds of other issues that need to be addressed.

There are rumors that a budget deal will get done and lawmakers will simply stop coming to Albany to do their work representing the people of the state.  While an understandable concern, New Yorkers simply cannot be represented in democratic decision-making if the people they vote to represent them don’t convene.

In what is likely the first time in New York’s history, the Legislature must figure out a way to finalize a budget and act on other pressing matters without convening itself in-person.

So what should happen?  Like all of us, they must establish a system that relies on technologies to allow for remote legislative deliberations.  Luckily, examples exist.

In two states – Oregon and Wisconsin – specific provisions allow the remote or virtual meeting of the legislature if emergencies exist.

Oregon authorizes legislative participation in session by electronic or other means in the event of an emergency.  Wisconsin allows virtual meetings of the legislature and legislative committees when an emergency (or imminent threat of one) exists.

Of course acting deliberately and openly is not a requirement of the legislature alone, but of the executive as well.  It must operate openly, and not only follow the letter but the spirit as well of the state’s open meetings and freedom of information laws.

While open and transparent government is fundamental to democracy, it’s perhaps even more critically important during a crisis as the public wants to know what its government is doing and how it is doing it.  Rarely have the stakes seemed so high.  New Yorkers are paying particularly keen attention to what Albany does.

Actions must be taken.  And the legislature must continue to function even after the budget is approved.  It is scheduled to be in session for two months after the budget is finally approved and there are many issues that must be addressed.

Democracy needn’t be a pandemic casualty.  Thanks to widely available technology, government can work even in these extraordinary times.  Now more than ever, New Yorkers expect government to address the problems that we all face while meeting its constitutional and legal responsibilities.  

Health Crisis Offers Opportunities for Powerful Interests

Posted by NYPIRG on March 16, 2020 at 10:39 am
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The Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote, “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.”  As we all grapple with the pandemic known as coronavirus, it is important to know that many will heed Machiavelli’s advice and see an opportunity.

Last week a price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia that pushed the price of crude oil into its steepest single-day nosedive since 1991.  The oil companies operating in the United States – the world’s largest producer of oil – immediately took a hit. 

The news of that financial shock hit while the nation was reeling and still trying to absorb the reality of the mushrooming coronavirus pandemic.  Few in the nation were paying close attention to the oil war between the Saudis and the Russians, but the Trump Administration and its fossil fuel allies saw an opportunity in the crisis.

The Trump Administration, which has as cozy a relationship as any have had with the oil, gas and coal sectors, last week offered a bail-out – a bail out to an industry that has made enormous profits while it was lying to the American public about global warming, an industry that used its public relations expertise to undermine and discredit the science of climate change, an industry which has used its enormous wealth to push its candidate into the White House and the leadership of the U.S. Senate.

Is the industry being asked by the Trump Administration to pay for the mess that they have caused?  No.  Instead, while the nation was engulfed in the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, the Administration pushed to protect Big Oil.

Some were paying attention. Environmental groups and conservatives opposed to bailouts pulled together to block the bailout plan.  But in the end, the oil companies got some help when the President directed the U.S. Department of Energy to purchase crude oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in an effort to support the energy companies.  No requirement that they help stop the world careening toward a global warming catastrophe.

Here in New York, there is no love for the fossil fuel industry.  The Cuomo Administration has blocked fracking and has committed to develop alternative, non-fossil-fuel-powered energy sources.

But this week lawmakers return to a changed state Capitol, the seat of state government trying to chart a path with a looming budget deadline amidst a crisis the likes of which has not been seen since 1918.  Adding to the tension: It was reported over the weekend that at least two lawmakers have tested positive for the coronavirus.  As a result, the Capitol was closed to the general public and closed discussions began on how best to arrive at a budget agreement this week – two weeks before the state deadline.

Given the circumstances, the speed is reasonable.  A key strategy in minimizing the impact of the coronavirus is to reduce meetings of lots of people – people who could infect others.  Wrapping up the budget early minimizes the likelihood that public officials or their staff members who might be positive for the virus will spread the contagion to others.

But debating a budget is the most important action state government will take.  And a closed, secretive process increases the likelihood that those with the most hotwired lobbyists will have their voices heard, not members of the general taxpaying public.  The shadows are where special interest groups are often most effective, where their ability to leverage a crisis is heightened.

We all agree that hammering out a state budget is hard in the best of times and will be even more difficult during these trying times.  But it is incumbent on the governor and state legislators to take additional steps to open up their discussions to the public at large, for example, by offering daily public updates by the leaders on the progress of negotiations, publishing with specificity the differences in policy and spending choices among the leadership of the Senate, the Assembly, and the Executive.  And ensuring that legislation is in its final form and reviewable by the public for the constitutionally-required three days before final passage.

Not only would the public be informed, but it would limit the ability of the well-heeled, powerful interests to undermine the public interest.  And maybe, just maybe, force the oil companies to pay for the environmental damages that they have caused to New York.  When it comes to the public’s interest, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

In the best of times, Albany’s budget-making is marked by secrecy and policy horse trading.  We do not live in the best of times.  During this new challenge, Albany can show the nation not only how to aggressively attack the coronavirus, but how to do so while improving its budget making. 

The Census Count Begins

Posted by NYPIRG on March 9, 2020 at 7:18 am
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It’s hard to keep track of the important news when living through what increasingly appears to be a pandemic.  Justifiably, public officials are focusing attention on the emerging coronavirus public threat.  That threat is certainly real, but the focus obscures public attention on other important issues.

Just such an issue is the census and that issue is beginning to heat up. 

First, some background.  The U.S. Constitution mandates that each decade the nation counts its population and it has been doing so since 1790. The U.S. census counts every resident in the United States.  The goal of the 2020 Census is to count everyone who lives in the United States as of April 1, 2020 (Census Day).  Census statistics are used to determine the number of seats each state holds in the U.S. House of Representatives and informs how billions of dollars in federal funds will be allocated by state, local and federal lawmakers annually for the next 10 years.  Beginning this week – March 12th – households across the nation will be able to respond online, by phone or by mail to questions posed by the census.

The census asks questions of people in homes and group living situations, including how many people live or stay in each home, and the sex, age and race of each person.  The goal is to count everyone once, only once, and in the right place – the place where they live as of April 1st.

Federal funds, grants and support to states, counties and communities are based on population totals and breakdowns by sex, age, race and other factors.  Community benefits the most when the census counts everyone. When all respond to the census, communities gets its share of the more than $675 billion per year in federal funds spent on schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other vital programs, and they get their fair share if the census is accurate and complete.

New York faces significant challenges in achieving a complete count for the 2020 Census. In many parts of the country, the self-response rate in the 2010 census was significantly higher than in New York. Wisconsin had the most successful response rate with 85 percent, while New York was 45th in the nation with a 76 percent response rate. 

Given that New York is second only to California in having the highest percentage of foreign-born residents (22 percent) in the country, confusion by these residents could lead to a substantial undercount.  Within New York, the boroughs of New York City and the surrounding suburban counties have the highest percentage of foreign-born residents.  Five upstate counties estimate that they have double-digit percentages of foreign-born residents; Putnam, Tompkins, Dutchess, Orange, and Albany.

In addition, colleges pose unique challenges.  There’s the challenge of simply informing students, a majority of whom have never participated in the decennial census, about the detailed questionnaire they will be receiving from the federal government and why it’s important to fill it out.

The spread of misinformation on social media, misconceptions on how students are counted and propaganda campaigns that generate mistrust in government are also barriers that could impact student participation.  A controversial plan by the Trump administration to add a question about citizenship status on the census questionnaire, while ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, has already made some students and immigrants distrust the government’s motives for doing the count and will likely discourage participation.

To make matters worse, scam artists can use it as an opportunity to con people out of private information.  They may pretend to be from the census.  We all know that thieves are always looking for ways to steal personal info and then use it to commit identity theft and other frauds.

In order to protect yourself from a scam, remember that census takers must show a photo ID with the U.S. Department of Commerce seal.  Second, the Census Bureau will never ask for your full Social Security number, bank account or credit card numbers, money or donations, or anything on behalf of a political party. 

Despite all of that, however, answering the census really does matter – it matters politically, economically and socially.  This week marks the beginning of that once-in-a-decade responsibility.

Let’s make sure we all get counted.

New York’s “Green New Deal” Begins

Posted by NYPIRG on March 2, 2020 at 7:58 am
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Last year, Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers agreed on ambitious goals to show the nation how to attack the climate crisis here in our own backyard.  It is well-established that the burning of oil, coal and gas has triggered global warming that threatens our habitat.

Removing the atmospheric “blanket” created by fossil fuel emissions requires humankind to drastically reduce its reliance on oil, coal and gas for power.  Instead the world will have to rely on newer, non-carbon-based, sources of power – like solar and wind – and prioritize energy efficiency and conservation.

The nation is well aware of this necessary change, but the failures of the political leadership – most notably of late the negligence of the anti-science policies of the Trump Administration – has required American states to lead the way.

With much fanfare, last year New York set some of the most ambitious goals for tackling the looming climate catastrophe.  In 2019, the legislature passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.  The legislation established an ambitious plan that mandates that, by the year 2040 100 percent of the state’s electricity be generated non-fossil fuel power, and that 70 percent of electricity be generated by renewable sources by 2030.

In addition, the new law requires that by 2050 the state must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent from 1990 levels and offset the remaining 15% by reforestation, carbon sequestration in soils and other actions. 

After the governor approved the legislation, New York joined Maine, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, New Mexico, California, and New Jersey, which have passed substantive clean energy policies in the past year or so.  (Hawaii has had its 100 percent renewables target in place since 2015.)

But the legislation offered little in the way of details on how the state would achieve these laudable goals.  Instead, the legislation established a panel, a 22-member Climate Action Council, to develop the roadmap for action.  The Council, composed of the heads of various state agencies, along with members appointed by the governor, the Senate, and the Assembly, will be holding its first meeting this week.

The first action the Council must take, and it should be done right away, is to develop a baseline of where the state is at currently in terms of renewable power and greenhouse gas emissions.  It is critically important that the Council set that benchmark and develop an easy-to-use, publicly accessible climate goal dashboard to ensure accountability of the progress the state is making.  If we don’t know where we are at now, we have no way to determine whether we’re making progress in meeting these ambitious — but absolutely necessary — goals.

The public must believe that progress is being made and the state must make progress.  Waiting until the last minute ensures that New York won’t meet its goals.

There is a history of the state’s environmental rhetoric not meeting the environmental reality.

In 2004, then-Governor Pataki promised that the state would achieve 25% renewable energy for electricity by 2013.  That goal was increased to 30% by 2015 under then-Governor Patterson.  In 2009, Governor Paterson amended the goal to obtain 45% of the state’s electricity by clean power and energy efficiency.  In 2015, the state did not meet those goals. 

In fact, since these goals were established, New York has added less than 5% of its power production from wind and solar sources.

In order to meet the new legislation’s goals, New York must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2.7% each year to meet its 2030 goal, and 2.25% each year afterwards to meet the 2050 goal.  Emission reductions must be accelerated across all sectors, especially in transportation, which accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in New York.

If New York is going to meet its renewable energy goals, solar and wind will need to increase by 6.5% annually until 2030, and 3% annually afterwards to meet the 2040 goal.

But unless there is widespread public support for these changes, the overhaul of the state’s energy sector will be much harder to achieve.  And the key to that success hinges on the Climate Action Council taking its first steps – immediate steps – to ensure accountability and transparency in tracking progress toward its important goals.  Failure to achieve those goals could result in a more devastating future for the people of the world.  Among its first tasks the Council should develop a dashboard so New Yorkers can monitor whether New York is meeting its mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to renewable energy.  Everything is riding on a successful effort.

Another Looming Public Health Catastrophe, “Superbugs”

Posted by NYPIRG on February 24, 2020 at 8:59 am
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State lawmakers return from their Presidents’ Week “mini-break” and begin to seriously debate the next state budget.  New York’s fiscal year starts on April first, thus giving Albany 5 weeks to negotiate the proposed $178 billion state budget.

Contained in that budget are many important policies – from Medicaid spending to higher education to the environment to education financing.  Most of the budget’s “top line” items are publicly debated; sometime equally important items are not.  One under-debated issue is the rising threat from infections that are increasingly resistant to antibiotics, also known as “superbugs.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antibiotic-resistant bacteria are most prevalent in environments associated with high antibiotic use: healthcare settings, the general community, and in livestock production.  Antibiotic resistance can spread from person to person, from animal to person, via the natural environment or contaminated food and from bacteria to bacteria.  Some bacteria have developed resistance to multiple antibiotics, making them especially difficult to treat, and thus very dangerous and sometimes deadly.  Common infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, blood poisoning, food poisoning, and gonorrhea have already become harder and sometimes impossible to treat due to multidrug-resistant bacteria.

The problem of antibiotics-resistance is not just one found in the United States, it is a worldwide problem.  And worldwide problems demand global responses.

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them.  Each year in the United States, more than 2.8 million infections from bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics occur and more than 35,000 people die as a direct result.  Many more die from complications from antibiotic-resistant infections.

A study commissioned by the U.K. government predicts that if action is not taken now to combat antibiotic resistance,by 2050 the annual death toll will have risen to 10 million globally.  

The situation is getting worse with the emergence of new bacterial strains resistant to several antibiotics at the same time (known as multidrug-resistant bacteria). Such bacteria may eventually become resistant to all existing antibiotics. Without antibiotics, the world could return to the “pre-antibiotic era”, when organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy, intensive care and other medical procedures would no longer be possible.  Bacterial diseases would spread and could no longer be treated, causing death.

There is hope.  Data from European agencies show that interventions can work.  Medical data shows that Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands have low rates of superbugs, but that there are higher rates in Southern Europe.  Countries with lower resistance rates have generally lower use of antibiotics, while countries with higher antibiotic resistance rates use more antibiotics.

Buried in the governor’s proposed health budget is an item to begin to address the rise of antibiotics resistant superbugs.  In his budget, the governor proposed that every general hospital and nursing home must establish an antibiotic stewardship program that meets or exceeds federal conditions of participation for antimicrobial stewardship programs in health care facilities. Additionally, such program shall incorporate an ongoing process to measure the impact of the program.  While vague, the governor’s program leaves the details up to the state’s Health Commissioner.

Yet, the governor’s plan leaves out an important area of antibiotics overuse and misuse: use on farms.  Nearly two-thirds of antibiotics that are important for human medicine are currently sold for use in livestock, not people. These drugs are routinely given as poor compensation for inappropriate diets and the stressful, crowded and unsanitary conditions on industrial feedlots. This practice hastens the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and increases the risk of drug-resistant infections in people.

When antibiotics are given to food-producing animals, they kill most of the bacteria in them. The resistant bacteria, however, survive and can contaminate animal products during slaughtering and processing. They can also contaminate fruits and vegetables via contaminated soil or water, especially when animal manure is used as fertilizer. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can contaminate food prepared on germ-filled surfaces and the environment via animal feces. According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 5 antibiotic-resistant infections are caused by germs from food and animals.

Thus, the governor’s plan ignores 20 percent of the problem – and in dealing with the growing menace of superbugs, comprehensive approaches are the only ones that will work. 

It is clear from the Scandinavian experiences that policies can significantly reduce the rise of “superbugs”: policies that focus on cleanliness in health care settings, a reliance on antibiotic use in humans only when medically necessary, and a drastic reduction in use on farm animals.  The most obvious way to reduce use among farm animals is for veterinarians to stop the use of antibiotics on healthy livestock.

This is a worldwide problem, unless the rise of “superbugs” can be stopped, the next generation will be faced with a world without effective antibiotics, one in which illnesses like urinary tract infections will be untreatable, leaving people to suffer and perhaps die, from infections easily treatable today.