Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

New York City Takes on the Oil Industry

Posted by NYPIRG on January 15, 2018 at 1:29 pm
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The fight to get public pension fund officials to pull out of investments in oil, gas, and coal companies hit a new level of intensity last week.  The City of New York announced that it was using its considerable financial clout to advance the fight over climate change by unveiling their plans to sell off $5 billion of the City’s pension investments in fossil fuel companies.  The rationale was that the companies – primarily oil – made business decisions that harmed the City – and the planet.

Most notably, the Mayor and City Comptroller identified the economic losses incurred by significant storms that have hit New York, particularly Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of downstate.

And while the action to pull investments out of oil, gas and coal companies is an important milestone in the worldwide campaign to weaken the power of oil companies, there was more to the City’s announcement.  At last week’s news conference, New York City Mayor deBlasio also said that the City will take five oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell—to court. New York City is seeking damages that the oil giants caused by directly contributing to climate change. The City is also accusing the companies of privately being aware of the effects burning fossil fuels has on the planet for years while denying them in public.

With the lawsuit, New York joins a growing number of cities, and the Attorney General of New York, to use the court system to help bring to justice the oil industry for its decades of deceptions about the dangers of burning fossil fuels – deceptions which have contributed to the extreme weather events impacting the world. This is an important option at a time when the Trump administration and the leadership in Congress are denying climate science exists, pulling out of global accords, and backing away from enforcing existing public health and environmental regulations.

The campaign to take the industry to court gained momentum last year after the Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria seriously damaged Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The legal challenges echo the successful campaigns of the states to take on the tobacco industry in the 1990s.  In that effort, legal challenges revealed not only the fact that the tobacco companies knew for decades that smoking caused lung cancer, it also brought to light the political, public relations and general skullduggery that the industry used to influence lawmakers and bamboozle the public.

It wasn’t until the legal challenges were concluded, in the late 1990s, that the public was finally granted real protections from the harms caused by tobacco products – a full 25 years after the U.S. Surgeon General first sounded the alarm about the linkage between tobacco use and cancer.

It has been well-reported that the oil industry has known since the 1970s that the burning of fossil fuels would result in global warming and changes to the planet’s climate.  It is also well-established that instead of alerting the world to those dangers, as any responsible human being would, they instead chose to launch sophisticated lobbying and public relations campaign to undermine that linkage.

Whether they did so in a way that triggers sanctions by the courts remains to be seen.  Reckless corporate behavior is not necessarily illegal.  However, the growing legal challenges underscore the importance of an independent justice system.

If it weren’t for the court system, we might all be sitting in bars that allowed smoking and young people might still be targeted by cartoon figures like Joe Camel.  You often hear complaints about litigation; that we are too litigious a society.

America’s, and New York’s, judicial systems are not perfect, but they are the only arenas in which the average American can take on the powerful; be it the tobacco industry, the oil companies, or even the President of the United States.  It may just take actions by the nation’s legal system to avert an environmental catastrophe.

Governor Cuomo’s 8th State of the State

Posted by NYPIRG on January 8, 2018 at 10:59 am
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As governors move through their tenure, the focus of their State of the State addresses change.  In the first few years, governors shape their addresses as part of a reform package.  As they are in office, and if they get re-elected, that tone changes.  More and more of the State of the State reflects the achievements of the Administration; after all, they are now the status quo and “reforms” imply failures.

Governor Cuomo delivered his eighth State of the State address last week.  As he gears up for his apparent re-election campaign, his address took a traditional approach – it focused on his achievements.  In his speech, which ran over an hour and a half, he unveiled his full policy agenda for the 2018 legislative session.

The address was organized around three themes – or as the governor called it a “three front war” – (1) discrimination and sexism, (2) challenges to the state’s health and safety, and (3) economic challenges that stem from actions in Washington.  Of the 90-plus minute speech, these three sections were covered in about an hour.

But they were not equally discussed – at least in terms of time.  The governor spent roughly 15-20 minutes on the first two themes and 30 on the threats emanating from the Trump Administration and the Congress.

Clearly, the governor was presenting himself as an opponent of the actions taken by Washington, in particular the President.  In a “blue” state like New York, a state in which the President is immensely unpopular, positioning himself as the President’s opponent is a political winner.

The proposals advanced by the governor were numerous and covered much of the policy “waterfront.”  He gave considerable attention on his women’s rights platform as well as criminal justice reform proposals like significantly reducing the use of cash bail.  His speech advanced broad policies in the areas of criminal justice reform, workforce development, protecting the environment, modernization of New York City’s mass transit system, and strengthening voting protections.

The governor referenced the state’s $4 billion budget deficit, but did little to discuss why the deficit has occurred and how he will close it.  In terms of corruption, a problem which has plagued the state for years, the governor said little.

Instead of addressing “home grown” problems in New York, the governor chose to characterize the threats facing the state as national, particularly resulting from the actions of the President and the Congress.  In particular, the governor said that he would launch a campaign to “repeal and replace” the tax changes approved in Washington last month.

Articulating the problems as national, not the result of state actions or inactions, allows the governor to sidestep the difficult – and possibly unpopular – actions he will have to take during the course of the legislative session.

Clearly, a budget deficit – estimates which range from $1.7 billion to as high as $7 billion – will result in service reductions or revenue increases, or both.  Reducing services or raising the cost to state residents is undeniably unpopular and it was not surprising that the governor spent little time articulating his solutions.  Those revelations will occur when the governor unveils his budget proposal next week.

And while it wasn’t surprising that the governor spent little time on corruption-fighting measures, after all some of his aides are implicated, it is a big issue that will not go away.

Reacting to the State of the State address, New York’s leading civic organizations called for action.  They cited the looming six upcoming corruption trials of high ranking former public officials that begin this month.

Each month of the session, a high profile corruption case will begin.  No matter the outcomes for the individuals involved, the trials will undoubtedly paint an unflattering picture of politics in New York.  These cases, plus the dozens of resignations and convictions of other public officials has resulted in New York repeatedly dubbed as one of, if not the most, corrupt states in the nation.

The groups urged the state’s leaders to approve a package of Restore Public Trust reforms that include strengthening independent oversight of the state’s system of awarding government contracts, new campaign contribution limits for those seeking government contracts, greater budget transparency, new limits on the outside income of public officials, and the creation of independent oversight entities.  New laws are only as good as they are enforced.

How well the governor and the state legislature address corruption should be a key measure for how voters evaluate candidates this coming November.


The 2018 State of the State

Posted by NYPIRG on January 2, 2018 at 8:55 am
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New York State’s constitution requires that “The governor shall communicate by message to the legislature at every session the condition of the state, and recommend such matters to it as he or she shall judge expedient.”  Since the early 20th Century, governors have delivered a State of the State speech in addition to delivering a written document.  Traditionally, the address was usually held on the first Wednesday of January and presented to an audience of state legislators, dignitaries and other guests.  However, for the last two years, the governor did not hold the State of the State on that date.  After a two-year hiatus, the governor is scheduled to issue his message on January 3rd, the kickoff of the 2018 legislative session.

Whenever the State of the State address is held, it is supposed to discuss the “condition of the state” and what the governor proposes to recommend.  This year, there are four big “shadows” that are being cast over the state and its budget.

“Shadow 1”:  The state budget deficit.  According to the state Comptroller, New York State is projected to face a $4 billion deficit in the next fiscal year.  The Comptroller also estimates that the current fiscal year (which ends on March 31, 2018) will be around $1.8 billion short.  Those estimates are somewhat at odds with what the Cuomo Administration’s budget people have been saying – they expect a balanced budget for this year and a shortfall next fiscal year.

Whoever is right, what is clear is that next fiscal year the state will be facing a significant budget deficit of its own making.  There will likely be a budget deficit in the billions of dollars.  That makes it even more daunting to initiate new spending programs, particularly when those shortfalls are the result of changes in the federal budget.  Which leads to the second “Shadow.”

“Shadow 2”:  The changes in federal tax policy will exacerbate the state’s budget deficit.  As mentioned, New York already faces a $4 billion deficit for the fiscal year that starts April 1st. Changes resulting from the deal struck between President Trump and the Congress will make that worse.  Undoubtedly, some New Yorkers will win and some will lose under the plan, but the immediate impact on the state’s finances will be negative.

The nation’s already enormous budget shortfall will be gargantuan once the new tax plan kicks in – it is estimated that the federal tax changes will increase the nation’s debt by $1.5 trillion over the next decade.  The resulting deficits will create enormous pressure to cut domestic programs, many of which benefit people in the state.  Under a 2010 law, the increased deficit could force automatic spending cuts to Medicare and other programs, many of which New York relies upon to help their poorest residents.

In addition, the deficit likely increase pressure on important health programs.  For example, it is estimated that a $1 billion hole could result if the federal government defunds a portion of the state’s Basic Health Plan, which provides low-cost health insurance to residents earning less than twice the federal poverty level. And, in March, the state will run out funds for Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), a joint state-federal healthcare program, if it is not renewed by Congress.  The state relies on $1 billion in federal CHIP funds to insure 330,000 children.

The question will be, will the state make up the difference?  And if so, that will add significant pressure to a state budget already straining under its own deficit.

“Shadow 3”:  The governor, the state Comptroller, the Attorney General and all state legislators are up for re-election this year.  How will elected officials crow about their successes if they have to cut deeply into popular programs?  Of course, they will do all they can to blame the President and the Congress —with considerable justification, as mentioned earlier.  But budget cuts usually leave voters in a surly mood – not one that incumbents like to face in an election year.

“Shadow 4”:  Corruption.  In each month for the first six months of 2018, there will be another corruption trial beginning.  It starts this month with a former top aide to the governor facing trial.  His associate and another close ally of the governor have already pleaded guilty and are cooperating with prosecutors.  In all of these cases the defendant is entitled to a presumption of innocence, and may all be ultimately vindicated.

But the spectacle of the trials and the revelations of Albany’s unseemly political behaviors will likely be distasteful to New Yorkers.  And this is an election year.

There will be lots of issues tackled this legislative session, some issues that are known and still that are unknown.  But those four “shadows” will float over and likely impact the session.  How the governor and state lawmakers react to them will likely set the stage for the November elections, which coincides with the mid-term elections for Congress and will be viewed as a referendum on the Trump administration.

It is important that New Yorkers demand more openness, honesty, and fairness of Albany’s political class as this tough session runs its course.  Hope springs eternal at the beginning of the New Year for more open, accountable and responsive government at all levels.

Ring in the New Year, But Without the Plastic Bags That Is

Posted by NYPIRG on December 25, 2017 at 9:00 am
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As the holiday shopping season hits its peak, not only are consumers buying lots of gifts, they are accumulating an incredible number of plastic bags.  Combined with the ongoing plastic bag use, New Yorkers gets an incredible number of plastic bags – almost always for one, and only one-time, use.  According to the Cuomo Administration, “residents use 23 billion plastic bags annually.  A significant number of these bags make their way into the environment causing litter and damaging wildlife, which can be seen within our waterways, along our streets and in our oceans and lakes.  Moreover, these bags do not biodegrade – they persist for years.”

The problem is not unique to New York; it is a global problem.  According to a recent report, experts estimate that over eight million tons of plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans each year, and that amount is likely to increase dramatically over the next decade unless nations act.

The amount of plastics waste found in the ocean is the equivalent of “five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.”  Experts estimate that by 2025, the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans would double, or the equivalent of 10 bags per foot of coastline.  The plastic that ends up in the ocean isn’t just unsightly and harmful to aquatic life, it ends up in the food chain, including shellfish, fish and even sea salt.

While the United States is not the world’s worst offender – that distinction goes to China – the U.S. generates an estimated 110,000 metric tons of marine debris a year.

The average American throws out 185 pounds of plastic every year.  Cutting plastic bag use can dramatically reduce waste.

In addition to the benefits to reducing the amount of garbage in the oceans, plastic bags aren’t biodegradable, and less than one percent of plastic bags are recycled.  Even when they are, it costs more to recycle a plastic bag than the cost of producing a new one.  One staff member from San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, commented, “There’s harsh economics behind bag recycling: It costs $4,000 to process and recycle one ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32.”

Earlier this year, Governor Cuomo approved legislation that retroactively overturned New York City’s then recently passed local law to address the proliferation of plastic bags as litter, ecological damage and as part of the City’s solid waste disposal burden.  The new state law also prohibited the City from passing a new law until January, 2018 at the earliest.  Oddly, other local laws around the state that banned plastic bags were not covered by the legislation.

In order to take some of the sting out of his approval of the state legislation overturning a local law, Governor Cuomo created the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force.  The Task Force was charged with developing a report and proposed legislation to address the detrimental impact of plastic bags on the state’s environment.  The Task Force has been meeting and it is expected that the governor will advance changes during the 2018 state legislative session.

It is hoped that the governor will advance a plan to drastically restrict, and in some cases ban, the use of plastic bags for retail purchases.

There is ample evidence that such a program could work.  California’s experience is most instructive for New York.  Like New York, California has a large, diverse population with large urban areas and a substantial coastline.  California’s law has been in force for over a year.

The California law has two major components: (1) a statewide ban on thin plastic bags (under 2.25 mils) that are the ones most often distributed by supermarkets (those with handles, not the ones used to wrap foodstuffs); and (2) a minimum 10-cent fee for paper & reusable bags (including thicker plastic bags).

California’s law has been a success.  As described by the Los Angeles Times, “Californians took in stride the sudden absence of some 13 billion bags that in previous years were handed out at grocery checkout counters and by other retailers of all sorts.”  Not only were consumers able to handle the change in their shopping experience, but there was a significant reduction in the amount of plastic bags found on California beaches.  Again according to the Times, “Plastic bags (both the banned and the legal variety) accounted for 3.1% of the litter collected from the state’s beaches during the 2017 Coastal Cleanup Day, down from to 7.4% in 2010.”

The result?  The Times calls it a success: “Shoppers did not revolt or launch recall campaigns against state lawmakers. Food still gets to people’s houses. Reusable bags did not spark an epidemic of food-borne illnesses, as some critics suggested they would. Consumers didn’t go broke paying 10 cents apiece for the thicker, reusable plastic bags stores are allowed to distribute instead.”

California’s experience shows that its law is a good model – consumers can easily adapt and plastic bag trash is slashed.  Let’s hope that with Governor Cuomo’s push, next holiday season will be just as cheerful – for New Yorkers and the environment.

New York’s “Tuition-Free” Scholarship Gets Its First Grade

Posted by NYPIRG on December 18, 2017 at 2:46 pm
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Last week, the New York State Assembly Higher Education committee held a public hearing to review the performance of the new Excelsior Scholarship program.  The Excelsior Scholarship was established in this year’s state budget and was rolled out with great fanfare by Governor Cuomo and Vermont’s U.S. Senator Sanders.

After other aid dollars are used up, the Excelsior Scholarship pays for 100% of the in-state, public college tuition for state residents whose families earn below a set annual income cap: $100,000 in 2017.  The scholarship only covers tuition; students bear the additional cost of fees, books, room and board, which can cost up to $14,000 annually.

To maintain the scholarship, Excelsior students must obtain 30 class credits in a year and at least 12 credits per semester at a state public college, either in the State University of New York (SUNY) or the City University of New York (CUNY).  The annual income eligibility cap will increase as the Excelsior program is phased in (to $110,000 in 2018, and $125,000 in 2019).

The Fall 2017 academic semester was the first time the scholarship was offered and the Assembly hearing focused on how well the rollout was conducted and how many students were benefitting.

Of particular concern was the late, compressed time frame that students had to apply for the scholarship.  The program was established as part of the state budget in April.  It wasn’t until June 7th that the application window for the scholarships even opened.  It closed 45 days later on Aug. 21st.  As a result, some students weren’t notified until mid-semester that they were eligible for an award, and many had still not seen the tuition deducted from their bills.

During the 45-day window this past summer, more than 95,000 students applied for a scholarship and 46,000 of them learned they would receive free tuition.  But not all of those received the new Excelsior Scholarship.  About 22,000 students ultimately were accepted into the Excelsior program, while another 23,000 who applied were deemed eligible for other tuition-assistance programs, such as the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), because their income fell below $80,000 a year.

That’s because the scholarship is a “last-dollar” award, meaning it applies only after all other forms of financial aid are taken into account.  For decades, the lowest-income students in New York have been able to receive free or discounted tuition through the state’s Tuition Assistance Program.

Interestingly, it’s been reported that the vast bulk of the Excelsior Scholarships went to students in SUNY; more than 17,000 went to students in SUNY and 4,700 were for CUNY.  In SUNY, about 12,000 students at four-year colleges and 5,300 at community colleges are receiving free tuition this fall as part of the Excelsior Scholarship program.

According to that report, the most Excelsior grants in SUNY went to1,576 students at the University at Buffalo; 1,044 at the University at Albany; and 940 at Binghamton University.  Those numbers are not surprising, since SUNY’s University Centers have the most students.  What is surprising is how few awards went to students in the City University system.  While there is a significant difference in the total number of undergraduates, SUNY has around twice as many full time students as compared to CUNY, it received more than three times as many Scholarships.

For example, it has been reported that Queens College in the City University with an undergraduate population of nearly 13,000 full-time students received 774 Excelsior Scholarships, while the State University College at Oswego, with a full-time undergraduate population of over 7,000 received 700.  Of course, since the Scholarships are based on income and academic schedule, there are likely to be big differences between SUNY and CUNY public colleges.  But that disparity is an interesting outcome of this first semester.

Neither the hiccups in the rollout nor the interesting differences between public college systems should undermine support for the program.  Starting up a new program will always have its difficulties.  What is most important is that policymakers learn from those experiences and act to improve this important program.

At the hearing, the Cuomo Administration testified that the plan for next academic year includes a much earlier recruitment period for the program.  What should also be provided is a detailed “report card” on the current year’s Scholarship awards.

In addition, the Administration could more formally release detailed campus-specific data and analyses on the demographics of Excelsior applicants, how many students were rejected from the scholarship, and the reasons applicants were denied.

Detailed information will help inform and drive the upcoming state budget debate in ways to improve the program and to maximize the benefits to college students.