Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Voting on College Campuses Is Made Easier

Posted by NYPIRG on August 8, 2022 at 9:33 am

This November, New York voters will cast ballots for Governor, Attorney General, Comptroller, one U.S. Senate seat (senior senator, currently Schumer) and for Congressional Representatives in Washington, as well as lawmakers in the New York State Assembly and Senate.  New Yorkers also will have the opportunity to vote on an Environmental Bond Act that is critical to the state’s ability to meet its climate goals set in law.

While New York is considered a “blue” state – meaning that Democrats far outnumber Republicans – few things are a certainty in politics.  But with a 2-to-1 and growing enrollment advantage, Democrats have come to dominate New York State politics.  A Republican hasn’t been elected to a statewide position in twenty years – George Pataki’s election to a third term as governor in 2002.

But due to redistricting, elections to Congress are much more competitive than had been expected.  The new political district lines drawn by the courts for New York’s House of Representatives has resulted in what could be very competitive matches.

According to the Cook Political Report, New York State has more “toss up” House elections than any other state in the nation (four NY CDs: 3, 18, 19, and 22).  Right now, Democrats hold a small majority in the 435 member House of Representatives, meaning that these “toss-up” races – both in New York and the rest of the nation – may determine who controls that Chamber.

Given the narrow Democratic majority and the number of “toss-up” seats in New York, turnout this November could well determine overall control of the House of Representatives and the direction of the country.  No small matter.

Nationally, this is an important midterm election.  Whichever party wins control of Congress will have a major impact on the direction of the country during the final two years of President Biden’s term in office – on issues such as climate change, infrastructure, health care, voting rights, civil liberties, and more.  The actions of this Congress will likely also influence the 2024 Presidential election.

An important – and overlooked – change to New York elections may bring a large number of new and young voters to the polls.  Buried in April’s state budget agreement was language that requires local elections officials to place a polling site on virtually all colleges with dormitories.  The new law stated, “Whenever a contiguous property of a college or university contains three hundred or more registrants who are registered to vote at any address on such contiguous property, the polling place designated for such registrants shall be on such contiguous property or at a nearby location recommended by the college or university and agreed to by the board of elections.”

The deadline for those decisions was last week.  As of August 1st, colleges with dorms housing at least 300 registrants must have a polling location.  How well that process played out is still unclear, but most college students with dorms should expect to see a campus-based polling place.

As a result, college student voters have an opportunity to significantly impact the outcome of the 2022 General Election in New York.  For the first time, all eligible students who live at a covered college campus will be able to vote at a poll site placed at (or near) their college campus.  Students will not have to make travel arrangements to get to an off-campus location, or vote absentee.  The result will be likely be a significant increase in college student voter turnout, giving students a greater voice and impact in the outcome of the 2022 Election.

The location of college campus poll sites matter.  Despite the constitutional right-to-vote, students have far too often faced obstacles to voter registration and participation across the state.  The unfortunate history of student voting has been one in which local elections officials too often seek to suppress participation.  Some counties target students by further splitting campus populations into multiple election districts or removing campus poll sites and moving others conveniently located for students.

On-campus poll sites and early voting have demonstrated success in other states.  For example, when Florida implemented early voting on some college campuses in 2018, they saw significantly higher rates of voter participation by young voters and Black and Hispanic voters.

Bringing poll sites to college campuses across New York is a significant victory for young voters and will have a measurable impact on college student voting.  As the climate crisis and other pressing issues make clear, young voters have an enormous amount at stake in elections: their future depends on the decisions elected representatives make today.  In New York for the first time, significant barriers to student voting should be removed so those voices can help shape their own future.

The Summer Heat Triggers Algal Blooms

Posted by NYPIRG on August 1, 2022 at 7:52 am

Another hot summer and fresh reminders all around us of how global warming is destroying our environment.  Unprecedented heat waves, huge wildfires, once-in-a-millennium droughts, all are examples of the impacts that a rapidly heating planet is having on the world around us. 

The decades-old predictions of how climate changes would destabilize the world’s climate have turned out to be accurate – and in some ways underestimated the negative impacts.

The heat, the droughts, the fires, the famines are all obvious examples.  But there are other threats that are less obvious.

After a blistering heat wave last week, lakes across New York State are warming up.  Warmer waters make it more likely that we all will use these freshwaters for our own recreation.  But that use, as well as the use of freshwaters for drinking sources, are under threat of an insidious poison – algal blooms.

The blooms are a blue-green slimy substance that floats in water.  Harmful algal blooms aren’t your typical green surface ooze that you may see on the top of lake waters.  While ugly to look at when at the surface, a bloom can also be dangerous, so much so that the state has a blanket policy warning to stay out of the water should there be evidence of one.

The heating planet drives the production of algal blooms.  Warmer temperatures prevent water from mixing, allowing algae to grow thicker and faster.  Algal blooms absorb sunlight, making water even warmer and promoting more blooms. 

While every algal bloom isn’t toxic – some algal species can produce both toxic and nontoxic blooms – toxic blooms can cause problems for swimmers and other recreational users in the form of rashes or allergic reactions.  People who swim in a bloom may experience health effects, including nausea, vomiting, headaches, respiratory problems, skin rash and other reactions.  There have also been reports nationwide of dogs and livestock dying shortly after swimming or wading in a bloom.

Heat alone doesn’t stimulate algal blooms.  As we know, climate changes have also caused stronger, more powerful storms, storms that release much more rainwater than in storms of the past.  Those incredible downpours swiftly flush whatever is sitting on the land directly into lakes, so instead of letting a natural filtration process take place, nutrients that would benefit the soil are washed into surface waters and wreak havoc in the water in the form of algal blooms.

The nutrients these blooms primarily rely on are phosphorus and nitrogen.  The algal blooms have increased due to a rise in nutrient runoff from sources such as soil erosion from fertilized agricultural areas and lawns, erosion from river banks, river beds, land clearing (deforestation), and sewage effluent.  All of these are the major sources of phosphorus and nitrogen entering waterways.  These nutrients coupled with warm, calm water is the recipe for an algal bloom.

Usually, algal blooms crop up in late summer and early fall.  This year, they have begun showing up in lakes across New York.  The DEC has identified 77 algal blooms as of the middle of July. 

To check out the New York lakes where algal blooms are a concern, you can go to the DEC website, which has a harmful algal bloom notifications webpage that it updates regularly.  You can Google “DEC algal blooms map” to see the listings and how to file a possible bloom siting.

While much of western North America has experienced droughts and wildfires, the northeast has largely avoided those catastrophes.  But we are enduing our own crisis in the form of algal blooms.  New York State has experienced a tenfold increase in the number of waterbodies experiencing a bloom over the past 10 years and $6 billion in mitigation expenses and lost economic value.

While we all must do everything possible to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and aggressively embrace energy efficiency programs and alternative energy sources, due to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, the planet will continue to heat up.  There is not much that New York can do to reduce the damage that has already been done and that is fueling the current rising heat of the planet.  But when it comes to protecting surface waters and drinking water supplies, the state has to do a lot more to reduce the runoff from agriculture, landscaping and wastewater sources.  New York must be proactive about protecting drinking water supplies and recreational waters.  The costs for prevention are cheaper than the cost of remediation and illness.

Getting Ahead of Crises

Posted by NYPIRG on July 25, 2022 at 9:58 am

It’s hard to be optimistic about today’s world.  The planet feels like it’s in tatters.  There’s the escalating climate crisis that has left much of Southern Europe in flames, regions of the U.S. with dwindling water supplies, heat waves claiming lives worldwide, and the threats from rising sea levels; an ongoing pandemic that shows no signs of relaxing its deadly grip; and an unprovoked savage war launched by Russia.  These are just some of the present threats to public safety and the economy.  With all that’s going on, the impulse to ignore rather than act on these difficult problems is understandable.

But ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.  Action is the appropriate and necessary response.  While a pandemic had been predicted, it nevertheless caught the world unready.  Systematic underfunding of public health programs – and stockpiling the necessary equipment to handle pandemics, like face masks, gloves, and gowns – resulted in more carnage than if we’d been prudently prepared.

Even when it comes to war, not electing people who coddle the Russian war machine can help.

Clearly governmental preparation and competence are central to reacting to the inevitable crises that arise.  Yet, even then, efforts can fail.

For example, scientists have known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels would lead to global warming that could threaten civilization as we know it.  However, instead of alerting the public to these dangers, the fossil fuel industries made it worse by their  deliberate misinformation campaigns to undermine the science and then to install climate denier toadies into public offices. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sounded the alarms earlier this month on an often overlooked issue with its report on the number of American deaths caused by antibiotic resistant “superbugs.”  According to the CDC more than 30,000 Americans died in 2020 from these killer “superbugs.”

The CDC tied some of these deaths to the COVID pandemic.  According to the CDC, the number of deaths caused by infections impervious to antibiotics and antifungal medications rose 15 percent during the first year of the pandemic compared to 2019.  Much of the increase was the result of doctors and nurses struggling to treat seriously ill patients whose disease they did not fully understand.  Experts have speculated that the recent growth of antibiotic-resistant infections due to overuse and misuse during the pandemic has wiped out whatever gains had been made to slow the growth of these “superbugs.”

Like the climate crisis, public experts have been warning of the threat of antibiotics resistance for decades.  In 1968, a paper published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine detailed how more than a dozen patients and a nurse at a facility became infected with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, more commonly known as MRSA.  It was the first documented MRSA outbreak in the United States and the doctors concluded that “it seems reasonable to predict that [MRSA] will become more widespread in the United States and may present some clinical and epidemiological problems in the future.”

A half century later, the researchers’ conclusions have come true.  MRSA is widespread and other more dangerous “superbugs” threaten our health.

Antibiotics are miracle drugs.  They treat common infections and make possible modern medical interventions such as chemotherapy, organ transplants, and surgeries. Before antibiotics, more soldiers died of their wounds than died on the battlefield.

But these life-saving drugs are being taken for granted and many bacteria have become resistant to them.  Given enough time, bacterial evolution will render every antibiotic ineffective.  According to experts, unless new medicines come on the market, by the year 2050 more people will die from “superbugs” than die of cancer.  Unless science comes to the rescue, we are entering into a post-antibiotics age.

The future of new medical breakthroughs is, as of now, looking bleak.  According to the World Health Organization, development of new antibacterial treatments is inadequate to address the mounting threat of antibiotic resistance.  Since 2017 only 12 antibiotics have been approved, 10 of which belong to existing classes with established mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance.

So what to do?  The public health strategy should be focused on reducing the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, thus slowing the evolution of “superbugs” while scientific research can catch up.  The world’s and nation’s experts have argued for a “One Health” approach to coordinating programs to reduce the speed of the “slow moving pandemic” of the rise of “superbugs.”

Yet no state has embraced the “One Health” approach.  Legislation has been introduced to require New York to establish one central coordinating entity to battle “superbugs.”  Enactment should be at the top of the list of “must dos” for the next governor.

New York State has often stepped up when national policies have failed.  It has done so on climate policies, it can do so again on fighting “superbugs.”

Action, not ignorance, is what we should demand of those we elect to lead.

Some Gripe About Early Voter Turnout

Posted by NYPIRG on July 18, 2022 at 7:46 am

Last month, an anemic voter turnout propelled Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul and Republican Congressmember Lee Zeldin to resounding victories over their primary opponents.  A win is a win, but last week some county boards of elections were reported to be griping over the cost of early voting.  Their argument was that the costs of running the early voting system greatly outweighed the benefits to voters.

Overall primary election results showed that voter turnout declined dramatically – by nearly half – from the 2018 Democratic primary for governor to the one in June.  Nearly 1.6 million voters showed up on primary day 2018 in Andrew Cuomo’s 2-to-1 victory over his challenger Cynthia Nixon.  In Kathy Hochul’s equally strong performance, only 865,000 of the 6.5 million Democrats voted in the June primary, or 13%.  The 2018 results were unusual, the 2022 results were a return to the traditionally low rates of primary turnout.

The turnout in Representative Zeldin’s big win mirrored the paltry Democratic turnout, 447,000 of the 2.8 million Republicans showed up, or 16%.

Media reports on the numbers of voters who showed up at the polls during the early voting period were fractions of the total:  Statewide nearly 180,000 people, or about 14 percent of the total number of primary voters, cast their ballots at polling places during early voting in June.

It was the weak early voting – not the overall pathetic – turnout that drew some elections officials’ ire.

Some background on early voting:  According the National Conference of State Legislatures, forty-six states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands offer early in-person voting (this includes states with all-mail elections).

The time period for early in-person voting varies from state to state:

  • Early voting periods range in length from three days to 46 days. The average number of early in-person voting days is 23.
  • Early in-person voting may begin as early as 55 days before the election, or as late as the Friday before the election. The average start date for early in-person voting is 30 days before the election.
  • Early voting typically ends just a few days before Election Day.

New York’s early voting system is more or less average – it starts ten days before the primary, special, or general election day, with one day off before the traditional election day for vote casting. 

Some New York local elections officials were challenging the state’s approach given the costs of staffing early voting sites for nine days with so few voters. They have a point, but what are the causes?

There is no doubt that voters prefer to have the early voting option instead of trooping to the polls on one Tuesday – usually a workday.

One notable change from 2018 is that the state primary was in June, not September. Obviously, that change could cause voter confusion. In addition, due to the state’s redistricting fiasco, there is a second primary date – in August – voters could have been confused by that too.

Of course, that problem could have been offset by a rigorous voter education effort by the boards of elections, but that didn’t happen. Why? One reason could be a shortage of funds. Despite approving a record $220 billion state budget in April, lawmakers appear to have shortchanged local boards of elections. 

Since 2019, the state has reportedly appropriated $12 million to help county boards of elections pay costs associated with early voting; but that money was used up prior to the June primary, with no new funds added this year.  Thus, virtually all of the costs were absorbed by counties.

County officials have a right to complain about the lack of funds, but their situation doesn’t justify new limits on early voting. Yes, there are costs to early voting and general election day voting. And in both cases, New York’s turnout is regrettably far too small.

Instead of griping about the low turnout in early voting, officials should be demanding more of an investment in democracy from the governor and state lawmakers. And how about making it easier for non-affiliated voters to participate too? After all, there are more New Yorkers who are not enrolled in any political party than there are Republicans, yet their tax dollars pay for primaries in which they cannot vote. 

How come no local officials are complaining about that?

Yes, there is a lot more work to do to make New York’s democracy a beacon of hope. Pushing to cut back on the right to vote by making it harder is a clear step in the wrong direction.

Another Ethics Chapter Closes

Posted by NYPIRG on July 11, 2022 at 7:00 am

New York’s oversight of its ethics and lobbying laws was back in the news last week.  The state’s oversight entity, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), closed its doors on Friday and will be replaced by a new agency: the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying (CELIG).

Among its final acts, JCOPE released a report on its secret decisions that allowed former Governor Andrew Cuomo to obtain ethics clearance for a $5.1 million book deal.  Essentially the report found that the former governor’s staff muscled JCOPE to get approval in a manner that circumvented the normal approval process.

The approval for the Cuomo book released in 2020, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” should never have been allowed.  The book was written about the public work of the former governor during the first year of the pandemic.  Essentially, he was able to cash in on his job as governor, to the tune of millions. 

The New York governor is the highest paid in the nation.  The job is supposed to be full-time, meaning no outside income.  This is the standard for the executive branch of government – full-time, no moonlighting.  Of course, there are times when top ranking officials are involved in outside income activities, but approval of those must be made by the ethics agency.

In this case, the former governor was able to obtain approval by the JCOPE staff, without full consideration by the entire Commission membership.  Moreover, the legal work done to obtain that approval was done by the governor’s public staff, not some outside attorney.  Thus, the governor’s staff working on the taxpayers’ dime were put to work to generate approval of a book deal that allowed the former governor to enrich himself to the tune of millions of dollars. 

This is not the first time the former governor had pushed for JCOPE approval of a book deal.  Ten years earlier, the governor’s staff also working at the public’s expense obtained JCOPE approval of a book deal worth roughly $700,000.  It was that approval that provided the justification for the multi-million-dollar payday in 2020.

The book deal reeks in other ways, most notably that the former governor used his public staff to be involved in writing the book, a clear no-no, and as a result JCOPE has sued Cuomo to force him to return his ill-gotten gains.

Why did this happen?  Well, JCOPE was never designed to be an independent agency.  It was designed as a political creature, one which was susceptible to pressure from Albany’s political elite.

The agency’s demise is long overdue.  Unfortunately, its replacement shares the same fundamental flaw – the Commissioners for the new agency also are chosen by the top-ranking elected officials in New York State.  There are new safeguards to limit political influence, but whether those guardrails are adequate, only time will tell.  The new agency was approved as part of April’s state budget deal and garnered no support from outside watchdog groups.

As a result, New York’s ethics and lobbying watchdog will conduct its duties based on an “honor system”: a system in which the governor and the state’s political leaders will behave honorably and leave the agency to act in the public’s interest.  We’ll see how that works as new ethical controversies bubble up.

Regrettably, the problems besetting ethics enforcement are not isolated.  The enforcer of the state’s election laws is appointed by the governor.  That government official recently allowed the former governor to keep $18 million in campaign contributions for his use, even though the former governor is not running for office.

The state’s Inspector General is also appointed by the governor and reports to her office; the same IG office that failed to adequately investigate leaks of confidential enforcement discussions by JCOPE; the one that has received notoriety for how the former governor got wind of JCOPE’s discussions on how to punish a former Cuomo aide (now in prison for corruption) and complained to the Assembly Speaker about his JCOPE appointees.  The IG did not interview the former governor to find out how he obtained that information and then stated that there was no evidence that there was a leak – even though it was publicly reported!

New York’s system of campaign financing, the awarding of government contracts, lobbying and ethics all are marred by deeply flawed oversight systems.  Real changes must occur.  Here are some steps that should be taken to boost the quality of democracy in New York:

  1. New laws must be enacted to ensure that CELIG, the IG, and the election law counsel are independent of the individuals and entities that they must monitor.  A corps of civil service professionals should be responsible for ethics and democracy, not elected officials and political parties.
  2. New restrictions on campaign donations from those seeking government contracts or lobbying.
  3. New campaign contribution limits that do not exceed those for President of the U.S.  A system that relies on a large number of small donors is less of a corruption risk than one that relies on a small number of very large contributors – like New York has now.

Until steps like these are taken, New Yorkers will continue to have their confidence shaken by the actions of elected officials and an erosion of their confidence in democracy.