Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Should New Yorkers Have the Right to Repair Their Own Devices?

Posted by NYPIRG on May 17, 2021 at 9:03 am

We’ve all had some version of this happen: Your cellphone refuses to boot up.  You take it to your favorite repair shop, and they tell you that they can’t get the parts to fix it.  Your choices now are either to go to an authorized repair shop and pay a lot more to get your cellphone fixed or just bite the bullet and get a new one.

This problem is not unique to cellphones; almost every product has some digital core components these days.  Other devices can have problems, refrigerators go on the blink, washing machines go down, computers fail to perform, yet it’s nearly impossible to get a fix without going to the manufacturer.  Manufacturers have made it difficult to repair things, for instance by limiting availability of parts, by designing their products to make them difficult to fix, or by putting prohibitions on who gets to repair them.  It affects not only cars, kitchen devices and computers, but even hospital ventilators, which were critical for treating patients severely ill with COVID-19.

Why?  Electronics manufacturers increasingly design and build their products to force consumers to return to them or to authorized repair shops for service by refusing to share basic product information and access to replacement parts.  Some will void the warranty if Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts are not used or if the repair is done by an independent party—even if the repair caused no additional damage.

Generally, OEMs cite concerns over divulging proprietary information or the difficulty of formatting technical information for general usage.  Some companies go so far as to design products with sealants so internal repairs require cracking the outer casing, potentially damaging the device, and voiding the warranty in the process.  And of course, they make money by charging you for parts and repairs and getting you to upgrade instead of fixing your old device. 

In some cases, wait times for repairs as simple as a battery change are so long that customers will forgo a replacement and buy a new phone.  You will also pay more for manufacturer or authorized dealer servicing.  And remember they have an incentive to sell you something new, not fix your phone (unless it’s under warranty).

Manufacturers, on the other hand, argue that their products are repairable, and that they are protecting consumers’ safety, privacy, and security by restricting who does the repairs.  Apple, for example, has argued that they believe the safest and most reliable repair is one handled by a trained technician using genuine parts that have been properly engineered and rigorously tested.

Why does this problem exist and why are manufacturers able to limit independent repair of purchased products?  Doesn’t owning the device you paid for give you rights to fix it yourself or bring it to the repair shop of your choice?

That’s the issue the Federal Trade Commission recently examined.  In a report to Congress released last week, titled “Nixing the Fix,” the FTC detailed that manufacturers in the auto industry, and other industries, that are making repairs more difficult and expensive than necessary for independent shops.

The report found “there is scant evidence” to support manufacturer justifications for repair restrictions and stated that the FTC “stands ready to work with lawmakers, either at the state or federal level, to ensure that consumers have choices when they need to repair products that they purchase and own.”

If lawmakers in New York have their way, the FTC may soon be engaged in a legislative fight over enacting a “Right To Repair” law.  Senate Consumer Chair Kevin Thomas and Capital District Assemblywoman Pat Fahy have introduced legislation to force manufacturers to make their parts, tools, and technical information available to consumers and repair shops to keep devices from ending up in the scrap heap.  The New York legislation would allow independent repair shops to get diagnostic equipment and parts from OEMs so they can fix your digital equipment locally, quickly, and typically for significantly less money. 

Advocates argue that product makers’ rules restricting repairs interfere with the rights of consumers and businesses to use devices that they own and encourage a throwaway culture by making repairs too difficult.  If enacted, the legislation would grant consumers the right to repair their own electronic equipment—like smartphones, computers, and even farm equipment.

These advocates also argue that the underlying rationale for limiting consumers’ ability to fix their own products is that it’s part of a culture of planned obsolescence—the idea that products are designed to be short-lived to encourage people to buy more stuff.  In other words, if you buy something and it stops working, you toss it in the garbage and go out and buy something new.

It would be a lot cheaper and generate a lot less e-waste if people could repair their own devices, but that would cut into the profits of the big manufacturers.

The back-and-forth is what triggered the FTC investigation and its report.  With the FTC’s conclusions coming down on the side of right-to-repair supporters, there is new life in the New York legislation.

Slowing the March to Climate Catastrophe

Posted by NYPIRG on May 10, 2021 at 9:18 am

It is hard not to despair about the looming climate catastrophe caused by global warming.  The world keeps moving past warnings and climate milestones and the nation’s political processes seem incapable of taking the necessary aggressive actions.

The political, public relations, and economic might of the oil, coal, and gas industries has for decades undermined environmental laws and bamboozled the public about the dangers of a rapidly warming planet – dangers that they knew were real since the 1970s.  Today their influence may be diminished, but they are still incredibly powerful.

No one can re-write that history, so here we are.  The world must either shift to a non-fossil fuel-powered economy or the world as we know it will cease to exist. 

Last week, an important climate program of the United Nations issued a report on the threat posed by a greenhouse gas that gets scant attention in the public debate over climate change: methane.

Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas.  It is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil – particularly through the mining and transportation of fracked gas.  Methane emissions also result from livestock and other agricultural practices, land use and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills.

While climate change debates tend to focus on carbon dioxide, methane emissions have a more devastating impact on global warming.  That’s because the greenhouse gas is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet.  Methane absorbs more energy than carbon dioxide, thus keeping more heat trapped in the atmosphere – and its concentration in the atmosphere is increasing faster than at any time since record keeping began in the 1980s.  Methane is 80 times more powerful in trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period and has caused about 30% of global heating to date.

While methane forms a thicker “blanket” that heats the planet faster than carbon dioxide, the gas has a shorter “lifespan” in the atmosphere.  Methane today lasts about a decade, on average, while carbon dioxide lasts for centuries. 

Methane also is a key component of surface ozone – the air pollution that results from the combination of smog and heat – and thus also contributes to lung disease and other pulmonary problems.

Reducing methane is considered critical to keeping global warming from becoming a runaway climate catastrophe and saving lives in the short term by reducing surface ozone.

The United Nations report (Global Methane Assessment) issued last week examined that problem and the steps needed to slashing methane emissions.  The report found that methane emissions could be almost halved by 2030 using existing technology and at reasonable cost.  A significant proportion of the actions would be profitable, such as capturing methane gas leaks at fossil fuel sites.  Methane cuts also immediately reduce air pollution and would prevent many premature deaths and lost crops.

According to the report, using technology available today, the world could cut methane emissions from fossil fuels, agriculture and rotting waste by 45% within a decade and thus significantly impact on the amount of heat generated by greenhouse gases.  Moreover, reductions today will have immediate benefits – ozone levels will decrease and the heat from methane will be reduced relatively quickly.

The U.N. report lists a few recommendations, in addition to technical solutions, that can be used to guide policymakers.  Among the most interesting:

  • Oil, gas, and coal: the world must move away from fossil fuels and rely more on alternative energy sources.  It makes little sense, for example, to spend money on new infrastructure for the transportation of oil and gas when the world must ween off its reliance on those sources of power – sources which contribute mightily to the emission of methane gas.
  • Waste: through the improved treatment and disposal of solid waste, emissions can be reduced and as much as 60 per cent of the necessary measures have either no or low costs.
  • Agriculture also has some straightforward solutions.  Eating a healthy diet that, for many people, means cutting down on red meat consumption would reduce the number of livestock being produced for slaughter.  

While the topic may be depressing, the U.N. report shows that relatively low-cost actions taken in the near term can both save lives and take a bite out of the overall necessary reductions to keep the ongoing climate changes that we are all experiencing from spinning out-of-control and putting the health of the planet at risk.

New York Loses Clout in Washington, Upstate Loses Clout in Albany

Posted by NYPIRG on May 3, 2021 at 8:57 am

Under the U.S. Constitution, every 10 years since 1790 the nation conducts a census to determine the number of its inhabitants and then adjusts political boundaries according to demographic changes over the decade.  The state Legislature decides how to draw the maps for Congressional and state legislative districts, with the governor approving or vetoing the lines.

The first step in that process happens when the U.S. Census Bureau announces how many seats each state gets in Congress.  This process is called reapportionment and it determines how the 435 seats of the U.S. House of Representatives are given to each of the 50 states.  Each state gets a minimum of one seat then the remaining 385 seats are doled out based on population.

Last week, the U.S. Census reported its analysis of the population information it collected last year.  New York State lost a Congressional district, following nearly a century-long trend.  In 1933, New York was represented by 45 members of the House; in 2022 it will be down to 26. 

While it wasn’t news that the state was losing a seat – most expected that to be the case – what was surprising was just how close that loss was.

According to the Census Bureau, had New York counted just 89 more residents it would have kept its Congressional seat.  That’s right:  Had New York counted 89 additional inhabitants it would have made the difference.  New York’s loss was the state of Minnesota’s gain. 

New York did not lose population, it’s just that its anemic population growth was slower than the national increase.  Thus, New York lost a seat and some Congressional power.

The preliminary information provided by the Census was just the number of Congressional seats, with more detailed information to be released in late summer that will let lawmakers know how to change the political boundaries of the 26 Congressional districts, as well as those for the state Senate and state Assembly.

While it is impossible to know exactly what the Census will report, demographic estimates in recent years have shown a decline in population for the upstate areas west of the Hudson Valley and increases in population in New York City and the Hudson Valley all the way to Saratoga.

If those estimates hold true, it is likely that the loss of a Congressional seat will be felt upstate and that downstate will pick up more representation in the state Legislature.

What were the factors in New York’s Congressional loss?  There are three major theories as to what hurt New York’s census numbers:

First theory: the pandemic.  The census is conducted in spring and summer and the state was reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Thousands of New Yorkers lost their lives and many moved to new locations and may not have been counted.  Of course, the rest of the nation was impacted too, but COVID hammered New York first and may have made the 89-person difference.

Second theory: immigration.  New York’s population growth has long been fueled by the arrival of new immigrants.  The Trump Administration’s crackdown on the number of immigrants may have reduced the number of state inhabitants and thus cost New York its Congressional seat.

And third theory: the state’s support for the census.  The Cuomo Administration had pledged to spend tens of millions of dollars to support a massive effort to educate New Yorkers on the importance of getting counted in the census.  They did, but very late in the game. 

By the time the governor announced New York’s efforts, in late November of 2019, the state had only six months until the census was to begin.  Ironically, Minnesota had started its effort in 2015.  It got New York’s Congressional seat.  Would the state’s spending a little more money a little earlier have resulted in 89 more New Yorkers getting counted?  We’ll never know.

Whatever the reasons New York lost out, the state has lost a Congressional seat.  How mapmakers choose to draw the lines cannot be determined until the final census data is released later this year.  All indications are that New York’s upstate region is likely to see some reduction in its representation in Congress and diminished political power in Albany, as well. 

Earth Week 2021

Posted by NYPIRG on April 26, 2021 at 8:12 am

April 22nd was Earth Day.  For over five decades, the world has marked Earth Day as a time to reflect on the state of the environment and to debate how best to improve the only habitat we have.

This year’s Earth Day took place under the shadow of a worldwide pandemic that continues to rage.  Last year was the first year that the world began its struggle with COVID-19, but that struggle obscured the efforts of the Trump Administration to roll back environmental protections.

The Biden Administration has taken a very different tack.  Like its approach to the coronavirus pandemic, the Biden Administration has relied on science to drive its policymaking when it comes to the existential threat posed by climate change.

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.”

Relying on the science to drive its approach to combating global warming, last week the Biden Administration rolled out its plan – calling for the United States to cut by at least 50% its planet-warming emissions by the year 2030. 

That goal is in line with what the world’s experts have said is necessary to curb the worst impacts of global warming.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world would have to curb its carbon emissions by at least 49% by 2030 and then achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts from global warming.

For the United States to achieve the President’s goal, the nation would have to drastically reduce its reliance on oil, gas, and coal as fuel.  Instead, among other measures, it would have to ensure that

  • By 2030, half the country’s electricity would need to come from renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydropower, up from 20% today.
  • Electric power plants would have to cut their emissions sharply by 2030 and to net zero by 2035.  It will have to do so by relying on non-fossil fuel power.
  • Two-thirds of new cars would have to be battery-powered up from roughly 2% today.
  • All new buildings would be heated by electricity rather than natural gas.

The President’s emissions target requires action by the Congress.  The plan’s success hinges on the President’s proposal to spend trillions of dollars to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.

Of course, the Biden Plan is not relying on the federal government to act alone.  States like New York, California, Massachusetts, and others have aggressive goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  Like New York City, cities across the country are enacting stricter building codes and installing electric vehicle charging stations.  Large companies like General Motors and Google have made specific promises to shift to electric vehicles and cleaner energy.

For those leaders, the science behind the looming climate catastrophe has resulted in actions for change.

But like the Trump Administration, many Republican lawmakers – protective of (and too often beholden to) the fossil fuel industry – are doing all they can to undermine the science and throw roadblocks in front of efforts to deal with climate change.

It is clear from historical records that for the better half of the late 20th Century, oil companies funded industry and university collaborations, broadly in line with the developing public scientific approach.  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.”  The senior Exxon researcher went on to add that there was no doubt those levels would double by the middle of the 21st century.  He may well be right.

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.

Actions such as those advanced by the Biden Administration are based on science and responsive to the incredible challenges facing the nation and the world.  For the future of our planet, let’s hope that next Earth Day is celebrating a dramatic positive change in the health of the earth.

Lawmakers Return to Session, Big Issues Await

Posted by NYPIRG on April 19, 2021 at 9:57 am

New York lawmakers return this week after a break following passage of the state budget in early April.  There are several big issues to tackle, all of which will be debated under the shadow cast by the Assembly’s impeachment inquiry and the Attorney General’s investigation of the governor’s actions.

With a full plate of unfinished non-budget items and an ongoing investigation into the governor, some critically important issues may not get the scrutiny that they deserve before the Legislature wraps up this session, currently scheduled for the second week of June.  One such issue is how best to strengthen voting laws in New York.

New York State recently approved a significant number of measures to reform its elections system. These changes have had a positive impact, most notably by significantly closing the gap between the number of eligible voters and those who are registered. 

However, New York’s voter participation still lags.  While improving, voting rates are still lower than the national average.  In the 2020 general election, a low percentage of registered New Yorkers – 63.4 percent – voted, compared to the national average of 66.7 percent. 

Help could be on the way.  New York lawmakers have two constitutional amendments under consideration.  For the New York State Constitution to be amended, two successive legislatures must approve the measure and then the proposed amendment is put to the voters for final approval.

Both of the constitutional voting reforms have been approved once by both houses, and the state Senate has approved them a second time.  That means it’s up to the Assembly to approve these measures a second time before they can be put before state voters.

The amendments – if approved by the Assembly and then approved by voters this November – would change New York’s voting laws by (1) eliminating the requirement that voters need an excuse to obtain a mail-in absentee ballot; and (2) by allowing new voters to register and vote on election day.  These two measures would significantly improve New York’s voting laws.  The amendment to allow new voters to register and vote on Election Day has been a game changer in boosting voter participation in the states that allow the practice.

Of course, those measures can only be put to the voters for their approval if the Assembly acts

These measures would show the nation that some states are making it easier for eligible Americans to vote – to exercise their constitutional right.  New York can show the nation that voting in America can be conducted openly, easily, and legally. 

Acting to strengthen voting laws would stand in stark contrast to what is happening across the nation.  Throughout the United States, voting rights are under attack.  The recently enacted voter suppression law in Georgia is an obvious attempt to suppress the rights of Black and other minority voters.  And Georgia is not alone.  State legislatures across the country, using the false narrative of widespread fraud and a stolen election, are considering measures to restrict voter access and deny the will of voters.

Action by New York would not only boost state voting laws, but it would also help strengthen the hands of those advocating for similar measures at the national level.  

There is hope that Congress might act to create stronger minimum national voter protections.  Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress to create federal guidelines for voter processes to safeguard voting rights and foster voter participation.  Examples include modernizing elections systems, allowing same-day registrations, mandating early voting, implementing stricter guidelines for removing individuals from voter rolls, and much more.  If national guidelines are passed, they would override many of the anti-democratic voter policies currently in place or being considered in legislatures across the country – including the newly enacted voter suppression law in Georgia.  The House has approved its version of the legislation (H.R.1) and sent the bill to the Senate (S.1).

Opponents to S.1 and supporters of a rollback in voting rights, point to weaknesses in the voting laws in so-called “progressive” states as evidence of hypocrisy.  Thus, advocacy by S.1’s supporters – like New York Senator Schumer – can be undermined by the weak nature of their state’s voting laws.  Thus, strengthening New York’s laws also can bolster the national effort toward reform.