Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

New York State’s Redistricting Commission’s Early Gridlock

Posted by NYPIRG on September 20, 2021 at 9:56 am

New York’s redistricting commission unveiled its constitutionally required first drafts of new political boundaries for Congress, state Senate and state Assembly districts.  New York’s constitution sets September 15th as the deadline for the first sets of commission maps.  That release is to be followed by a series of public hearings to get input on the proposal.  After receiving that input, the commission develops a formal plan for submission to the Legislature for consideration in early 2022.

Redistricting follows the Census – the once-in-a-decade process for determining the population of the nation.  The U.S. Census Bureau then sends the finalized population data to the states so that they can adjust their political boundaries to reflect population changes within their localities over the past ten years.  In New York State, the overall population increased since the last census in 2010, but within the state some regions grew in population and others shrank.

The state’s redistricting commission is charged with developing plans to be presented to the Legislature for how New York’s Congressional and state legislative boundaries must change to ensure that districts have similar populations.

It’s a complicated process, made worse this year by the COVID pandemic and the bumbling of the Trump Administration.  As a result, the commission received its data months late, so only had one month to prepare draft maps for public consideration.

This year marks the first time that New York has relied on a redistricting commission to develop its plans.  In decades past, the maps were developed by a state legislative committee.  Supporters of the creation of this new system insisted that it would lead to an independent process.  Opponents argued it would not.

So far, the opponents are right.

The commission’s membership consists of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans picked by the legislative leaders.  Not surprisingly, that partisan make-up led to gridlock.  As a result, the commission released two sets of maps last week – one from Democrats and one from Republicans.

Of course.  The theory that an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on any board leads to what’s best for the public has long been debunked.  You need look no further than the much-maligned state Board of Elections to see that equal representation of the major parties often leads to gridlock, at best.

But when it comes to mapmaking, demography is destiny.

The multi-decade loss of population in upstate New York – particularly in the upstate areas between Buffalo and the Hudson Valley, continued since the last census.  As a result, those areas should expect to see legislative and congressional districts expanded geographically in order to add population.

Downstate and Hudson Valley areas should see districts shrink geographically, as those districts need to shed population.  Overall, the political representation should move toward the New York City metropolitan area, as it has in recent decades.

But how those district lines are drawn matters.  The Democratic plan appears to result in a reduction in Republican Congressional seats, for example.  According to one estimate, under the Democratic plan, the Republicans could lose as many as five representatives out of their total of eight now.  To some extent, that should be expected – New York voters have become increasingly Democratic, particularly during the Trump years.

And in this year’s redistricting, the stakes are incredibly high.  The House of Representatives certifies the presidential election results and historically it’s been a formality.  No one in modern times had ever expected a sitting President to back a coup attempt to overturn the election results.  Whether a House Republican Speaker would have stood up to that illegal attempt is unknown of course; it was a Democratic House Speaker and majority that rejected those efforts. 

In addition to shaping politics for the next decade, the lines drawn now – here as well as in states across the nation – may well determine which political party controls the House when it comes to acting on the Electoral College votes in 2024.  How lines are drawn this year could determine the course of American history.

Those stakes are staggeringly high.

At the end of the day, it will be up to New York’s Legislature and the governor to approve the final plan.  And with Democrats holding super majorities in both houses of the Legislature and control of the governor’s office, expect them to muscle through lines as they see fit. 

It didn’t have to be this way.  A truly independent redistricting commission would have drafted lines without partisan consideration.  But that didn’t happen, and we will soon see how this bipartisan system works out.

New York’s Porous Campaign Finance Law Under Scrutiny

Posted by NYPIRG on September 13, 2021 at 7:44 am

For many years, New York’s campaign finance laws have been mocked.  Appropriately so. 

From its sky-high campaign contribution “limits,” to its weak enforcement, to its “swiss cheese-like” disclosures, New York’s law has fostered a “pay-to-play” system coupled with near-total lack of accountability.  That system has contributed mightily to the scandals that have plagued state government.

Once again, that system has come under scrutiny.

Former Governor Cuomo left office last month with a massive campaign war chest.  According to the most recent reports, the former governor left with $18 million in campaign contributions.  The former governor had raised boatloads of money for an anticipated run for a fourth term.  He raised it the old-fashioned way – huge contributions that largely originated from special interests with business before the government.

Those contributions were not donated to the man, but to the candidate for governor.  What is to become of all that money now that he has left office? 

Under New York’s Election Law, there are general restrictions on how campaign contributions may be spent.  The law says that campaign “funds shall not be converted by any person to a personal use which is unrelated to a political campaign or the holding of a public office or party position.”

For many of us, it might come as a surprise that elected officials can use their contributions for any expenses outside of running for office.  After all, they are called campaign contributions for a reason.  Yet, state law allows campaign contributions to be used by a public official or political party chief for costs outside of running for office – as long as it’s not for purely personal reasons.  Using them to buy a yacht, for example, is verboten.

But it is a gray area.  There have been many instances in which an elected official used campaign contributions for things like a cover for their inground pool, the leasing of luxury cars, even a clown for a child’s birthday party.

The most egregious example, however, is when the campaign contributions are used to cover legal costs that are unrelated to a campaign.  The former Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader drained millions from their campaign accounts in failed attempts to fend of prosecutions for corruption.  Both were convicted and sent to federal prison.

And other statewide officials forced from office left with significant campaign accounts.  For example, former Governor Spitzer and former Attorney General Schneiderman were forced to resign.  In both of their cases, they offered refunds to campaign donors. 

The situation with former Governor Cuomo is different, largely due to the amount of the war chest and how the former governor is intending to use it.

Despite public statements that he has no intention of running for office, the former governor is paying for a press person from his campaign war chest.  Why?  It’s not clear, but certainly this is in part an attempt to respond to media inquiries about the criminal, civil and legislative investigations still plaguing the former governor.

So, the question is: Should a private individual who is not running for office use millions of dollars in campaign funds to pay for a personal press person to respond to media inquiries?  Is that why the donors sent their campaign contributions? 

Last week a coalition of reform groups filed a complaint with the state Board of Elections to act on the question.  Where is the line of what’s allowed and what’s not?  If the former governor can use his campaign funds to hire a press person, why not other personal staff?  A driver?  Or maybe even a butler?

It’s not likely that the State Board of Elections will act on this matter.  The law is more loophole than law, and elected officials have long viewed their campaign accounts as a personal cookie jar – an approach the Board of Elections has too often blessed.

That must change.  There are former elected officials that have held onto tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions they collected over the years in office and then used those monies to continue to exert influence over politics for years after their terms ended.  In contrast, California politicians are required to close their committees 60 days after losing an election or leaving office.

The California approach makes sense.  Once the days of campaigning are over, it should be time to close the campaign account.

It also makes sense that New York laws should be changed to ensure that campaign contributions are used narrowly to cover expenses for running for office, nothing else. 

It’s long since time for Albany to close this loophole.

Ida Collides with New York, Who Will Pay for the Cleanup?

Posted by NYPIRG on September 6, 2021 at 7:52 am

By the time Hurricane Ida hit the Northeast, it was downgraded to a tropical storm.  But its impacts on New York City, New Jersey and surrounding communities was devastating.  The damage to New York City was particularly bad: More than a half a foot of rain fell in just a few hours, overwhelming mass transit systems, inundating roadways, flooding basement apartments and resulting in the deaths of at least 45 people and leaving more than 150,000 without power across the region.

The scenes of waterfall-force rainwaters pouring into subways, of emergency teams rescuing people from the rooftops of cars and hundreds more from mass transit systems, underscored that our society is simply not prepared for the dramatic weather changes already triggered by the global warming crisis.

Governor Hochul has stated that New York needs to make long overdue infrastructure improvements to better handle flash floods and other problems related to a rapidly heating planet.  She is right.  But who should pay for those improvements?

While we need to rapidly wean the world off power generated by fossil fuels, the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change will continue to cause global warming and the resultant weather changes and more powerful storms.

The price tag for New York, the nation, and the world, to adapt its infrastructure for this new reality will be enormous.  The question for policymakers must be: Who should pay for the needed infrastructure changes?

President’s Biden’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan currently under consideration by both the US Senate and the House, relies on revenues from increasing the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%.  But should a corporate giant like Google pay an increase that is the same as Big Oil behemoth ExxonMobil?  After all, Exxon knew of the dangers resulting from the burning of fossil fuels as early as the 1970s, yet buried their own research and spent millions undermining climate science and making campaign contributions in order to block climate-science legislation.  Google didn’t do that.

No, ExxonMobil and the other big oil and gas companies should pay more.

There is an effort in the Congress to do just that and New York lawmakers are at the heart of the effort.  Representative Jamaal Bowman (NY) is spearheading the push to get the House to include a “Make Polluters Pay” provision in its budget plan to charge the big oil and gas companies an assessment of at least a half trillion dollars toward the nation’s costs of responding to climate changes.  His effort has been joined by a diverse coalition of other Representatives with support from Congressional firebrand Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, longtime liberal lion Jerrold Nadler, suburban moderate Tom Suozzi, and Congressional environmental leader Paul Tonko.  These members are leaders in a group of 40 members who are urging House Speaker Pelosi to make the climate polluters pay for the damages from climate change. 

On the Senate side, the effort is led by US Senator Van Hollen (MD) with support by Senator Sanders (VT) and Senators Markey and Warren (MA), among others.  The most important Senator in this effort will be New York’s Chuck Schumer, who plays the critical role as Majority Leader.  It will be his influence that will make the difference in whether a “Make Polluters Pay” provision ends up in Senate’s budget plan.

The Van Hollen/Bowman approach is modelled on the toxic waste site “Superfund” clean up laws.  It is expected that both plans will be considered during the House and Senate budget debates over the next couple of weeks.

As children we all learned early on that if we made a mess, we were responsible for cleaning it up.  As the nation faces trillions of dollars in infrastructure costs, the portion for the damages caused by climate change should be borne by those most responsible for the mess – Big Oil. 

New York’s US Senator Schumer will play an outsized role in determining whether that lesson learned will be applied to the biggest polluters in the history of the world.  Here’s hoping that Senator Schumer makes the climate polluters pay.

The Summer Days Are Waning, but Algal Blooms Are Growing

Posted by NYPIRG on August 30, 2021 at 9:57 am

The evidence is all around us:  Bigger and more deadly storms; once-in-a-1,000 years heat waves; much of Western North America in flames; and unprecedented flooding across the world.  There is no doubt that global warming is real.

The combination of hotter summers and strong storms is not only damaging; it also can cause serious health problems.

One example is the growing presence of toxic algal blooms in lake water.  Harmful algal blooms are more frequent and occurring earlier across New York and the nation.  They can pose a threat to recreation and can taint drinking water supplies.

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 to stay out of the water should there be evidence of one.

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.

The blooms are a blue-green slimy substance.  They often crop up in late summer and early fall, (although they have already started to show up in New York’s surface waters) when waters are warm and calm.  They also need nutrients to bloom, so they’ll often be observed after heavy storms.

The nutrients they 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 water ways.  These nutrients coupled with warm, calm water is the recipe for an algal bloom.

The heating planet also drives 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. 

Climate change will lead to more droughts, which make freshwater saltier.  This can cause marine algae to invade freshwater ecosystems.  In the southwestern and south central United States, toxic marine algae have been killing fish in freshwater lakes since 2000.

Algae need carbon dioxide to survive.  Higher levels of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels can lead to rapid growth of algae, especially toxic blue-green algae that can float to the surface of the water.

Unfortunately, the recent heat waves helped trigger some algal blooms that showed up in lakes and reservoirs across New York State.

As of today, there are 47 lakes confirmed to have algal blooms, including the drinking water supplies for some towns in upstate.  When the blooms are found in drinking water supplies, it can result in that system being unusable for human consumption.  For the past three years, for example, Onondaga County’s Skaneateles Lake had multiple toxic blooms during the summer months.  The toxins threatened the drinking water of not only local town and village residents, but also those in the city of Syracuse and surrounding areas.

Another example, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, is the 23 confirmed blooms of toxic algae on Cayuga Lake in July.  At that time, there was no threat to drinking water supplies, but swimming was limited.  Cayuga Lake, however, continues to be plagued by algal blooms. 

In other areas, surface waters have seen algal blooms, but public drinking water supplies were not under threat.  In Rensselaer County, for example, Glass Lake has had a confirmed algal bloom.  In New York City, Prospect Park Lake and Central Park Lake have both reported algal blooms.

To check out the New York lakes for which algal blooms are a concern, you can go to the DEC website, which has a harmful algal bloom notifications webpage that it updates regularly.  If you identify an algal bloom and want to report it, send a photo to the DEC.

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.

Failing to do so will drastically compound the looming catastrophe of what global warming is doing to the atmosphere.  Water is a precious resource and we must act to safeguard it.

Placing Limits on a New Governor

Posted by NYPIRG on August 23, 2021 at 11:11 am

This week, Governor Cuomo is expected to resign effective just before midnight Monday into Tuesday.  The current Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul will be sworn in as the state’s first woman governor.  Cuomo is leaving office under a cloud – a devastating report issued by the state’s Attorney General documented claims of sexual harassment and a “toxic” environment in the governor’s office. 

Governor Cuomo maintains his innocence, but nevertheless is resigning.  Without getting into too much detail, the AG’s report documented an out-of-control executive branch that was more interested in settling political scores than following standards of professionalism, and (in the case of the governor), state, and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Coincidentally, this week the state Senate Ethics Committee will be holding a hearing to examine the effectiveness of the state’s ethics laws and their enforcement.  The hearing had been planned in advance, so its timing as the new governor enters office is fortuitous.  Thus the Senate is to begin a long-overdue review of ethics laws and – in the context of the controversies that have driven Governor Cuomo from office – to develop a blueprint to ensure that professionalism and ethics are the standards for public servants in New York.

One important lesson from the current scandal is that New York’s executive is too powerful.  The state’s Constitution grants New York’s governor extraordinary powers and, in the hands of an extremely skilled politician, that power can overwhelm the checks and balances necessary to safeguard the state’s democracy.

Recent court decisions have granted New York’s governor powers not dreamed of by his predecessors.  As we’ve seen, using those powers a governor can install allies into key positions, including the agencies that have been established to watchdog governmental excesses.

A prime example has been the state’s ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which has been widely viewed as an extension of the governor’s office.  The first three executive directors all came from the governor’s staff (or when he was attorney general).  Both of the governor’s book deals – generating nearly $6 million in combined outside income for the governor – were approved by JCOPE staff without going to the full Commission. 

Under state law when the JCOPE Commissioners meet behind closed doors to discuss investigations, those deliberations are supposed to be secret.  Two Commissioners have come forward to say that the person who appointed them – the Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie – was called by the governor with a complaint about their comments in a private session.  That private meeting was to discuss whether the JCOPE should take action against the governor’s former aide Joseph Percoco for corruption.  Apparently, the governor didn’t like what those commissioners said.  How did he find out?  And was this the only time that secret Commission discussions were leaked to the governor in violation of state law?

Another entity that needs to be reformed is the state’s Inspector General.  The Inspector General was charged with investigating the JCOPE leak, but she said she could find no evidence of it – yet there was no interview of the governor or the Assembly Speaker – itself a scandal.

The list goes on, but it stems from an executive that simply has too much power.  American democracy is supposed to be based on a system of “check and balances” to ensure that no one branch of government dominates the others.

In New York, the separately elected state Attorney General and the state Comptroller are supposed to have the independence to act as a check.  But one of the first actions of newly elected Governor Cuomo in 2011 was to pull back the oversight powers of the Comptroller.  It could be argued that scandals have resulted.  It was the lack of oversight of state contracts awarded to an arm of the State University’s “Buffalo Billion” program that led to the corruption convictions of Joseph Percoco and another top aide to the governor.  Governor Cuomo was not charged in that scandal.

At the core of the governor’s immense powers is his constitutionally protected ability to drive policy decisions as part of the state budget.  The state Constitution has granted the executive the upper hand in budget negotiations.  This conflicts with the central tenet that there should be a balance in lawmaking, with the executive proposing plans and the Legislature considering and then approving them.  In our system, the Legislature is the primary policymaking body.

It has become clear, however, that the advantage granted to the executive in the budget process has given the governor the leverage to expand his control more broadly over governmental decision-making.  Keep in mind that the state’s budget – now topping $200 billion and the largest state budget in the nation – is the foremost action taken by the Legislature each year.

Legislation to change the Constitution is needed to better establish a system of “checks and balances” to limit the policymaking authority of the governor in his budget.  It is this system of checks and balances that keeps one branch from dominating policymaking.  It is that balance – coupled with the establishment of truly independent ethics watchdogs – that will ensure that the executive branch doesn’t lose its professional and ethical moorings in the future.

Let’s hope that this latest gubernatorial resignation will force New York State to establish balance between the branches.