Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

The West Coast Is Burning, Time to Tackle Global Warming

Posted by NYPIRG on September 14, 2020 at 7:36 am

The massive fires on the West Coast are unprecedented in both their size and impact.  An area larger than the size of New Jersey is now burning in California, Oregon, and Washington.  Those fires continue to rage and the death toll continues to rise.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans are poised to flee their homes as the dangers grow. 

At least 24 people have been killed, with dozens more missing and more than 3,000 homes destroyed since the most recent fires began.  In the state of Oregon, half a million people were under evacuation orders as out-of-control fires advanced toward Salem and Portland’s suburbs.

California’s wildfires, driven by extreme blazes in August and September, have already burned more acres than any year on record.  There are now blazes burning in at least ten western states.

The air quality over the West Coast is now the most polluted on the planet and the toxic nature of the nation’s politics further clouds the public discussion around the fires.  Social media platforms are abuzz with false claims that the fires were intentionally set by extremist groups.  In reality, the fires burning across the Pacific Coast are the latest evidence of the harms from a rapidly heating planet, a heat that dries out forests and makes them more susceptible to fires.  Like the huge fires in Australia and the Amazon, these infernos are the most recent examples of an atmosphere choking on greenhouse gases.

In January, vast areas of Australia burned.  The skies turned orange, and smoke blanketed the country’s largest cities.  Entire cities were wiped out.  Now, across the Pacific, it is the skies over San Francisco, Portland and Seattle that have turned red and orange, with smoke blocking out the sun.

There is no question that 2020 will be one of the hottest years on record for the planet; currently it is second.  However, 2020 has been the hottest in certain parts of the world: including a large portion of northern Asia, parts of Europe, China, Mexico, northern South America, as well as the Atlantic, northern Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Those increased temperatures allow fires to burn more intensely and cause forests to dry out and burn more easily.  These intense fires are not started by climate change, but they are exacerbated by the effects of global warming.  Experts believe that fire conditions are now more dangerous than they were in the past, with longer bushfire seasons, drought, drier fuels and soils, and record-breaking heat.

The increased heat is diminishing mountain snow packs, leading to hotter and drier summers.  Eighty percent of California, 95% of Oregon, and all of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico are currently in drought.  Higher temperatures further dry out forest and rangeland soils.  Stronger lightning storms are igniting multiple fires at a time, and we are seeing the consequences today.

And it is not just fires that result from global warming.  Other climate-change impacts are accelerating too, in the form of more intense storms, melting glaciers, rising seas, and more.

The fact that our habitat is being destroyed by global warming has not, unfortunately, led to action by the Trump Administration.  In fact, their actions over the past three and a half years will make things worse. 

The Trump Administration has rolled back numerous environmental programs saying that they were unnecessary and burdensome to the fossil fuel industry and other businesses.  The Administration has weakened Obama-era limits on planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and from cars and trucks.

And the oil industry is fueling that political fire, even though they know it is wrong.  According to reporting by The New York Times, last summer oil and gas-industry groups were lobbying to overturn federal rules on leaks of natural gas, a major contributor to climate change.  Instead of concern about how methane leaks from fossil fuel production significantly contributes to the climate crisis, the oil and gas leaders were focused on the public relations damage to the industry’s reputation.

For years, researchers have warned that drilling for the gas also causes sizable leaks of methane directly into the atmosphere.  Methane can trap more than 80 times more heat in the earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Research has shown that methane emissions from oil and gas production are far larger than previously estimated.

To address the issue, the Obama Administration had proposed new regulations that would have required, among other measures, that oil and gas companies install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from wells, pipelines, and storage facilities.  That’s one of the programs weakened by the Trump Administration.

Dismantling environmental programs, pulling out of the Paris accords, and undermining climate science, have acted as an accelerant to the dangers from global warming. 

Since 2008, the fourth week in September–next week–has been considered “Climate Week”: a focus on the worldwide movement to halt the planet’s headlong rush toward catastrophe.  This year’s events will be more subdued due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.  But even if the events are restrained, the activism needed to respond to the burning of the West Coast cannot subside.

The West Coast fires are the latest unmistakable alarm sounding that the deadly consequences of global warming are real and happening now.  We need a government that responds to the science.  For that to happen, the planet needs to sustain an unprecedented level of citizen activism.  If we collectively fail to respond today, what will be our excuse to future generations?

Two Months to Go and NY Has a New System of Voting

Posted by NYPIRG on September 7, 2020 at 7:00 am

There are fewer than two months until Election Day – an election that will impact the history of this nation and the world.  In New York, due to the disruption created by the pandemic, voters will be casting their ballots in an unfamiliar system, one that has been constantly changing.  A new wrinkle was added last week.

Last week, Governor Cuomo unveiled a new option for voters that will allow them to request an absentee ballot online, instead of through the mail.  It underscored just how much voting in New York has changed since the last Presidential election.

Given those changes, here is an outline of the options for voting in New York.

First, check to make sure that you are registered.  The New York State Board of Elections has a tool to allow voters to verify their polling site and to ensure that they are registered in the first place.  (It’s tricky to find, so the web address is You can also contact your county board of elections to ensure that you are registered. 

If you are not, you can register through the State Board of Elections online or you can call to obtain a voter registration form, 1-800-FOR-VOTE.  If you are not registered to vote, you must do so (either online, through the mail, or dropping your form off at the relevant county board of election) by October 9th.  Don’t put this off as it is a hard deadline.

Once you are registered – or confirmed your registration – you have two choices on how to vote.  You can do so by going in-person to a polling site or you can vote through the mail.

If you prefer to vote in-person, once again you have two choices.  For the first time in a Presidential Election, New York allows voters to vote early.  Under New York law, voters can cast their ballots starting 10 days prior to Election Day.  This year, the early voting period is October 24th through November 1st.  Every county must have at least one early voting polling place.  You can find out where yours is by checking out your local county board of elections.  Of course, voters can still go to the polls on Election Day, Tuesday November 3rd, and cast their ballot like in the old days.  As with all our public activities these days, when going to their polling place to vote, voters should wear a protective facial mask and socially distance.

In addition to allowing early voting, New York now allows eligible New Yorkers to vote by mail.  This option is a bit more complicated.  The New York State Constitution allows only in-person voting unless a voter is ill or is expected to be traveling.  If a voter wants to cast an absentee ballot, they must apply.  Once their application is accepted, they receive a hard-copy ballot through the mail and can then complete the ballot and mail their vote in.

Due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the Governor and the State Legislature made changes to the constitutional provision allowing voters to cast their ballot under the illness exception—even if not actually sick. 

The change allows voters to choose this option if they wish to avoid contact with other people by checking off the “temporary illness or disability” excuse on the absentee ballot application since voting in-person may put the voter at risk of contracting or spreading a communicable disease like COVID-19.  Last week’s order by the Governor, allows voters to request an absentee ballot application online.  If voters wish to receive an absentee application directly, they can request it from their local county board of elections.  More information to do so is available at the State Board of Elections website.  The voter must apply online, postmark, email or fax a completed application or letter request for the General Election absentee ballot no later than 7 days (October 27th) before the election.  Voters may apply in-person up to the day before the election (November 2nd). 

Once a voter’s absentee application is accepted, they can then vote.  The voter fills out the ballot, places it in a security envelope – which also needs the voter’s signature.  The security envelope is then placed in the return envelope.  The voter then mails it (postmarked no later than November 3rd) or brings it to the relevant county board of elections (no later than November 3rd by 9 p.m.) or drops it off at a polling site during either the early voting period or on Election Day (November 3rd by 9 p.m.).

With more options, voters have more opportunities to participate.  We live in a representative democracy – one in which we choose our representatives to decide for us the important issues of the day. Voting is how we make our wishes known.  This year, we should vote as if our lives – and the lives of our families and communities – depended on it, because it does.

NY’s Budget Woes Are Coming to a Head

Posted by NYPIRG on August 31, 2020 at 8:05 am

With the Congressional stimulus negotiations seemingly at a stalemate, the financial health of New York is looking more and more grim.  Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released a report earlier this month that calculated that the state had collected $3 billion less during the April-July first quarter than last year.  But last week, his message got darker.

According to the Comptroller, the state should expect a further decrease in revenues of $1 billion, with the total budget gap projected to be $14.5 billion.  He said that budget gaps will total over $60 billion for the next four years.

Let me repeat:  $14.5 billion this year, with a total accumulated budget hole of more than $60 billion over the next four years.

Those catastrophic budget numbers reflect a state economy that has cratered since the COVID-19 pandemic began.  It reflects real pain; hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs, countless businesses have faltered or are on the brink, and unemployment has risen to levels unseen since the Great Depression.

New York’s political leadership has been holding onto the hope that the Congress would approve another stimulus package that would reduce the state’s financial pain.  Those negotiations continue, but it is increasingly clear that whatever benefits result, the state will still face massive financial problems.

In addition to the state’s problems, local governments are hurting too.  The City of New York, for example, is facing a $9.6 billion revenue loss over the next two years.  The sprawling Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) – which runs the down state mass transit systems – announced last week its “doomsday” scenario. 

The MTA is facing a $16.2 billion deficit through 2024.  Under the MTA’s ‘doomsday’ plan, subway and bus service would be slashed by 40 percent. The budget cuts would also affect long-awaited improvements.

With such massive deficits in every corner of the state, even if a federal stimulus is approved, service cuts to programs like education and health care as well as revenue increases will dominate the debate in Albany.  What has become crystal clear is that at a time of pressing needs Albany cannot cut services by more than $60 billion; revenues must be raised.  But how?

A new coalition headed by former New York Governor David Paterson weighed in on that question saying that taxes on the wealthy must not be raised.  Paterson – who has been a lobbyist for casino developer Sheldon Adelson – announced the formation of the coalition to fight taxes on the wealthy.  Within days a number of the groups dropped out saying that they were misled about the intent of the effort.  In fact, some stated that they supported raising taxes.

And also last week, New York State Assemblymember Phil Steck convened a forum on raising taxes.  The panel, which included Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, focused on reviving a specific revenue idea.  For over a Century, New York State has collected a small tax on the buying and selling of stocks.  Since the early 1980s, instead of keeping the revenues, the state has rebated the money collected under the Stock Transfer Tax law back to Wall Street investors.  The amount that the state collects – and then rebates – varies by year between $5 billion and $16 billion annually.

According to the panel, that tax should not only be collected, but expanded to cover other forms of financial activities.  Their argument was that the tax would really only be paid by Wall Street speculators, the vast majority of investors don’t trade stocks frequently and thus would not notice the tax.  In fact, they don’t really notice the tax now since it is collected (and then rebated).  Moreover, the experts argued that the size of the tax – 0.25% or one quarter of a penny per trade – was so small that it would have no meaningful impact on the industry.

But it would raise billions for a state in desperate need of revenues.

Ultimately, Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers will face a serious choice – to cut services and raise revenues from middle- and low-income families and essential workers, or make the wealthy pay more.  Most New Yorkers know what should be done, let’s see what the political leadership decides to do.  Their decision will dramatically affect the quality of life for most New Yorkers.

Voting in NY Should Be Easier This November

Posted by NYPIRG on August 24, 2020 at 9:19 am

New York has a long and deserved reputation for having one of the most dysfunctional elections systems in the nation.  Election after election, New York has ranked at – or near – the bottom in terms of voter participation. 

The reasons for those poor participation rates are complex – a combination of gerrymandering, in which the major parties set political boundaries in ways that limit electoral competition, to persnickety rules for getting on the ballot that keep challengers at bay, to a campaign financing system that allows incumbents to tap into the wallets of those with business before the government, and a voting system that creates unnecessary hurdles to registration and voting itself.

Those laws have seen changes in the past few years.  Some of those changes were insignificant and others more meaningful.  When it comes to the way New Yorkers register and vote, the changes have been meaningful.

Last year, for example, the Legislature approved first passage of a constitutional amendment that (if approved by the Legislature again and then by a direct vote of New Yorkers) would allow new voters to register and vote on Election Day.  So-called “same-day registration” is found in states that have the highest rates of voter participation.

And just last week, the governor approved additional measures that should make it easier for New Yorkers to vote this November.

The first allows eligible voters to cast their ballots by mail instead of going to a polling place.  First used during the June primary, the legislation allows voters to cite generalized health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic in requesting an absentee ballot to vote by mail.  In the past, New Yorkers had to claim actual illness or disability, or that they’d be out of town on election day in order to vote “absentee.”  The new law also eliminates a longstanding provision that prevented voters from requesting absentee ballots until 30 days before Election Day and now allows them to request an absentee ballot anytime.

One of the new laws allows ballots to be deemed valid if postmarked on the day of the 2020 election, November 3.  This law also allows the Board of Elections to count all absentee ballots that have the agency’s time stamp showing it was delivered to the Board of Elections no later than the day after the election, even if the ballot does not have a dated postmark.  The new law requires that the Board of Elections consider ballots received in that fashion to be considered timely.  During the June primary, thousands of ballots were deemed invalid when the post office failed to postmark them. 

Lastly, legislative leaders and the governor are discussing giving voters an opportunity to fix mail-in ballots that are considered invalid.  The plan would give New York voters a chance to correct missing signatures and other clerical errors so their absentee ballots can be counted after being received and initially rejected by boards of elections. 

Last Friday, it was reported that the governor said that he would sign the legislation on notifying voters about problems and allowing them to fix those problems.  However, the governor was said to want as-yet-unreported changes in the new law.  He stated that the legislation – which would allow the voter seven days to fix a mistake – would be too burdensome for election officials and that he would make temporary changes to that requirement. 

Of course, all of these changes rely on well-resourced boards of elections to pull them off.  With fewer than three months until the vote, the state must provide the necessary money to ensure that officials can properly run the election.  New York’s state elections agency has been universally criticized as incapable of running efficient elections due to the partisan gridlock among its leadership.

But it definitely can’t run efficient elections if it doesn’t have the resources to do so.  According to elections officials, the state will need to appropriate $50 million to run this November’s elections.  While there is no doubt that the state is facing serious budgetary problems, running elections should be at the top of its “must do” list.

New York Closes the Frack Waste Loophole

Posted by NYPIRG on August 17, 2020 at 9:01 am

As lawmakers scrambled to wrap up the session last month, they passed hundreds of bills, most of which were well outside of the public’s view.  Due to the intense interest in the COVID pandemic, the public unrest over race relations, and the deepening financial crisis, it’s not surprising that other important issues were decided outside of the limelight.

One such issue is legislation addressing the disposal of wastes from the fracking of natural gas.  In recent years there has been an intense national debate over new methods of extracting fossil fuels.  The most notable has been the debate over the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to access fossil fuels.  This new approach allows easier access to natural gas (and oil) than ever before.

In an era of climate change, when the planet is rapidly heating up due to the emissions of the burning of fossil fuels, using new technologies to allow easier use of those fuels has been a flash point of growing national environmental debate.  The threats that such industrial-scale mineral extraction pose to drinking water supplies adds another dimension to that fight. 

Five years ago, New York State banned fracking, citing both the drinking water threats as well as the concern over global warming.

Yet, oddly, New York has allowed the dumping of wastes from that practice to be disposed of in state landfills without much oversight.  That longstanding loophole, commonly known as “the hazardous waste loophole,” exempts oil and gas waste from being classified as hazardous waste, even if it met the definition. This loophole exists federally and was replicated by many states, including New York.

Despite New York’s ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, New York landfills have accepted over 650,000 tons and approximately 23,000 barrels of fracking waste from Pennsylvania’s drilling operations since 2011.  Oil and gas waste is known to contain hundreds of chemicals, many of which are known or suspected carcinogens, heavy metals, salts, and high levels of naturally occurring radioactivity.  Improper disposal of these toxic wastes can pose significant threats to nearby drinking water supplies.

As part of the frenzy of legislative activity at the end of July, legislation was approved – and subsequently signed into law by the governor – that superseded current regulations and classified wastes from oil and natural gas exploration, drilling and production activities as hazardous waste.  More appropriate disposal of these wastes diminishes the threat posed to drinking water.

That environmental victory adds another nail in the coffin of the fracking industry and helps to protect New York’s drinking water supplies from contamination.

Yet, the efforts to protect New York’s drinking water supplies should not end there.  The state has begun to regulate heretofore unregulated contaminants currently found in drinking water supplies.  In particular, the state set safety levels for the contaminants PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane. These three contaminants have polluted the drinking water serving millions of New Yorkers – and that is only where testing has already been conducted.  It is critical to establish maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for these chemicals to ensure testing takes place in every community, no matter its size, and to prevent people from getting sick.

However, the safety levels set need to be regularly updated in order to ensure the highest possible level of protection.  In addition, the state has to tackle other unregulated contaminants, which also pose threats to drinking water supplies.

As the planet heats up, drinking water supplies will face increasing threats.  Industrial pollution legacies have always threatened water supplies and the world can ill afford to lose access to drinking water due to pollution.

New York State has been blessed with plentiful freshwater supplies, yet a historic legacy of poor pollution practices leaves too much of that water unfit to drink.  Banning fracking waste is a victory worth celebrating, but the ongoing struggle to ensure that New Yorkers have access to clean drinking water continues.