Archive for June 2016

Some Good News in from the 2016 Legislative Session

Posted by NYPIRG on June 27, 2016 at 8:14 am
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Not surprisingly, New York State’s political leadership has been crowing about the successes of the 2016 legislative session.  And there have been successes, as well as notable failures.  But in one key area, the governor and the legislature approved an important bill.  The bill requires that New York State schools will soon have to start testing for lead in drinking water.

Lead is a persistent and bio-accumulative toxic metal that is a threat to public health. When consumed, even low levels of lead can have a harmful impact on almost every system and organ in the human body. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water at zero, as any level of lead exposure can be detrimental to human health.  There is no safe level of lead exposure for children.

This highly toxic substance is a particular threat to children whose bodies absorb more lead than adults.  Even low levels of lead exposure in children have been linked to, among other symptoms: damage of the nervous system; lowered IQ; learning disabilities; behavior problems; slowed growth; hearing problems; anemia; and in extreme cases ingestion of lead by young children has been linked to seizures, coma and death.

Lead contamination of public school water supplies poses a serious threat to children.

As a result, some school districts have already been voluntarily testing for lead, and the findings have been disturbing:  nearly 100 schools in New York recently tested positive for lead in drinking water supplies.

The bill that was approved provides state aid for much of the cost of the testing and potential remediation. The New York State School Boards Association had raised concerns about the legislation, specifically that schools would not have adequate resources to pay for the tests.  The final version of the legislation expanded the state’s ability to offer aid to schools to cover most of the cost.

Of course, it was surprising that the issue ran into any opposition, school kids shouldn’t be exposed to poisons while attending classes.  As a result of this legislation, at least in terms of lead exposure, they will be protected.

Schools with their own wells are currently required to test drinking water, but not those on municipal systems. The problem is that even on municipal systems, lead can seep into water once the water leaves the plant and end up in the tap, usually from older plumbing systems that still contain lead.

There have been concerns that tests that result in too high levels of lead in schools’ drinking water supplies have been kept from parents and the public at large.  To ensure that does not happen, the bill requires schools to test for lead at the tap and inform parents and teachers of the results.  In addition, the state Health Department would have to release an annual report on its findings.

The bill would require the health and education departments to develop regulations for schools to test for lead, and the agencies would have to release its initial findings by year’s end.

New York State Senator Tom O’Mara from Central New York and Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo from Binghamton were the legislative champions of the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by the governor.  The governor’s office played an important role in pushing the final version of the bill.

Of course, there is no reason to stop with testing for lead alone.  There have been media reports of other contaminants identified in municipal water supplies, most notably in the recent reports about industrial wastes being found in the Hoosick Falls area in the upper Hudson Valley.

New York – unlike much of the rest of the nation – is blessed with an abundance of water supplies.  However, the water supplies are only useful to the public if it is clean.  The legacy of industrial pollution, coupled with an aging infrastructure, raises the specter of more widespread threats to the state’s water systems.

Testing is an important first step, but only that – a first step.  Testing requirements should be expanded and monies made available for needed cleanups.  The public’s health depends on it.

2016 Legislative Session Wraps Up; Gov, Lawmakers Whiff on Ethics Reforms

Posted by NYPIRG on June 20, 2016 at 7:00 am
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As the sun rose over the Capitol Saturday morning, state lawmakers put the finishing touches on the 2016 legislative session.  Like all other end of sessions, this one wrapped up with a flurry of activity.  Hundreds of bills were approved by both houses in a blur of legislative activities.

Pending the governor’s approval, New York State will have tougher anti-heroin laws, a new requirement to test for lead in schools’ water, alcohol sales at Sunday morning brunches will be allowed, and online daily fantasy sports will be permitted.  Legislative fights to allow ride-sharing companies like Uber, to expand outside New York City and greater access to medical marijuana, were shelved.

What made this legislative session different than any other was that the shock from the corruption convictions of the two legislative leaders earlier this year was still loudly reverberating.  When Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers were elected in November 2014, no one could have foreseen the looming changes.  At that time, Assembly Speaker Silver looked like a lock to become the longest-serving Speaker and Majority Leader Skelos had once again engineered a Republican majority in the state Senate.

Within months, those careers imploded and the issue of corruption moved to the policy front burner in Albany.  No one had seen anything like it – and the calls for stronger ethics laws became widespread.  The most recent polls showed that nearly 100 percent of New Yorkers thought that Albany had a serious ethics problem and wanted action.

Yet, both houses of the Legislature seemed intent on advancing their own proposals – plans that did not match and thus could never become law.  Only one person had the power to forge a deal – Governor Cuomo.

Unfortunately, after the budget passed, the governor remained strangely silent on the need for ethics reforms.  Had he used his bully pulpit in the months of April and May, he may have been able to galvanize public support for a comprehensive ethics package.  The governor has a pretty solid record of cajoling and arm twisting the Legislature when he wants to.  He chose not to.

Instead the governor waited until the last few weeks of session before advancing his reform plans.  He also chose to negotiate with the legislative leaders behind closed doors, a tactic that further deprived reforms of the necessary public support needed to succeed.

At 6:45 p.m. Friday night, the governor announced a deal had been hammered out.  The headline on his press release stated, “Governor Cuomo and Legislative Leaders Announce Agreement on 5 Point Ethics Reform Plan.”

It wasn’t until seven hours later, at 1:45 a.m., that the actual bills were made public.  Public for the handful of lobbyists and political junkies paying close attention early on a Saturday morning, that is.  A quick review made clear that the package was not about ethics reforms.  In fact, very little of the bill had anything to do with the recent corruption scandals or even public officials.

At the heart of the Silver and Skelos scandals were a network of limited liability companies – LLCs for short — that admitted to funneling $10 million in campaign contributions, with a cool $1 million to the governor himself.  Were there any reforms of LLCs?  Nope, instead the legislation targeted not-for-profits and charities – entities that played no role in either of the former legislative leaders’ scandals.

Was there any campaign finance reform?  Nothing meaningful on that topic either.  Instead, the agreement offered an innovative way to better regulate Independent Expenditure campaigns run by so-called “Super PACs.”  But Super PACs play a relatively minor role in New York’s campaign financing system – a role dwarfed by the LLCs.

And what did the package do about corruption?  The plan advanced the first passage of a constitutional amendment to strip corrupt public officials of their pensions.  In order for this to go into effect, a future legislature would have to approve it as well and then put it to the voters for their thumbs up. The quickest that could go into effect is January 1, 2018.

The plan contains reforms, for that there can be no doubt.  But it wasn’t ethics reform.  On that topic, Albany whiffed – in fact, it never even swung the bat.

Why then did the governor call it ethics reform?  It is really a way for Albany’s political elite to say they did something, when they did virtually nothing at all.  And through the power of repetition, they hope that the public won’t catch on.

Who knows, maybe it will work.  But the member of the public who may matter most is the U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.  He seems intent on digging into Albany’s political system, which Bharara has described as a “culture of corruption.”

If Albany ever cleans up its act it will come as the result of his efforts, unfortunately not from the works of the state’s elected officials

The Governor Takes His Eye Off the Ball

Posted by NYPIRG on June 13, 2016 at 8:16 am
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Governor Cuomo recently unveiled a new effort to rein in independent expenditure “Super PACs.”  Independent expenditure “Super PACs” have run amok nationwide in the wake of the now infamous US Supreme Court case, Citizens United.  These Super PACs allow individuals and interest groups to spend as much as they want to help elect candidates or political parties, as long as they do not coordinate with the candidate or the political party.

Unfortunately, Super PACs have figured out how to coordinate with their candidates – they hire former staffers of the candidate, they hire family members, they hire the same public relations consultants – yet proclaim their independence.  They are able to do so due to the lack of regulations that sets real limits on coordination.

The governor’s innovative approach defines independence and coordination in ways that try to ensure that these Super PACs behave independently.  And while the governor’s proposal could help stimulate a national debate over how best to tackle the political chaos from the activities of Super PACs, his plan ignores the most basic problem facing politics in New York – corruption by state public officials.

What is driving New Yorkers crazy about Albany is the years-long unending political crime wave that has gripped the Capitol.  And what has made matters worse is the apparent disinterest of state elected officials to develop new ways to deter political crimes.  Instead of dealing with corruption, the state’s governmental elite seems satisfied with proposals that create a “political shield” – ways to say they are doing something, but really doing nothing at all.

The most obvious example, and the issue Albany is most likely to tackle, is the proposal to allow the courts to yank away the pensions of corrupt elected officials.  Under New York State law, officials elected after 2011 can already have their pensions taken away if they are convicted of a corrupt act.  However, if an individual was elected prior to 2011, they can keep their pension even if they are convicted of corruption.  The most notable recent corrupt elected officials – the former Assembly Speaker and former Senate Majority Leader – have filed for their pensions even though they are facing time in prison.

There is little debate over the policy, but there is still debate over the details.  Yet, other than punishing the corrupt pol, what does this policy do?  Will it deter future corrupt pols?  I doubt it; after all if they are not deterred by prison time, why would they be deterred by loss of a pension?

Unfortunately, the pension-stripping measure will be trumpeted as a big reform when lawmakers wrap up the legislative session this week.  The governor’s plan to better regulate Super PACs is laudable, but it does little to deal with the corruption that plagues New York.  Super PACs play a minor role in New York: since the state’s campaign financing system allows huge contributions anyway, why bother creating one?

In this last week of session, the governor has taken his eye off the ball.  However innovative his plan, to advance it during the last weeks of the legislative session sucks up valuable advocacy time when he should be pushing lawmakers to act on proposals that will really address the corruption US Attorney Preet Bharara says he sees “everywhere” he looks.

The governor lost valuable advocacy time when he did virtually nothing to galvanize widespread public support for reform in the months of April and May.  For those two months, the governor did little to prepare for the debate in June.  Now, at the last minute, the governor is pushing for a reform that will have no significant impact of the problems that Albany faces.  And he’s failed to rally the public to support his proposals.

The governor should have used his time to push for proposals that would have curtailed outside jobs for public officials.  The scandals that ensnared the former heads of the Assembly and Senate were related to the work they were doing outside of their legislative jobs.  They were using their public offices for private gain.  New York should follow the Congressional model and reduce that temptation by limiting outside income.

The governor should also have been pushing for greater accountability and openness in state spending.  The former Speaker used a state slush fund to enrich himself.  The governor’s closest aide, and the Administration itself, are now under scrutiny by the US Attorney for how it allegedly doles out economic development opportunities to politically-connected campaign donors.

Lastly, the governor should have been pushing for the creation of an independent ethics watchdog.  The current watchdogs are captive agencies under the thumbs of the state’s political powers.  New Yorkers deserve independent ethics cops walking the beat.

But instead of addressing those reforms, the governor and the legislative leaders are engaged in ways to frame the solutions to Albany’s corruption that are disconnected to the problems and therefore will have little, or no, impact.  Voters should understand the game that is being played and hold the governor and state lawmakers to account if they fail to provide real solutions to the state’s unprecedented scandals.