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The 2019 Legislative Session Is in the Books

Posted by NYPIRG on June 24, 2019 at 9:05 am
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Last week, state lawmakers wrapped up the 2019 legislative session and it represented a big change from what New Yorkers have seen in the recent past.  Sweeping changes to the state’s law regulating home rental apartments, an impressive expansion in the state’s voting laws, decriminalization of marijuana possession, and other important issues were approved. 

And it wasn’t just a list of big policy changes, the sheer volume of lawmakers’ work showed a dramatic uptick in production.  For example, the number of bills that were approved by both houses jumped over 50 percent from last year and represented the highest total in well over a decade.

Why?  Having one political party dominating the state’s political establishment is the main reason.  Democrats have large majorities in both the state Senate and the state Assembly and coupled with a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, makes it much more likely that legislation can get done. 

One of the important issues that was addressed was global warming.

As part of the session, the governor and state lawmakers agreed on a bill that is considered one of the most ambitious in the fight against climate catastrophe.

The key provisions of the legislation are clear: electric power production must be carbon free by 2040, an 85% reduction in the emission of greenhouse gas pollution by 2050, with the other 15% offset by qualifying carbon offset projects, like forest restoration, preservation of carbon sinks, and more.

How will these goals be accomplished?  The legislation leaves the detailed decisions to a “climate action council.”  The council will consist of 22 members and they will have a couple of years to make the technical decisions on how New York will transition to a carbon-free economy. 

There is no denying that action is needed.  According to the world’s experts, unless actions are taken in the next decade, the world may face a catastrophic collapse in its environment that will lead to misery for billions of people.

The world’s experts agree that action needs to be taken to move to the world to an economy that does not rely on power from the burning of fossil fuels by the year 2050, or the most dire warnings of environmental catastrophes will come true.

The United States must play a leadership role in following the science and re-organizing the world’s economy based on the use of non-fossil fuel to one that relies on renewable, power – like solar, wind and geothermal sources.

And the U.S. has a moral obligation to lead as well. The United States is one of the world’s leading emitters of greenhouse gases – the stuff that is keeping the heat in the atmosphere and fueling global warming.  The U.S. is also the world’s leading economy, so its actions matter.

But the President refuses to “believe” in basic science and the result is gridlock on needed actions.  Thus, states like California and New York must lead.

If New York was a nation, it would be one of the largest economies in the world.  Combined with actions in California – with a state-based economy that is larger than New York’s – policies to begin the shift to renewable power would show the nation how it can achieve a carbon-free future.

That’s why the action last week was so important.  Approval of sweeping legislation to respond to the looming climate catastrophe is exactly the leadership needed.

But there are lots of questions.

In the past, New York’s political leadership have made promises of shifting the state’s power systems from fossil fuel-powered to renewable power.  Promises that sounded good at the time, but never came close to being achieved. 

Taking the steps to achieve the goals of this legislation is something that New Yorkers must closely monitor.  If they are to succeed, the changes that will be necessary under this legislation must have broad public support. The governor’s office must ensure that detailed annual public reports are issued documenting the progress being made, the legislature must hold public hearings to closely examine those reports, and the public must stay informed to ensure that the state’s leadership feels accountable for their actions – or inactions.

Changing the trajectory of the climate is an immense task – one state alone simply cannot make much of a dent in what is happening worldwide.  But change must start somewhere. If not us, who? If not now, when? By developing the policies to avert economic and environmental collapse, New York can show the nation what can be done and how the United States must lead the world.

Albany Gets Ready to Wrap up the 2019 Legislative Session

Posted by NYPIRG on June 17, 2019 at 7:43 am
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ALBANY GETS READY TO WRAP UP THE 2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

This week is the scheduled last week of the 2019 legislative session.  The session can be viewed as historic: Complete Democratic Party control of the state government has resulted in a slew of legislation passing, many of which had festered due to partisan gridlock – like narrowing the Limited Liability Company loophole that allowed real estate developers to make much bigger campaign contributions than other businesses – and others that could dramatically alter state policies – like permanent extension of rent control.

As lawmakers head for their scheduled exit, there are a number of issues that are still outstanding.  Issues like legalizing the use of marijuana, authorizing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in the United States, reducing the use of fossil fuels, authorizing an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution, and legalizing online sports betting, among other issues.

Historically, such a smorgasbord of issues can get wrapped up into one giant piece of legislation, known in the halls of the state Capitol as the “big ugly.”  Like the horse trading that is part of the grand finale of budget negotiations, lumping seemingly unrelated bills together into one giant bill is a frequent way in which Albany finalizes legislative deals.

Why?

The “big ugly” strategy works well in a capital in which the governor and the legislative leaders control the flow of legislation.  It is far more efficient to aggregate legislation and negotiate it all simultaneously, than to do each piece discreetly.  That approach also helps legislators to take “tough” votes – lawmakers can say that they had concerns about a particular issue, say marijuana legalization – but had to vote for a final agreement because of other, more popular, issues.

From the public’s perspective, it’s ugly.  Often issues get thrown into the mix that have not been publicly discussed – even among legislators.  As Newsday reported, former Gov. David Paterson said that horse trading sometimes resulted in passing bills that conflicted with established laws “but it’s so late in the session nobody knows.”

As of now, we do not know how – or when – the session will actually end, but if history is any guide, this week will be busy.  Looking at previous session, lawmakers usually pass more bills in the month of June than they do the previous five months.

While the package of end-of-session bills is unknown, what is known is that – like in all previous sessions – lawmakers and the governor have used the legislative session to rake in campaign contributions from lobbyists and their clients.  It appears that during this legislative session, the governor and state lawmakers held about 180 campaign fundraisers, usually within walking distance of the Capitol.

If an elected official is holding a campaign fundraiser in the capital, do you think they are expecting constituents to be there?  These events are designed to hit up Albany’s lobbying corps for campaign contributions.  And lobbyists are the same people asking for legislative favors.

In Albany, it’s perfectly legal to consider legislative favors during the day and then accept campaign contributions from those same people at night.

It’s legal here, but it doesn’t have to be.

Six states (Alaska, California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Tennessee) place unique campaign financing restrictions on lobbyists as a group, twelve other states (Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Wisconsin) limit lobbyists’ campaign giving during the legislative session.

The courts have weighed in on these types of restrictions.  In a case dealing with Tennessee’s restriction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit stated, “Any payment made by a lobbyist to a public official, whether a campaign contribution or simply a gift, calls into question the propriety of the relationship.”

When the governor and state lawmakers wrap up this session, ultimately the public will have to decide if it was productive.  But from elected officials’ perspective, the campaign contributions haul from lobbyists and their clients made it successful.

It is long past time for a change – one that limits this brazen practice and one that offers an alternative, a voluntary system of public financing.

A New Fight to Protect the Public’s Health

Posted by NYPIRG on June 10, 2019 at 9:05 am
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Last week, a blockbuster story ran in the New York Times: “Warning of ‘Pig Zero’: One Drugmaker’s Push to Sell More Antibiotics.”  The investigative report examined how the pharmaceutical industry is pushing the overuse and misuse of antibiotics on farm animals – in the case of the Times story, pigs.

Why should humans care?  Many of the antibiotics used on farm animals are ones that humans rely on too.  And the overuse of these antibiotics is fueling the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs.”

Farm animals get doused with antibiotics due to the dirty and stressful conditions in which they live. Those conditions help breed disease and raise the risk of infections.

Most people who hear that antibiotics are losing effectiveness think about doctors wrongly prescribing the drugs to humans.  Many physicians can and should make better decisions about antibiotic use in human health care.  However, in the United States, about two-thirds of the antibiotics that are considered important to human health actually are sold for food animal production.

Sick animals should be treated with antibiotics.  But often, as the Times reported, meat producers give the drugs to large numbers of animals that are not sick to prevent diseases commonly spurred by unsanitary, overcrowded, and stressful living conditions.  Compensating for industrial farming conditions is not an appropriate use of life-saving medicines.

Overusing antibiotics in any setting fuels the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. It’s no different on farms.  When animals receive regular doses of antibiotics it breeds resistant bacteria that can travel off farms via the meat itself, direct contact with animals, or through water and soil.  Those bacteria may find their way to people and infect them with illnesses that may not respond to available antibiotics.

The overuse of antibiotics has become such a worldwide problem that experts estimate that, unless something changes, deaths from antibiotics-resistant superbugs will exceed the number of cancer deaths.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20 percent of antibiotic-resistant infections originate on farms.  They get into the world’s food supply and put humans at risk.

The harm is becoming more and more apparent. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that currently at least 23,000 Americans die from drug-resistant infections each year, but researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine think it could be seven times as many—up to 162,000 deaths annually.

In November 2017, the World Health Organization called on meat producers to stop using medically important antibiotics for routine disease prevention and to reserve these medicines for sick animals.

The movement is getting help from some unlikely heroes not noted for responding to health concerns – major fast food chains.  After hearing from consumers, McDonald’s, Subway, KFC and more have committed to reduce antibiotic use throughout their meat supply chains.  Health advocates are now calling on Wendy’s, the third largest burger chain in the U.S., to phase routine antibiotic use out of its beef supply chain.

State lawmakers in California and Maryland have placed restrictions on antibiotic use in food-producing animals. Now it’s time for New York’s elected officials to heed the warnings from medical experts.

New York state lawmakers can help address this health crisis by supporting legislation to limit antibiotic use.  State Sen. Kavanagh (Manhattan) and Assemblywoman Romeo (Rochester) recently introduced legislation that would place appropriate limits on the use of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals at farms across New York State. 

Their legislation will prohibit the routine use of medically important antibiotics to prevent disease and reserve the drugs solely to treat sick animals or to control a verified disease outbreak.

The way meat is produced should not undermine modern medicine.  As lawmakers head toward the end of the legislative session, they should act to protect both New York’s rich agricultural tradition and the public’s health.

What’s in New York’s Drinking Water?

Posted by NYPIRG on June 3, 2019 at 7:21 am
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States in the northeast, including New York, are lucky to have access to an abundance of fresh water supplies. New York’s fresh water supplies were critical to the state’s earliest economic development – for example, access to the Great Lakes, the Hudson River, and the building of the Erie Canal. Since colonial times, those clean drinking water supplies helped make possible the rapid growth in the state’s population.

But due to emerging threats – primarily in the form of a rapidly heating planet and contamination resulting from an industrial legacy – that natural bounty is endangered.

For example, global warming has made the planet hotter. A hotter planet triggers the growth of algal blooms that can make freshwater toxic. In recent years, as temperatures soar, algal blooms are developing like never before and threaten the drinking water supplies of upstate communities that rely on surface water.

In addition, the careless handling and disposal of industrial chemicals has resulted in some drinking water supplies becoming unsafe for human consumption. For example, communities in and around the village of Hoosick Falls, Newburgh, and Long Island, have had to respond to drinking water contamination from the improper use and disposal of PFOA and PFOS.

What can New Yorkers do?

A new report from the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) answered that question when it documented the prevalence of emerging chemical contaminants detected in the state’s public drinking water supplies that serve some 16 million New Yorkers.

The most notable recent industrial threats have been the result of the unsafe handling of three specific emerging contaminants – PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane. But there are over 20 additional emerging contaminants that were reviewed in the report. Those additional contaminants are currently tested in local drinking water supplies under a mandate by the federal government. Communities with populations of 10,000 or more are required to conduct this testing. Smaller communities, unless otherwise required to test by federal regulators, (and those residents utilizing private wells) are exempt from testing for contamination in their drinking water supplies.

Those testing results are publicly available, but difficult to find. The report reviewed the federal information and analyzed the detection levels for the chemicals that were found in in the state’s public drinking water supplies.

The report found that 176 water systems detected one or more emerging contaminants, affecting nearly 16 million New Yorkers. (If you want to find more information on your community’s drinking water, NYPIRG provides a nifty tool on its website, nypirg.org/whatsinmywater.)

Specifically, the report found:

  1. 176 water systems detected one or more federally listed emerging contaminants, affecting nearly 16 million New Yorkers.
  2. The Long Island region has, by far, the most systems that detected emerging contaminants.
  3. Seven of the contaminants were detected at levels above EPA’s health guidance levels.
  4. 6.4 million New York State residents served by smaller public systems or private wells
    are consuming water that has not been tested for emerging contaminants.

In addition to identifying emerging contaminant detections in New York, the report offered a
roadmap to prevent drinking water contamination. New York State already has many tools at its
disposal to test statewide for emerging contaminants, regulate chemicals in drinking water, and
prevent contamination to begin with before it pollutes drinking water.

The report recommends:

  1. The New York State Department of Health immediately begin statewide testing of emerging contaminants that have already shown up in New York water systems for every public water system, regardless of size.
  2. That the state establish stringent drinking water standards for chemicals that may be unsafe for public health and that it require testing for private household wells.
  3. That the state create a single user-friendly statewide public database for drinking water information.
  4. And finally, that state and federal regulators adopt precautionary approaches to source water protection and chemicals by prohibiting use of chemicals until they can be proven safe.

The planet is heating up and an industrial legacy continues to threaten New York’s drinking water. It’s time to act to preserve the state’s water supplies for generations to come.