Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Despair About Events, or Act To Change Them?

Posted by NYPIRG on May 16, 2022 at 10:10 am

It’s hard not to despair considering the news.  Violence around the world puts millions at risk.  The war in Europe threatens to escalate.  Political and racist violence feels like it could tear the nation apart.  Overheated – and usually false – political rhetoric poisons the nation’s civic life.

And while all of those threats – violence, civil discord and the rise of authoritarianism – are real, none (at least not yet) pose an existential threat to humankind in the same way as the climate changes resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.

The threat posed by global warming is a real existential threat to the future of the planet – and all that inhabit it.  The atmosphere is heating up and with it the temperatures of our air and water.  Last week, it was reported that temperatures in the Indian peninsula are hitting record highs.

In a region of 1.5 billion people, triple digit temperatures are baking India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.  For India, this past April was the hottest in 122 years and followed the hottest March on record. For Pakistan, it was the hottest April in 61 years. Nighttime temperatures are staying in the 90s, granting little relief for the overheated.

The sweltering weather has reportedly killed at least 25 people in India and 65 people in Pakistan, though the true number of casualties is likely much higher.  Even birds are getting heat stroke.  Hundreds of birds have been sent to animal hospitals during deadly heat waves.  One Indian animal hospital said it had treated a record number of birds for conditions such as fever, dehydration and heatstroke as temperatures rose to over 114.8oF this week.

Surging electricity demand and stress on the power grid triggered power outages for two-thirds of Indian households.  Outages in Pakistan have lasted up to 12 hours, cutting off power when people need cooling the most.  Without electricity, many households have lost access to water.  The hot weather has also increased dust and ozone levels, leading to spikes in air pollution in major cities across the region. The heat melted mountain glaciers faster than normal, triggering flash floods in Pakistan.  That heat will impact other nations too, for example the hot temperatures are threatening wheat production, which could push already rising food prices even higher around the world.

It’s just May.  Those Asia subcontinent nations have to be poised to react to the summer months, when the heat could really take off.  

So, it is easy to despair. 

The false and hateful rhetoric that poisons our civic life cannot be allowed to drive policymaking.  As the old adage goes, “denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet it is far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.”

New York State has to do the good works to “light the candle.”  When it comes to strengthening its democracy, the state has to show that elections can be fairly run at the same time as it makes it easier for all those eligible to vote.

New York can take a page from the turn-of-the-20th Century Progressives and expand its independent, professional civil service system to more governmental positions, including the enforcement of elections and ethics.

It must also show how to tackle the existential threat posed by global warming.  Here the state has taken important steps, such as setting scientifically-sound greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.  And banning the sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles by the year 2035.

Yet the false information advanced by the oil and gas industries, echoed by its witting (and unwitting) allies, are seeking to roll back those environmental goals and to block their implementation.  We see it in the fight to keep expanding oil and gas pipelines and the continued reliance on gas to power new buildings, a reliance that runs directly in opposition to the state’s climate goals.

Yet reliance on electricity for powering buildings and transportation, electricity that will rely more and more on solar, wind, and geothermal sources, is the real solution, not the fake options advanced by the fossil fuel industries and their allies.

Will Albany strike the match and light the candle?  Or will our elected leaders do nothing and curse the darkness?  New Yorkers will know by early June.

Policy Traffic Jam in Albany

Posted by NYPIRG on May 9, 2022 at 8:17 am

With only 12 legislative days until the scheduled end of the session, state lawmakers face an increasing “policy traffic jam”:  New issues are being added to an already packed end-of-session agenda.  Here is what the scrambled Albany political landscape looks like as of now:

The courts have tossed the Congressional and state Senate political district maps drawn by the Legislature and will replace them with ones drawn by a court-appointed Special Master by May 20th.  Will the Legislature then have to redo candidate petitioning and other rules that determine who will be on the ballot for the new primary pushed forward two months to August 23rd? Moreover, will legal challenges result in the state Assembly’s newly drawn lines also getting tossed? 

Will Governor Hochul and state lawmakers move all of the primaries – including those for governor – from June to August in order to save taxpayer dollars?  (It costs about $30 million to run a primary.  Obviously two of them are more expensive than one.)  If so, what other changes will be needed to qualify candidates for that new deadline?

And there is the issue of how to replace Congressional Representative Delgado once he is sworn into his new job as Lt. Governor.  Under New York law, the governor has a short window of time to announce a special election.  Will that be part of the current June primary vote?  Will she wait until later in the summer? 

The recent leak of a draft US Supreme Court decision to overturn abortion rights in America has also roiled Albany.  Lawmakers are expected to develop a raft of new legislation to respond to this possible change.  Expect a number of new legislative initiatives to be added to state lawmakers’ end-of-session list.

And those two issue areas are loaded on top of an already-packed list of important bills expected to be taken up in the waning days of session.  For example, lawmakers are debating issues over how to adjust the state’s housing code to reduce global warming greenhouse gas emissions by requiring new buildings to solely rely on electricity for power, whether to place a moratorium on certain cryptocurrency activities that increase those emissions, as well as deciding whether to act to reduce excess packaging to meet Governor Hochul’s promise to put the reduction onus on producers of packaging waste, not taxpayers.

There are other, lower profile, but important issues too.  For example, how should the state combat the growing public health threat caused by the rise of antibiotic resistant infections? 

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 35,000 Americans will die and another 2.8 million be made sick by exposure to antibiotic-resistant “superbug” infections.  Those numbers translate into New York State seeing more than 164,000 serious illnesses and 2,000 to 9,000 deaths in the next year. These infections include MRSA, urinary tract infections, salmonella and others that are increasingly dangerous since antibiotics may no longer work against these illnesses.

Controlling resistance requires both strong antibiotic stewardship measures in medicine and reducing antibiotic use in animals.  In the U.S., approximately 65 percent of medically important antibiotics, i.e., those that are important for human medicine, are also sold for use in food animals – cattle, pigs, turkeys, chickens – typically raised in large-scale industrialized operations, but on smaller farms, too.  Surprisingly, most of the animals getting antibiotics aren’t actually sick.  Instead, antibiotics are routinely administered to the animals at subtherapeutic levels daily, mixed into their food and/or water, so that they can survive often unsanitary, overcrowded living conditions and unnatural diets.

Last week, legislation was introduced to combat the threat of antibiotic-resistant infections.  The legislation, introduced by Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, would be the first in the nation to take the comprehensive “One Health” approach recommended by the CDC.  The legislation was supported by thirty consumer, public health, animal welfare, and environmental groups.

Of course, there are many other important issues that may be addressed as well.  In a “typical” end of session, during the last few weeks lawmakers approve roughly half of the total number of bills that they have acted upon during the entire six-month session – hundreds of bill are likely to get passed in this end of session blitz.

Lawmakers are heading down the final stretch of this legislative session; how they manage the increasingly large number of policy items and whether they take action on issues important to all New Yorkers will determine whether the session was successful.

Albany Suffers Through Another Political Earthquake

Posted by NYPIRG on May 2, 2022 at 9:58 am

New York State politics is maddening and endlessly surprising.  Over the past twenty years, three governors have had serious scandals – with two resigning and one fined for lying under oath.  A state Comptroller went to prison, previous leaders of the state Senate and Assembly were sent to prison for corruption, and scores of state legislators were punished for violating state laws.

Just two weeks ago, the Lt. Governor resigned after being charged by federal prosecutors with corruption.

And this past week, the state’s top court threw out the political boundaries set for New York’s delegation to the House of Representatives and the state Senate.  The Capitol shook from that latest political earthquake.

As background, every ten years the nation counts its residents through the census.  Every ten years, federal, state, and local governments readjust their political boundaries to reflect population changes.  That process – known as redistricting – has long been manipulated by the major political parties to maximize their electoral prospects for success.  

That manipulation is known as “gerrymandering,” named for Elbridge Gerry, a 19th Century Massachusetts politician who pioneered the strategy.

In modern New York State political history, the Democrats who controlled the state Assembly drew the lines for themselves, the Republicans in the Senate did the same for themselves.  The last time around in 2012, the courts drew up the lines for New York’s delegation to the House of Representatives. 

Legal challenges had been filed to challenge these plans, but the courts almost entirely deferred to this arrangement.

Ten years ago, that process was changed.  As part of a deal by then-Governor Cuomo, the governor agreed to astonishing gerrymandered legislative maps in exchange for lawmakers agreeing to approve changes to the state constitution.  Those changes included mandates that future maps could not be gerrymandered and that a new so-called Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) would oversee the development of new maps for the state and Congress.

As with far too many “reforms” during the Cuomo era, there were problems with the plan, most notably one that the IRC would really be run by the two major political parties, who would have equal representation on the Commission.  At that time, critics argued that such an arrangement would lead to gridlock.

And gridlock is exactly what happened.  The IRC could not agree on maps and so the Legislature drew them.  But this time, both state legislative chambers are run by an overwhelming majority of Democrats.  Republicans cried foul and filed legal challenges that argued that the Democrats’ plans were gerrymandered.

Last week, the Republicans won that argument in the state’s top court and now New York’s political scene has suffered an enormous disruption.

The new lines will be drafted by the courts.  Thus, candidates do not know at this time whether they live in relevant districts and won’t know that until later this month. 

Moreover, the primary for Congressional and state Senate seats has been moved from June to August, and it’s possible that Assembly and statewide primaries will move as well in order to consolidate voting and save taxpayers money – one primary date is cheaper than two.

In effect, the court’s decision has forced a political reset; campaigns that were designed around a June primary now are planning for one in August and whether existing candidates even choose to continue may be determined by the new political boundaries set by the courts.

In addition to immediate changes, the court’s decision has long term implications.  The state constitutionally-created IRC will be in place for the next redistricting in ten years and it’s hard to imagine a minority political party ever agreeing to the lines drafted by the Commission.  Thus, it is likely that there will be redistricting gridlock, which will force the courts to act again.  The 2014 state constitutional change has led to the courts being in charge of redistricting.

That change could have enormous implications this year.  The Congress’s House of Representatives currently is run by Democrats with a very small majority.  If the 2022 election leads to another close majority, the switch of a small number of seats could determine which party controls the House – which can have huge implications for the nation and the world.

New York’s current controversy could have been avoided if then-Governor Cuomo had established a truly independent commission.  In addition, the state’s political representation could have been stronger if the Cuomo Administration had pushed its census efforts; its failure to do so cost the state a representative in the House.  Proposed changes to the state constitution, which could have fixed the problem identified by the courts – that the IRC must act in order to avoid intervention by the court – failed at the ballot last November when the Democrats decided to sit out that vote and devote no resources to persuading the public.  And finally, the Democrats could have been less greedy – at least according to the state court – in drawing up the lines. 

This was a decade-long mess that was allowed to fester.  Now the courts will draw the lines, a surprising outcome and one that will be on the books for years to come, with huge shock waves felt inside and outside New York.

Earth Week 2022

Posted by NYPIRG on April 25, 2022 at 10:19 am

April 22nd was Earth Day.  Since 1970 the world has marked Earth Day as a time to reflect on the state of the environment and debate how best to improve the only habitat we have. As we know, the world faces an existential threat posed by climate changes driven by global warming.

There is no longer a credible debate over whether human activity, primarily the use of fossil fuels to create energy, is warming the planet. According to the world’s climate experts: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic [human-caused] emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.  Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) experts tell us that human society has to curb its carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and then achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts from global warming.

Given Congressional gridlock, states like New York, California, Massachusetts, and others have stepped up with aggressive goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Using a science-based approach, in 2019 New York State set aggressive goals to attack climate change. The state’s Climate Law says the state must achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The law also sets goals of 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040.

Those goals are laudable and scientifically-based, but there will be significant costs to address the climate crisis for the world, the nation, and New York.

Climate change resulting from burning of fossil fuels has already had adverse effects on New York in the form of extreme weather events that caused billions of dollars in damages. For example, “Super Storm Sandy” caused $19 billion in damages in New York City. Hurricane Irene devastated the state and resulted in ten deaths and in excess of $1.3 billion in damages. Tropical Storm Lee brought drenching rains that caused more than $1 billion more.

Researchers have estimated the potential economic costs of climate change in New York State for key sectors may approach $10 billion annually by mid-century.   

Those costs are staggering, but the question facing policymakers is how to fairly distribute responsibility. One thing we all know, is that the oil, gas, and coal industries are significantly responsible for the dangers we are experiencing and will face.

The record is clear that for the better half of the late 20th Century, oil companies funded industry and university research collaborations broadly in line with the current scientific consensus. According to corporate documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times, for example, a leading Exxon researcher told an audience of engineers at a conference in 1991 that greenhouse gases are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels.  Nobody disputes this fact.” 

Nevertheless, starting in the 1980s, the industry championed climate change denial on multiple fronts and opposed regulations to curtail global warming. The industry funded organizations critical of climate change treaties, undermining public opinion about the science that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Their successes in bamboozling the public have pushed the planet to the brink.

Now governments are facing the costs of responding to this deadly threat. So how do we ensure that those responsible are on the financial hook for the costs and in a way that minimizes – or eliminates – the industries’ ability to pass those costs along to the public?

New York’s state Superfund program offers precedent for a “polluter must pay” model for making the fossil fuels companies bear the costs tied to a looming climate catastrophe. Under the Superfund program, polluters are obligated to pay for remediation without any requirement of a finding that the polluter was negligent or acted intentionally with knowledge of the damage to the environment its activities would cause.

Working off the state Superfund model, lawmakers should embrace a proposal that extends the principle of the “polluter pays” to pollution from carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels, the primary cause of climate change from global warming. 

The world knows that it faces a dire threat and staggering costs. It’s also true that the record shows that the oil, gas, and coal industries did all they could to block adequate responses to this growing threat. As a result, the threats are greater and the costs of responding are higher.

It’s time to make polluters pay for the damage they’ve done. Right now, big polluters get to pollute for free. New York lawmakers must support a plan that ensures that fossil fuel companies pay their fair share of the costs of cleaning up the mess they’ve created. Someone is going to pay for the costs of climate change: if it isn’t the polluters, it’s going to be the public. They’ve known for some 50 years that their pollution was causing the climate crisis, but they put their profits ahead of public welfare. Now it’s time for New York to make them help pay for the mess they’ve made.

Ethics Scandal Hits Albany (Again!)

Posted by NYPIRG on April 18, 2022 at 9:45 am

The arrest and subsequent resignation of Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin sent shockwaves across New York’s political landscape. The charges against Benjamin stem from an alleged misuse of his public office to financially benefit a big campaign contributor. Of course, Benjamin deserves to have his side heard, but his immediate resignation underscores the legal threat he faces and the indictment is fresh evidence that the state fails when it comes to ethics oversight.

According to the federal indictment, Benjamin used his role as then-state senator to obtain a grant for an individual who donated to his Senate campaign and became a significant donor to Benjamin’s failed bid for New York City comptroller. In other words, he secured taxpayer money in direct exchange for someone funneling him campaign cash, including the ability to get public matching funds.

The courts will sort this all out, but misuse of public office for personal (or political) gain is a story that has been told too often in state government. The former Senate majority leader went to prison for misuse of his office; the now deceased former Assembly Speaker did too; and as we know, Gov. Hochul’s predecessor is challenging claims that he misused his public office as well.

And it’s not just elected officials. Top aides to the former governor also were convicted of corruption, along with the campaign contributors who conspired with them.

The larger question is why does this keep happening? The answer is that the state simply does not take ethics enforcement seriously. It’s common knowledge: People behave differently when they know that rules are enforced. Drivers follow speed limits when they see patrol cars. When there are no patrol cars for miles on end, they’ll go as fast as they damn well please.

Albany is a highway with no patrol cars.

It should be lost on no one that many of the state’s major corruption prosecutions — including the Benjamin resignation — were the result of federal investigations, not state ones. If the feds are not watching, or there is no federal legal violation, enforcement is left to state ethics watchdogs.

In Albany, the state has never established an independent ethics watchdog. The most recent iterations — the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which monitors the executive branch, and the Legislative Ethics Commission, which monitors the Legislature — are controlled by individuals who are directly appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders. Ditto the state inspector general, who reports to the governor’s office.

Having ethics watchdogs hand picked by the individuals that they are supposed to regulate is an obvious problem and at the heart of why scandals occur.

Governor Hochul understood this and advanced a plan in January that she said would ensure that state officials were not directly choosing their own watchdogs. Yet the final agreement she negotiated in the state budget earlier this month fell far short of that.

Under that new law, cobbled together in secret negotiations between the governor and the legislative leaders, the new agency won’t be independent. Its commission will have an 11-member board: three members appointed by the governor, two by the Senate majority leader, two by the Assembly speaker, one by the Assembly minority leader, one by the Senate minority leader, one by the attorney general and one by the comptroller.

Why should the governor and the leaders of the legislative majorities be entitled to more than one appointment? There is no reason, but it does smack of a classic deal to allow the three leaders to dominate the new agency. Quick math shows that those seven appointees would dominate the new ethics agency.

There is an added wrinkle:  The Deans of New York law schools would vet those applicants to determine qualifications, using criteria ranging from their professional backgrounds to their geographic diversity. It’s worth noting that law schools are involved in lobbying the state government, and in any event, the Deans’ role won’t make the ethics agency independent.

Of course, that’s not to say that the plan does not offer improvements over the awful ethics system now in place. But the cornerstone of effective ethics oversight is independence, and on that basis alone, this proposal fails, and fails miserably.

New York has had too many ethical scandals, resulting in a crisis in public confidence in state government. History shows that whatever ethics agency is put in place will be around for years. Scandals can drive real reforms, but unfortunately New York’s leaders have so far squandered this reform opportunity.

Of course, the vast majority of elected officials are honest, professional and reasonable.  But having a weak state ethics law enforced by individuals who are directly tied to the political establishment creates a culture where individuals can game the system to benefit themselves. That appears to be what led to Lt. Governor Benjamin’s arrest.

This latest scandal underscores the need for independent ethics oversight. The governor and the leaders still have time this session. They must go back to the drawing board and fix their latest deal.