Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Lawmakers Head for the Exit, Will They Return Before the End of the Year?

Posted by NYPIRG on June 10, 2024 at 7:32 am

Last week both houses of the Legislature wrapped up their official sessions.  In many ways it was a return to the pre-pandemic sessions.  The Capitol and the Legislative Office Building were open to the public; committees were held in public and in-person; issue and budget hearings were held; lobbyists wandered the halls, buttonholing lawmakers and pleading their cases face-to-face. 

And when the dust had settled after lawmakers cast their final votes on June 7th in the Senate and the early morning of the 8th for the Assembly, the trend continued with the state Assembly approving far fewer bills than they did the previous year, while the state Senate increased theirs. 

Both houses agreed to a bit more than 800 identical bills.  That is the lowest number (other than the pandemic-truncated session of 2020) since 2018, when the Democrats took over control of both houses.  The reason for the numerical decline appears to be directly the result of far fewer bills passing the Assembly – 960 – the smallest number that that house had approved (other than the covid-impacted 2020 session) in nearly three decades

But the end of the official scheduled session doesn’t necessarily mean the Legislature is done for the year.  When the Assembly left the Capitol on June 8th, immediately there were rumors that the Legislature would have to return.  The most likely reason?  That would be that the governor’s scheme to block implementation of the “congestion pricing” program slated to begin in New York City at the end of this month forced lawmakers to use up valuable end-of-session negotiating time to figure out how they wanted to respond. 

At the end of the day, they chose to do nothing, but not until precious end-of-session hours had been spent in closed-door meetings as they plotted their responses.  That loss of time jammed up time to negotiate as well as time to debate bills.  As a result, bills that had been expected to be approved were not, leaving many members frustrated that their bills had been stopped short of passage during the regularly scheduled session.

An example: legislation designed to plug a loophole in the state’s lobbying law.  Last year, overwhelming bipartisan majorities approved legislation that would have defined “lobbying” to include advocacy to influence gubernatorial appointments.  Current law requires the reporting of lobbying to influence laws, executive actions, agency decisions, efforts to influence local governments, and some – but not all – appointments, for example appointments to the state Board of Regents – but not for efforts to influence the governor’s appointments to agencies or the courts. 

Legislation to close that loophole was approved last year but vetoed by the governor.  This year similar legislation was approved in the Senate, but the Assembly version was a casualty of the “clock” running out on the Assembly session.

Of course, that does not mean that nothing was accomplished during the session.  One of the more notable accomplishments was passage in both houses of legislation dubbed the “Climate Change Superfund Act,” which – if approved by the governor – will require that the companies most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions (Big Oil companies) would be on the financial hook for a chunk of the state’s climate costs. 

The legislation has garnered the support of hundreds of community, environmental, labor, religious, and youth organizations.  It passed the state Senate.  One hundred local elected officials support it.  Seventy-six Assembly Democrats are sponsors of the Climate Change Superfund Act, a huge majority of the 101 Democrats in that chamber (and an overall majority of the Assembly).

In an end-of-session surprise, the Assembly moved the bill to the floor for a vote.  After more than two hours of debate, the bill was approved by a vote of 95-46 at 3:22 a.m. in the marathon last day of session.

The major hangup had been concerns that the annual $3 billion Climate Superfund assessments would be passed on to the public.  Those concerns should have been allayed by a consideration of America’s system of marketplace economics.    The fact that the bill’s assessment would not impact the public was echoed by an independent economic paper published by the respected Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law. 

The Climate Superfund’s fate in New York now turns to whether the governor approves the legislation.  Governor Hochul is co-chair of the U.S. Climate Alliance – a bipartisan coalition of governors supposedly committed to fighting climate change.  Among the commitments of the Alliance is one that promises to build resilience to withstand the impacts of climate change.  Unless the governor approves the legislation, the entire costs of climate change – which already total billions of dollars annually – will be borne solely by New York taxpayers.  The bill shifts some of those costs to the companies most responsible for our worsening climate.

Looking ahead, lawmakers may return this year to tackle legislation that fell through the cracks at the end of session.  In the meantime, the governor and her staff will be rolling up their sleeves to figure out her position on 805 bills.  One of them could help save taxpayers big bucks in the coming years as well as build a safer infrastructure to better protect New Yorkers from a worsening climate. 

It makes sense for her to approve it.  Time will tell. 

Vermont Passes First In-the-Nation Law to Make Oil Companies Pay for Climate Damages — Will New York Follow?

Posted by NYPIRG on June 3, 2024 at 8:00 am

Like the rest of the world, the state of Vermont is dealing with the consequences of a rapidly-heating planet.  Just this past winter the state was hit by a storm that left well over 8 inches of wet snow in several towns and more than 35,000 homes without power.  The damage to power lines came from heavy, wet snow, weather that’s becoming increasingly common as climate change brings warmer winters and more extreme precipitation.

That storm was not a “one off”:  Billion-dollar climate-related disasters are hitting Vermont more frequently.  Since 1965, annual precipitation has increased by 7 inches, and the number of days per year with precipitation of 1 inch or more has nearly doubled. These trends are expected to continue. Heavy rainfall events are expected to occur more often, which increases the risk of flooding, damage to transportation infrastructure and buildings, water and crop contamination, wind damage, and power outages.

All of these impacts are costly.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the past five years Vermont has experienced three billion-dollar disasters, with two of them happening in the past year.  With a population of nearly 650,000, absorbing the mounting costs of climate disasters is a daunting  – and expensive – proposition for residents of the Green Mountain State.

Last week, in an historic move, Vermont became the first state in the nation to establish a program that will put the largest oil companies on the financial hook for the mushrooming climate costs.  Republican Governor Phil Scott, while expressing concerns over expected litigation with the oil giants, allowed the bill to become law. 

New Yorkers who have been paying close attention to environmental policy in New York will know that the state has advanced a similar program here.  That legislation, the “Climate Change Superfund Act,” was originally introduced two years ago.  The legislation has garnered the support of hundreds of community, environmental, labor, religious, and youth organizations.  It passed the state Senate in 2023 and 2024.  One hundred local elected officials support it.   Seventy-six Assembly Democrats are sponsors of the Climate Change Superfund Act, a huge majority of the 101 Democrats in that chamber (and an overall majority of the Assembly).

Yet, New York has not acted.  Why?

Surprisingly, the leader of the opposition appears to be New York Governor Hochul.  Despite her role as co-chair of the U.S. Climate Alliance – a bipartisan coalition of governors supposedly committed to fighting climate change – the governor has blocked approval of the legislation as part of the budget. 

Now despite the overwhelming majority of Assembly Democratic sponsors (and there are more supporters in that House), the bill seems stuck.  Last week, Assembly Speaker Heastie reportedly stated “I’ve never in my life seen corporations choose the ratepayer over the stockholder.  Asking these companies to pay more, it’s going to be, of course, taken out on the ratepayer.”

The Speaker’s statement represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Climate Change Superfund Act would work.  A failure to approve the legislation will leave New York taxpayers holding the bag for mounting climate costs, while Big Oil continues to make huge profits.  The Climate Change Superfund Act should not have an impact on utility rates, no impact on gas prices, no impact on home heating costs.  The bill’s impact will be to solely reduce climate costs currently paid by taxpayers.  An independent economic paper published by the respected Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law supports that view. 

Of course, the comments – however misguided – are those of only one man, an important one no doubt, but only one.  With well over three-quarters of his Democratic Conference in support of the legislation, including the chairs of the Codes, Energy, Environmental Conservation, Labor, and Local Governments committees.  Given that strong support, in a normal process the legislation should be approved. 

In the arcane ways of Albany, insiders too often accept without question the fate of legislation based on the words of the leaders.  If the leader is indeed speaking for the conference, then that view is a correct one.  If the overwhelming majority of the conference does not share the leader’s view and legislation fails, there can only be one possibility – that despite public statements of support, the conference doesn’t really care about the legislation and is willing to let the Speaker take the blame for its defeat.

From a constituent’s perspective, what only matters are who they elect, not that person’s legislative leader.  Thus, your Assembly representative is the person that can be held to account for a failure to act.

Thanks to Governor Hochul, Vermont now leads the nation in protecting taxpayers from the costs of climate change.  This week will determine whether the overwhelming support within the Assembly Democratic Conference pushes a vote.  If so, then New York will join the effort to protect taxpayers from climate costs.  If not, you’re still on the hook for the whole thing.  And that’s a bill with a lot of zeroes to it.

How Safe Is New York’s Hospital Care?

Posted by NYPIRG on May 27, 2024 at 7:41 am

In the first year of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s tenure in 2011, he successfully established a Medicaid Task Force whose job was to figure out ways to curtail the program’s increasing costs.  The idea was to bring together Medicaid “stakeholders” and design programs to limit Medicaid spending.  That effort became known as the Medicaid Global Spending Cap program and was a component of the then-governor’s plans to keep the overall state budget at no more than a 2 percent annual increase.

One of the major components of the Medicaid Global Cap was a new program to limit the financial exposure of hospitals where a baby was born with catastrophic neurological damage due to medical malpractice.  The Medical Indemnity Fund offset the medical malpractice by shifting those payments from the hospitals’ insurance to the taxpayer.  Under the program, the future medical costs of treating a neurologically-impaired baby would be covered by the state.  In that way, the financial exposure of hospitals was limited and, at least theoretically, the lifetime medical needs of the injured baby would be covered – the money would never run out.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.  Earlier this Spring, the program ran out of money.  The Department of Health announced that it had run out of money and could not take new enrollees.  In this year’s budget, no new money was allocated so the families in the process of enrolling were now unsure if they would have the coverage needed for their neurologically impaired children.  This is devastating news for those families and threatens the precarious health of their children.

This past weekend, The New York Times reported that the state would add revenues in order to keep the program running for at least another year.  However, the Hochul Administration commented about the mushrooming costs that could put the program’s survival in jeopardy.

The overall financial health of the program only is sustainable if the state is doing all it can to reduce the number of injuries – thus keeping costs down as well as reducing the number of families caring for seriously injured children.  And in fact, New York pledged to do just that by instituting new safety protocols, such as increased staffing and training, to reduce the number of birth injuries.  Again according to the Times, no such reduction in cases has occurred: “Where actuaries predicted that roughly one in 10,000 children would be eligible for the fund as a result of a brain or spinal cord injury in 2011, by 2014 they were expecting nearly three times that number.”

In retrospect, that outcome is not surprising.  When it comes to patient safety, New York’s track record is not good.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services annually publishes Medicare.gov/Compare, which reports the quality of the nation’s hospitals and other providers to the public.  Researchers use that information to compare states.  One national organization, the “Leapfrog Group” (established by the nation’s large employers in 2000 in order to measure “hospital performance, empowering purchasers to find the highest-value care and giving consumers the lifesaving information they need to make informed decisions”) has issued annual reports on the quality of American hospital care for over 20 years.  Over those two decades New York has been consistently ranked poorly.

Earlier this month, in its latest annual report Leapfrog Group’s analysis found that New York State ranked 39th nationwide in terms of quality, well behind large diverse states like California (ranked 19th), Florida (12th), Massachusetts (30th), Pennsylvania (7th), and Texas (23rd).  Of New York’s 144 hospitals, only 17 received an “A” grade.

Why do New York hospitals perform comparatively so much worse?  In July 2019 the director of Leapfrog Group explained what she knew about New York’s hospital safety:

“The system as a whole didn’t seem to have emphasized safety. We’ve seen other states work together and look at what’s working well at other states and implement it. It just doesn’t seem to be happening in New York.” 

The Leapfrog Group data relies on Medicare information, so these rankings do not directly explain what’s going on in the Medical Indemnity Fund (MIF).  But in a state that doesn’t “seem to have emphasized safety,” it isn’t much of a jump to conclude that in too many New York hospitals, the overall quality of care is below the national standard, Leapfrog says.  And when it comes to the MIF, that takes a bite out of the state’s revenues – putting taxpayers on the hook for the substantial costs of caring for children injured by the poor quality of hospital care.

When we go to the hospital, we should expect that all is being done to make us better, not worse.  It seems too often that isn’t happening in New York.  As state lawmakers deal with the MIF problem, they should look to the broader issue of weak patient safety.  When it comes to patient safety, New York policymakers should follow the Hippocratic Oath to “first do no harm.”

Governor Hochul on the Global Stage and the Scrutiny That Comes With It

Posted by NYPIRG on May 20, 2024 at 8:22 am

Governor Hochul was globetrotting last week with a trip to Italy to see the Pope and then to her ancestral home in Ireland.  The trip to Rome was in her capacity as the newly selected co-chair of the U.S. Climate Alliance. 

The Alliance sent a delegation of governors to meet with the Pope about the worsening climate emergency.  Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home, was a clarion call for action to address the climate crisis based on religious, moral, scientific and self-preservation grounds.

The U.S. Climate Alliance is a bipartisan coalition of governors working to achieve the nation’s net-zero future by mid-Century, consistent with the call by the world’s climate experts. Governor Hochul was appointed co-chair in early May. 

In his welcoming comments, the Pope said “The road ahead is uphill and not without danger.  The data emerging from this summit have shown that the effects of climate change loom over every aspect of our lives.”

The conference was organized around keynote addresses by the mayor of Paris and the governors of California and New York.  While California is ranked seventh in oil production, Governor Newsom used his speech to highlight the state’s strides in shifting toward a reliance on non-fossil fuel power.

Governor Newsom said “California has exceeded its nation-leading environmental goals.  I come here today on Day 32, 32 straight days, over one month, where California’s economy is literally being run with 100 percent clean energy.”

Like California, New York has set aggressive climate goals.  In 2019, then-Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature agreed to a new law that set climate goals consistent with the best climate science available at that time.  The new law required that state achieve

  • 70 percent renewable energy by 2030;
  • 100 percent zero-emission electricity by 2040;
  • 40 percent reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2030; and
  • Net zero emissions statewide by 2050.

While laying out an aggressive plan of action, New York is struggling to achieve those climate goals.

A recent audit by New York State Comptroller DiNapoli revealed the state’s slow pace. The audit found it is taking the state more than three years just to get a permit in New York to start a Renewable Energy Project.  Those delays, the Comptroller said, put the state in jeopardy of not reaching climate goals that were put into law in 2019.

In addition to the slow pace, projects are faltering due to rising costs – exacerbated by a slow permitting process.  Last month, it was reported that three ambitious projects to build offshore wind farms folded.

Despite that, in her speech at the Vatican Governor Hochul used the state’s climate law as the cornerstone of New York’s strategies and pledged to meet those goals.

Of course, the DiNapoli audit and the failure of three offshore wind farms make it at best unclear if those goals will be met.  The governor chose instead to focus her remarks on climate catastrophes: more intense storms, heat waves, and rising sea levels.  She then announced nearly $300 million in climate resiliency funding.

While $300 million is significant, it falls far short of the billions needed by the state to address expected climate costs.  Moreover, while committing hundreds of millions of dollars, Governor Hochul did not mention that those monies would come from taxpayers.  It was the governor who blocked a legislative budget plan to make the biggest oil companies financially responsible for at least some of the state’s mushrooming climate costs leaving taxpayers on the financial hook.  And it was last year that the governor advanced a budget plan to weaken New York’s efforts to rein in methane gas emissions. 

The Hochul Administration inherited an aggressive climate plan but is so far not doing enough to meet those goals.  Ironically, her appointment to the Climate Alliance and papal visit may lead to some uncomfortable scrutiny of New York’s climate track record.  The challenge now is to make the law reality by meeting the goals, withstanding the pressures to backslide, and providing the leadership to overcome the inevitable political, fiscal, and practical obstacles that always arise with undertakings of this magnitude.

While New York is only one of fifty states, its economy is one of the largest in the world.  It makes sense for New York’s governor to be part of the global discussion over how to avert the worst of the unfolding climate catastrophe.  Yet the state’s halting pace to tackle the climate crisis raises an important question: Is New York’s climate law really about optics and rhetoric, not about performance?  The world is watching.  Time will tell.

Lawmakers Make Another Run at Protecting Tropical Rainforests

Posted by NYPIRG on May 13, 2024 at 8:05 am

When it comes to the worsening climate catastrophe that we are living through, the news just keeps getting worse.  Last week, it was reported that the world’s leading climate scientists expect global temperatures to rise to at least 2.5oC (4.5oF) by the end of this century.  Many of the scientists see a “semi-dystopian” future, with famines, conflicts and mass migration, driven by heatwaves, wildfires, floods and storms that will intensify over time.

There are many reasons why their pessimism is warranted. Fundamentally, far too little is being done to shift the planet away from its reliance on fossil fuels in the face of ideological and partisan opposition.

There is no “magic bullet” to turn the tide.  It will take a comprehensive approach that touches upon all aspects of modern life.  Accomplishing what needs to be done will take political courage and leadership from elected officials at all levels of government.

Protecting the world’s rainforests is one of those essential measures.  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.

Last year New York lawmakers decided to do what the state could to help combat tropical deforestation.  The legislation that was advanced would ensure that New York does not contribute to these harmful practices by limiting the purchasing of tropical hardwoods.  Advocates cited the fact that as the eleventh largest economy in the world, New York State’s purchasing power is an important tool in helping to stop deforestation.

The legislation was approved by the state Assembly and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support last year.  115 Assemblymembers voted in support of the bill.  In the Senate the margin was 42-19.  Both margins were “veto-proof” majorities, meaning that the votes could be there to overturn a gubernatorial veto.

A joint statement by the Senate sponsor and an Ecuadorian indigenous leader noted: “Yet despite our different contexts, we are united on a mission to stop deforestation in the world’s tropical forests — a critical effort to defend frontline communities, protect biodiversity, and curb the climate emergency.”  The legislation had a diverse coalition in support.

Despite those huge legislative margins and widespread support, Governor Hochul vetoed the legislation.  Hochul’s veto memo cited the bill’s burdensome impacts on businesses — “particularly small businesses.”  But it was big businesses who hired the lobbyists to oppose the bill.

Instead of voting to override the governor’s veto, this year lawmakers are instead moving a narrower version of it.  Seemingly, both houses are set to act soon since the bills are currently “live” and on the Senate and Assembly floors awaiting action.

New York has taken significant actions to address climate change within the state’s borders, although there is much that still needs to be done.  The legislation to protect tropical rainforests is a tangible contribution that New York can make to address the larger, global issue.  To combat tropical deforestation, the bill closes loopholes in existing law to more effectively limit the purchase of tropical hardwoods, as well as to require contractors doing business with the state to certify that goods derived wholly or in part from tropical forest-risk commodities and sold to a state agency or authority are not contributing to tropical primary forest degradation or tropical deforestation.

This year, lawmakers should anticipate that the governor will continue to have problems with the bill – even if they hope she will not.  Since the bills are poised to be acted upon, quick passage coupled with a decision to immediately send the bill to the governor could force her to make a decision while the Legislature is still in session.  Under New York’s rules, once the governor receives legislation, she has ten days to act.  Passage of this legislation this week could create a scenario in which those big legislative majorities could act to overturn a bad decision.

That action would reward the hard work of advocates and lawmakers, but most importantly send a clear message that New York wants to help to protect the world’s rainforests because they protect us.