Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Say No to the Manchin Plan

Posted by NYPIRG on September 26, 2022 at 8:24 am

No one needs more evidence of the worsening climate crisis.  The trends are too powerful – the planet is heating up, storms are increasingly more intense, droughts are turning parts of the globe to deserts.

The season’s first major storm, Hurricane Fiona, has pummeled the Caribbean and then Bermuda with torrential rain and wind.  Fiona battered parts of Puerto Rico with 12 to 20 inches of rain.  Some areas received a maximum of nearly three feet of rain during the storm.  

Of course, serious damage caused by hurricanes in the Caribbean is not news, unfortunately.  But big hurricanes hitting Canada is.

Fiona hit Canada this past weekend with such force that it was described as “a historic storm for eastern Canada.”  The intensity of the storm drove 40-foot waves that hit Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, washing away homes and destroying roads.  Hundreds of thousands lost power as a result of the storm.

While hurricanes do occasionally hit Atlantic Canada, Fiona was a rare storm in its intensity and an ominous predictor of what’s to come.

The world has already warmed nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit above the preindustrial average.  Scientists at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expect that, at 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit of warming, hurricane wind speeds could increase by up to 10 per cent.  NOAA also projects the proportion of hurricanes that reach the most intense levels — Category 4 or 5 — could rise by about 10 per cent this century.

Of course, more intense and deadly storms are not the only result of a rapidly heating planet: sea level rise will threaten coastal communities, infrastructure and ecosystems; and higher temperatures will drive forest fires, drought, and famine worldwide.

Global warming’s threats are so great that experts have urged that fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas, the main contributors to climate change – be “kept in the ground” and that civilization immediately stop expanding use of this source of power.  Stopping now will not prevent devastating impacts but would forestall those otherwise expected to end civilization as we know it.  Failure to act, on the other hand, will do so.

With all that as a backdrop, the US Senate is planning to take up legislation this week that will, among other things, make it easier to use fossil fuels and prolong their use.

Last week, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (WV) released his legislation on environmental permitting that is part of a side deal the Senator made as a condition for his support for environmental climate legislation passed by the Congress last month.   

Reportedly the plan is to tie the Manchin legislation to a Congressional “continuing resolution” bill needed to keep the federal government running.  If the continuing resolution doesn’t pass by September 30th, the federal government will shut down.

The bulk of the Manchin bill revises the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, a 1970 law that requires federal agencies to review the environmental impacts of nearly all decisions before they’re implemented.  The Manchin legislation would set a two-year time clock on NEPA reviews of major infrastructure projects and a one-year ceiling on reviews of minor projects.  The bill also shrinks the statute of limitations for court challenges against agency permitting decisions from six years to about five months.

When it comes to federal permitting, there is evidence that the complaint of NEPA review delays is primarily caused not by the constraints of the law itself but by staffing shortages at the administrative agencies charged with doing the reviews.  There is nothing in the Manchin plan to address staffing shortages.

The change in the permitting timetables will make it harder for communities vulnerable to the harms of polluting infrastructure to protect themselves by weakening the review process for new projects and closing off avenues for litigation.  

Significantly, the Manchin plan would clear the path for the construction of a 303-mile gas pipeline from Manchin’s home state of West Virginia to southern Virginia.  The pipeline has faced sustained opposition from several community groups that cite environmental, public health, and safety concerns.

The Manchin plan would mean that community groups would likely be unable to challenge the pipeline’s permits in court.  It would set a standard making it difficult if not impossible, for any local challenges to have a chance at success.

The plan is clearly designed to expand fossil fuel infrastructure in America.  A new pipeline would expand the use of fossil fuels and given the typical life and construction cost of the project, lock the nation into long-term use.

The Manchin plan runs counter to what climate science is telling us; namely that we have no time to waste reducing the use of oil, coal, and gas.  Science tells the world what it must do; the Manchin plan dangerously moves in the opposite direction.  Congress should, and must, reject this dangerous deal.

New Ethics Agency Is Off to a Sputtering Start

Posted by NYPIRG on September 19, 2022 at 9:41 am

It’s easy to tell when elected officials focus on a policy priority.  They mobilize public attention, frame the problem in terms that the public can understand – and in ways that point to the solution they want – and then marshal the resources necessary for a successful implementation.

Ethics reform has never been such a priority.

Long on rhetoric, but short on commitment, for decades top elected officials have too often mouthed the words for ethics reforms, but these performative efforts always come up short.

Earlier this year, Governor Hochul pledged to “blow up” New York’s much maligned ethics agency, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).  JCOPE had long been viewed as an ineffective watchdog, and it had been structured to be an agency that was controlled by the political leaders of the state, not an independent ethics enforcer.

The best evidence of that control was JCOPE’s legal blessing for former Governor Cuomo’s two book deals, worth nearly $6 million.  The second of those deals was reported to have used state resources – an ethics no-no – and the agency (after the former governor had resigned) attempted to reverse the second Cuomo book deal worth over $5 million.

JCOPE was indeed replaced by a new ethics agency, the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (CELIG).  This new agency was structured similarly to its predecessor (like JCOPE, the new commission members are appointed by the state’s political leadership), but with a twist: The state’s law school deans would vet candidates nominated by the state’s elected and legislative leaders.

The rationale for using law school deans to review candidates is that they are knowledgeable about the law and independent.  But that second reason was always suspect.  While the individuals may act independently, they all work for institutions that lobby state government and CELIG oversees lobbying.

The deal that created CELIG was hammered out behind the scenes in budget negotiations.  There were no hearings, no final legislation (other than a section in one of the budget bills), and as it turned out, no public support.  The deal was approved in secret in early April with the new agency scheduled to be in place this July.

Yet, the appointment process dragged on into that month.  It wasn’t until last week that enough CELIG commissioners were in place for the new agency to have its first meeting.

One of the reasons for the slow process was the inclusion of the law school deans.  While the nominations reached the commissioners very slowly, they were empowered under the new law to reject those nominations.  And they rejected three, although with no public rationales as to why.

That power – to reject nominations made by elected officials – is a questionable one.  Allowing unelected private individuals to reject nominations by elected officials is likely to be tested in the courts.  Nevertheless, seven of the eleven commissioners were appointed, and last week the CELIG held its first meeting – five full months after the law establishing the agency was approved.

Another wrinkle in the law was that the staff of the old agency were to be rehired after the new agency was constituted, which was expected to be around the same time as the old agency – JCOPE – went out of business.

But that was in July and the new Commission didn’t meet until mid-September.  Apparently the old JCOPE staff were kept in place in order to keep the lights on, but without leadership to do much else. 

Last week, CELIG’s first order of business was to rehire the old JCOPE staff. 

It’s become clearer every day that ethics reform is not reaching the bar met by a policy priority.  The secret deal never had public support, is based on dubious legal assumptions, the state’s elected leaders dragged their feet in making appointments (and still haven’t completed them), and as a result, the new state ethics watchdog agency is off to a sputtering start.

A bumpy start doesn’t doom the agency.  But it’s not a beginning that builds public confidence.

Colleges Open Up

Posted by NYPIRG on September 12, 2022 at 9:45 am

Over the past few weeks, colleges opened up across New York.  And for the first time since the beginning of the covid, colleges opened up more or less in the same manner as they did prior to the pandemic.  By and large, classroom instruction is being conducted in-person, students can live in dorms with few restrictions, and campus activities are back in swing.

It’s a good time to review how well they are doing.

For well over a decade, the direction of policy of New York has been to reduce public support for institutions of higher education.  Not every year – last year’s budget was notable for increasing support – but a clear trend.

The revenues needed to keep college running – both those in the public as well as the independent sectors – have been increasingly generated by tuition.  Over the past decade in particular, the conscious policy of the state was to reduce state supports, including financial aid, and shift those expenses to the colleges themselves.

Until recently, public college tuition was increased at an annual rate, the state’s main tuition assistance program (TAP) was frozen, and the state support for independent colleges (aka private) was slashed to about a third of what it was in the early 1990s.

Since 2010, the State University of New York’s (SUNY) four year and community colleges (but not its university centers) also saw reductions – in some cases staggering – in enrollment.  As the number of students dropped, so did revenues since tuition had become an integral part of college financing.  Without compensating state aid increases, which did not happen, services had to be reduced.  Reduced services, reduced appeal to would-be college students, leading to further drops in enrollments.

Outside of the big universities, the situation at many independent colleges was even more dire.  They typically do not have big endowments, so reliance on student tuition and government support kept them afloat.

The situation at the City University of New York has been different.  Until the pandemic, its four year public colleges and universities held their own financially.

Why has there been a drop in enrollments?  As mentioned earlier, some of it results from public policy choices – the state’s drop in support hurt all but the biggest universities – both public and private.  Demographics hurt as well: while not all college students are not the traditional 18-24 year old group, many are and that demographic has declined. 

So the policies may make sense IF policymakers are deciding to allow the weaker campuses to “whither on the vine.”  But that would cause more harm than good.

There is a strong case to be made that the state should enhance its support even if enrollments have declined.

Colleges and universities do more than simply educate – as important as that is.  They are also mini-economic engines that financially bolster local communities with jobs, spending on businesses, and provide a cultural hub that attracts well-educated residents.

In addition to boosting racial and economic equity, public higher education helps to strengthen New York’s economy.  The research into the economic benefits of investing in higher education have been overwhelmingly positive.

Yet too often the state’s economic development strategies ignore well-documented benefits and instead spend taxpayer dollars on programs that sound good in press releases, but rarely deliver. 

As one think-tank comments, “In New York State, various agencies and entities administer economic development programs with a total cost of $10 billion annually in 2019.  While New York is a leader in the scope and amount of its economic development spending, it is not a leader in job-creating projects.  It fails to rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of its economic development spending and does not demonstrate that this spending is producing sufficient results.”

There have been, moreover, instances of well-documented abuses of the system.  The most obvious was the investigation and prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s office into the “Buffalo Billion” scandal which found that state contracts were rigged to benefit campaign contributors.

Of course, this is not to say that all economic development projects fail.  The point is that current policy in this area disregards the evidence that investing in the state’s higher education sector has some of the best bang for the buck.  And that it is this disregard that starves a proven economic engine while steering resources into too often dubious projects.

When it comes to higher education, we can’t overlook that college yields benefits that extend well beyond individual economic returns.  A primary function of postsecondary education is to develop college students’ involvement in the nation’s civic life and democratic processes, engender a sense of social responsibility, and develop an appreciation and respect for differences across cultures and peoples.  College students are more likely to vote and volunteer, in addition to paying more in taxes upon graduation.

As colleges open up and students stream onto campuses, policymakers should take note of the economic benefits to New York of having a robust, statewide system.  Allowing some of these institutions to wither away while spending billions on development schemes that often provide limited benefits makes no sense.  Investing in making New York a model for how to make smart investments, train future workers, and enhance its civic life must be its investment direction.

Electrify Everything!

Posted by NYPIRG on August 29, 2022 at 9:33 am

August is heading toward a close.  The summer has once again been hot and dry.  In fact, experts are predicting that this could be the hottest – or among the hottest – in modern history.  As everyone who pays attention to climate science knows, with each passing year, the world will keep getting hotter.

Even if the world adheres to the Paris Accord – and the global climate agreement’s nonbinding and thus unenforceable goals – the planet will keep getting hotter for the rest of the Century.  Keeping the planet from exceeding the Paris goal of holding the heating to no more than an average 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in pre-industrial times (the late 1800s), will still mean significant damage to the planet, but not a catastrophe. 

But there is no time to waste: Experts say that the world’s greenhouse gas emissions must be heading down no later than the end of this decade and be eliminated by the year 2050.  The world can’t wait for the development of new technologies, it must act now.

Nationally, the transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.  Fortunately, technology does exist to fundamentally change the way we travel – electronic-powered vehicles. 

Last week, stunning displays of the devastating impacts from the heating of planet stemming from the burning of fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal have been incredible.

Economic powerhouse China is reeling from a record-setting drought and an eleven-week-long heat wave that is forcing a drastic curbing of power supplies, threatening crops and setting off wildfires.  Reduced electricity from hydroelectric dams has prompted China to impose rolling blackouts or limit energy use.

It’s not just the heat.  The drought has dried up dozens of rivers and reservoirs in the region and cut hydropower generation capacity.  The Yangtze River has receded so low that many oceangoing ships can no longer reach upstream ports.

China is not alone.  In Europe this summer, record-breaking heat waves featuring temperatures upward of 100 degrees Fahrenheit have cooked the continent and caused thousands of deaths. France, Spain and other countries are suffering from related droughts, the drying up of rivers, and a wildfire season on pace to be the worst on record.

Here in the United States, Lake Mead, a reservoir providing water to millions and fed by the Colorado River, is now at only 27 percent capacity.  The decades-long drought in the American West has also contributed to intense wildfires that have swept the region.

Even wet parts of the United States are drying out.  Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor listed key parts of the Northeast as being in “severe drought.”  And Governor Hochul has announced that much of New York is suffering from a drought. 

It will only get worse; these conditions may not be exceptional and may instead represent the new normal.

When it comes to the climate crisis, the United States must play a leadership role.  It is this nation that has been the historic leader in releasing greenhouse gases and thus it is obliged to show the world how to address this growing menace.

Sadly, we haven’t been doing that.  The stranglehold that the oil, gas, and coal industries have had on national public policy has resulted in far too few steps being taken to address the existential crisis posed by global warming.

The nation’s climate leadership must come from the states.  Last week, the state of California targeted the largest national source of GHG when it announced that it will prohibit the sale of fossil-fuel-powered cars by the year 2035.  New York has a goal of phasing out fossil fuel powered cars by 2035, but California’s new regulation is mandatory, not aspirational.  California, which has one of the biggest economies in the world – can drive U.S. auto manufacturers to change the products that they sell nationally.  It makes no sense to make two different types of cars, one for California and one for the rest of the states.

In fact, it is expected that fifteen other states will follow California’s lead.  And those states must act.  Ten states – including California and New York – are the source of half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.  Reducing emissions in those states will have a dramatic impact on the world’s climate crisis.

This is the blueprint for winning the climate war: states leading on attacking the major sources of heat-trapping emissions.  If California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey and the others (Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington) mandate that in a decade or so all new cars must be electric, then the nation will follow.  And if the U.S. embraces electric cars, the world will too.  We don’t have a moment to spare.

Reducing Albany’s Corruption Risk

Posted by NYPIRG on August 22, 2022 at 11:14 am

New York State collects and spends an enormous amount of money.  Last year’s state budget, for example, exceeded $220 billion, second only to the state of California.  The state is also home to some of the loosest campaign finance rules in the nation.  Using the leverage of state spending powers to rake in campaign contributions has been a time-honored practice among New York’s elected officials. 

In light of this reality, oversight of state spending is an important check on the obvious abuses that can – and too often do – occur.  But governors resist having fiscal watchdogs.  Most recently, former Governor Cuomo successfully championed a measure in 2011 to curtail the oversight functions of the state Comptroller – the state’s top fiscal watchdog.  The former governor’s argument was that the Comptroller’s review of state contracting moved too slowly and that he needed quick actions on his plans for economic development.  The Comptroller denied that claim, but the then-popular governor steamrolled opposition and the Legislature agreed to reduce the Comptroller’s oversight.

In hindsight, that move proved the old proverb “haste makes waste.”

New York State’s Comptroller is a separately elected official.   The state Constitution established a separately elected Comptroller who is supposed to be free of interference from other governmental offices.  It is the Comptroller who is charged with monitoring the state finances.

The 2011 move had its consequences.  As a result of federal investigations into the Cuomo-era “Buffalo Billion” and other economic development actions, top aides to the former governor were sentenced to prison for shaking down campaign contributors who were interested in state government contracts – known as a “pay-to-play” scheme. 

Had the Comptroller retained his oversight powers, would that – and other – schemes have occurred?  Of course there is no way to know for sure, but people do behave differently when they are being watched.  Experience shows that stronger oversight reduces corruption risks; more lax oversight leads to the opposite.

During the recent legislative session, lawmakers acted to restore the Comptroller’s powers.  While the evidence of oversight omissions alone should have moved them to act, having a new governor likely played a role as well.

The governor has yet to say if she’ll approve the bill restoring Comptroller oversight.  Approval of the legislation would send a powerful signal that Governor Hochul understands the need for stronger independent oversight of contracting.  She has seen how the previous Administration’s preference for speed over accountability can lead to corruption. 

She also knows that it’s not just members of the previous Administration or only the executive branch.  Members of the Legislature have themselves been caught up in corruption investigations in which they were doing the bidding of campaign contributors as part of their “pay-to-play” arrangements.  Most recently, the former Lt. Governor was charged by federal prosecutors in a scheme to pay back a campaign contributor by directing state monies to his organization.  That matter is still pending.

Governor Hochul is currently building an enormous warchest in her effort to win the election this November.  According to reporting in The New York Times – the governor set a target of raising a total of $50 to $70 million by Election Day.  A mind-boggling amount of money in little over a year of being governor.

Also according to the Times, many of her campaign contributions came from those with business before the government.  The Times reported Hochul raised over $200,000 from the gambling industry, which is waiting for three new licenses to be issued by the state for casinos in and around New York City.

It’s easy to understand why the governor wants a huge campaign warchest – it will pay for an expensive campaign and ensure that donors think twice about funding her opponents.  But it does raise the policy question of what the state should do to ensure that the influence of campaign donors is not influencing the awarding of government contracts.

One way to ensure that such oversight exists hinges on how the governor chooses to act on the legislation restoring the powers of the state Comptroller.  Stating her support for the legislation will help re-assure public confidence in state governmental decision-making; staying mum will raise concerns that the bad old days may be here to stay.