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Big Tobacco Strikes Back

Posted by NYPIRG on January 27, 2020 at 9:13 am
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On January 11, 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General issued his first report on the dangers of smoking.  Based on more than 7,000 articles relating to smoking and disease then available in the medical literature, the Surgeon General’s report concluded that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer. 

The result was relatively mild; in 1966 the federal government required a health warning on cigarette packages and in 1970 it banned cigarette advertising in the broadcasting media.  The industry figured out how to circumvent these obstacles.  They started using cartoon characters, they offered candy-flavored tobacco products, they placed their products in popular movies, and advertised in magazines aimed at women, African Americans, and sports fans.  All with the goal of making cigarette smoking glamorous and to appeal to kids.  They knew that virtually all smokers started in their early teens; getting kids hooked was key to replacing the customers that were dying from tobacco diseases.

As the evidence began to pile up that exposure to tobacco smoke by non-smokers caused disease, public health advocates pushed for action to curb environmental tobacco smoke exposure.  In the late 1980s, New York State – considered a progressive state – enacted the first limited steps to ban smoking in certain work and public places.  Two decades later – and nearly 40 years after the first Surgeon General report – a more expansive workplace and public space tobacco use ban was enacted.

Why did it take so long for public policy to catch up to the science?  The political power of the tobacco lobby.  In New York for years the tobacco lobby hired lobbyists with close connections to governors and state lawmakers, funneled massive donations to friendly charities, showered public officials with gifts such as freebies to the U.S. Open, hard-to-get theater tickets, lots of free meals, and made big campaign contributions. 

The science was never the problem, the corruption of New York’s political system was.

It wasn’t until the politics changed that New York acted.  In a series of media investigations – led by the NY Times, it became clear that the tobacco industry had illegally – and legally – influenced Albany’s decision making.  Nearly all elected officials in New York were implicated.  It became an important act of political survival for elected officials to distance themselves from Big Tobacco.  Soon after the scandal was revealed they passed laws like banning smoking in public places and all workplaces – including bars.  They raised the cigarette tax to the highest in the nation.  They approved the first-in-the-nation requirement that cigarettes had to meet rigorous fire safety standards.

The state Democratic Party even swore to not accept campaign contributions from the tobacco industry.

And for a while it worked.  The tobacco industry’s power was dramatically weakened, and lives were saved.  According to the New York State Health Department, tens of thousands of New Yorkers were spared from tobacco-related diseases due to the pro-health actions taken.

But now, Big Tobacco is back.

While tobacco use dwindled, the industry identified a new way to sell their addictive products – electronic cigarettes.  The industry spent money to invest in the new nicotine delivery devices and we are now seeing the pay-offs – about one third of all high school students have illegally used an e-cig.  Use is growing dramatically, and so is the body count.

Governor Cuomo called for action to curtail the sale of flavored e-cigs.  One of the devilish ways the industry replaces the smokers who quit or die is to target young people.  In New York, the average age for beginning smokers is 13, despite laws banning sales to minors.  The e-cig industry took a page from Big Tobacco’s past and started selling vapes with candy flavors.  And it worked.

Governor Cuomo has advanced legislation that bans the sale of flavored e-cigs, but leaves in place the sale of flavored conventional tobacco products.  And opposition to even this approach is fierce in the Legislature.  The state Capitol has been flooded with tobacco and e-cig lobbyists all with the goal of protecting the Merchants of Death.

How these individuals sleep at night is beyond me.  These products serve no public purpose, they are designed to addict, harm health, cause early, painful deaths for many users and target children.

How our elected officials listen to the pleas of these death merchants and their paid mouthpieces is something that voters should know about.  Because voter anger at putting the wealth of Big Tobacco ahead of the health of children is not only despicable, but politically dangerous.

This is an election year.  Let’s see if New York – the supposed progressive capital of the nation – protects kids and bans flavored vapes and tobacco.  It’s time to put Count Dracula back in his grave.

Questions About the Governor’s Proposed Environmental Bond Act

Posted by NYPIRG on January 20, 2020 at 8:11 am
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The centerpiece of Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address was the call for voters to approve an environmental bond act.  Dubbed the “Restore Mother Nature Bond Act,” the governor’s plan proposes that the state borrow $3 billion to address serious environmental problems tied to global warming.

Under New York’s Constitution, the state can only undertake direct borrowing if the question is put to the voters for approval.  Thus, the governor’s proposal would have to be first approved by lawmakers this legislative session and then placed on the ballot for voter approval this November.

The governor’s plan, details of which are expected to be released in this week’s budget address, would address environmental problems such as restoring wetlands, fighting algal blooms, repairing dams, restoring footpaths in the state parks, increasing the use of electric vehicles and expanding recycling programs. These are areas that are sorely in need of additional funding.  If the Bond Act is done right, the $3 billion in funding can go a long way toward improving New York’s environment.

There are two big questions that New Yorkers should expect to have answered before any Bond Act should be approved.

Question #1:  How will the money be spent?

Bond Act proposals rarely are detailed in how they will spend the money.  Usually accompanying a Bond Act plan is an agreement – in law or a legislative understanding with the governor – that offers a list of programs that would qualify for funding.  But sometimes, the projects turn out to be the result of deal making and have little to do with the purported goal of the Bond Act. 

In order to ensure that Bond Act spending goes towards the most critical environmental needs, plans for spending should be approved in a transparent manner and should rely on objective, independent, scientific criteria based on the climate crisis needs of the state, not simply because it is a pet project of some powerful elected official or special interest.

When it comes to New York managing big pots of money, we have seen bad outcomes in the past.  When the state received billions of dollars resulting from litigation with tobacco companies, some local governments spent the money on purchasing golf carts – not efforts to curb smoking.  That should not be allowed to happen with the Bond Act.

Question #2: Who will pay?

A Bond Act is a way for the state to borrow a large amount of money to meet pressing needs.  The borrowed money should be used for projects that are expected to last at least the lifetime of the borrowing – usually 30 years.  Thus, spending makes sense for state projects that would protect water supplies.  However, it shouldn’t be used in ways that enrich real estate developers, for example, at the expense of the natural environment.

No matter what, the Bond Act will have to be paid back.

Right now, the assumption is that all New Yorkers will pay the Bond Act back.  But why should they?  After all, the looming climate catastrophe that created the need to borrow in the first place is the result of the corruption of American politics by oil, coal and gas interests.

Big oil companies have known since the 1970s of the problems associated with the burning of fossil fuels.  They knew it would heat up the planet and cause dire change in the environment.  They accurately predicted the timetable in which those changes would occur.

But instead of being responsible, they used their considerable clout to lie about the evidence to the public, undermine the science, hire consultants and lobbyists to derail pro-health and environment reforms, and shower campaign contributions on those candidates who would do their bidding. 

And they were so successful that the world is on the precipice of global environmental catastrophe.  It was their deliberate campaign to corrupt our democracy.  Why should we get stuck with the tab?

The governor and state lawmakers must adhere to the principle that the polluter is responsible for the mess they created.  Governor Mario Cuomo stuck to that principle with the Environmental Bond Act of 1986, which relied heavily on polluters to pay for the hazardous waste cleanups that were the target of that effort.  That formulation was so successful that the 1986 Bond Act was overwhelmingly approved by voters.  New Yorkers should hope the same is true in 2020:  that it will be the oil, gas and coal interests that are on the hook to pay for the mess that they made.

How those two questions are answered should guide voters on how to vote this November.

The State of New York State

Posted by NYPIRG on January 13, 2020 at 8:07 am
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In many ways, Governor Cuomo’s 2020 State of the State address last week was like many that have preceded it.  In modern times, the state of the State address mimics the pomp of the national State of the Union address: lots of rhetorical flourishes, calls for actions on important issues, with little in the way of real details. 

When governors first get elected, their State of the State addresses are forward looking and reformist.  Particularly if they are replacing a predecessor from a different political party or one tarred with scandal, new governors tend to offer what they characterize as a “bold, new” approach to the issues facing the state while also bashing the previous officeholder.

As governors remain in office the State of the State becomes more and more about the Administration’s successes and less and less about specific reforms.  The long-serving governor has become the status quo and reforms imply his/her own policy failures.

Governor Cuomo’s 2020 address spent much of its time on successes, much of which he can rightfully claim, ideas for the various regions of the state and some ideas to grapple with problems. 

He contrasted the successes of New York with the gridlock, partisan sniping, and – frankly – the “circus” of noise that emanates from the national government.  His nearly 80-minute address spent most of the time on his achievements and how New York under his leadership contrasts with Washington.  It wasn’t until the first hour of speech was over that he raised the looming projected $6 billion deficit facing the state.

While admitting that the problem existed, the governor spent little time discussing how it would be addressed.  State of the State addresses are generally “good news” presentations; the “bad news” is found in the budget, usually a couple of weeks later.  This year looks to be no different.

The governor spent considerable time on a growing public safety threat from domestic terrorists, particularly those involved in hate crimes.

Many of the governor’s new ideas touched on important issues.  Here are a few of the issues mentioned in his speech and included in his 317-page briefing book:

  1. The governor is proposing a $3 billion environmental bond act.  Calling his proposal the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, the plan — which would need the approval of voters this November – would fund natural restoration and resiliency programs across the state.  The governor proposes to use the money to restore habitats for fish and wildlife, fight invasive species, protect against flooding, boost fish production at fisheries and double the state’s artificial reef in the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound.
  2. He called for support to allow for the legal sale of marijuana without a prescription in New York.  If approved the Administration believes that it would raise $300 million when fully implemented.
  3. He proposed that lawmakers approve a plan to require that all elected officials making over $100,000 publicly disclose their tax returns.
  4. He called for various tax cuts for small businesses and middle-income individuals.  How these are paid for with a multi-billion-dollar deficit remains to be seen.
  5. Lastly, he vowed to fight for greater equity in state funding for K-12 schools.  How that will be funded in the context of a budget deficit is unknown.

The governor also called for action to “prevent the blocking, throttling and paid prioritization of online content — practices that undermine a free and open internet.”  He called for an expansion of the state’s college financial aid program, known as the Excelsior Scholarship, to families with incomes up to $150,000.  He called for tools to better regulate robocalls and “predatory” debt collectors.  He called for greater voting protections.

A big issue left out of the governor’s speech and briefing book was how to overhaul New York’s much-maligned ethics oversight entity.

But the big issue for 2020 remains:  How will the state balance its fiscal books and eliminate a significant shortfall?  This being an election year, how that question gets answered may well best tell New Yorkers the state of their state.

The 2020 Legislative Session

Posted by NYPIRG on January 6, 2020 at 8:31 am
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The 2020 legislative session gets underway this week with the governor’s “State of the State” address.  The big issue casting a shadow over the session will be the state’s looming budget deficit.  The budget shortfall has been projected to exceed $6 billion and how it gets addressed will drive the policies for the budget and, most likely, the remainder of the session.

Reining in health care in the state’s $175 billion spending budget will be a top issue for the session.  The governor has already pledged to reduce the state’s reimbursement for most Medicaid payments to health-care providers by 1 percent, which should save hundreds of millions of dollars.

But that move alone will not solve the problem and how to make health-care delivery more efficient will likely be a top action item at the Capitol.  A recent report showed that New York’s hospitals perform poorly when it comes to delivering top notch health care; experts note that good health care is less expensive, since patients who are cared for properly are less likely to need additional costly medical attention.

Other health care topics like reducing the use of electronic cigarettes (and tobacco products too), limiting the cost of prescription drugs, and determining whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana will likely get thrown into the mix.  Legalizing pot sales could result in increased tax revenues for the state, as could a hike in taxes on vaping and tobacco products.  But there likely are start-up costs for pot legalization, meaning state coffers might not benefit in the next fiscal year.

Other revenue increases will matter too, since the governor and lawmakers will not close the deficit with cuts alone – particularly in an election year.  There will be a plan to raise the personal income tax rates, which is supported by the Assembly Speaker, but has been coolly received by the governor and the Senate Majority Leader. 

Closing wasteful corporate tax loopholes, particularly for the oil, gas and coal industries, could emerge as other revenue sources.  Those big polluters are responsible for the growing climate crisis and should pay for dealing with it.  They are also among the state’s biggest polluters of water supplies and plans to ensure that drinking water is protected will be a top issue, too.

Beyond the budget debate other issues that were not addressed last year could emerge again.

On the last day of the 2019 session, a plan to automatically register to vote eligible New Yorkers who interact with government agencies collapsed on technicalities.  Both houses said they would move on a new plan in early 2020. 

Last November was the first year that New York allowed early voting.  Expect action on ways to improve on that experience for the 2020 elections.

The state’s campaign finance reform commission issued its plan in December.  The new law has been roundly criticized as inadequate, so it’s expected there will be debate on plans to improve it.  The state’s ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, has been wracked by controversies and calls for its elimination.  There will likely be legislative action in that area too.

The costs of higher education will also be in the spotlight.  The Cuomo Administration has been the architect of annual public college tuition hikes and has essentially frozen financial aid programs – with the notable exception being the Excelsior Scholarship, which benefits a small percentage of college students.  With national Democrats calling for massive changes in the way that higher education is funded, it is likely that state Democrats will want to be in sync with the national agenda.  The state Senate has held hearings to set the stage for that.

Lastly, it is expected that there will be a debate over the specifics of a multi-billion-dollar transportation package to decide spending on various roads and public transportation projects.

Keep in mind that in Albany, it takes three to tango:  The Senate, Assembly and governor all must be on the same page for the budget and legislative proposals to become law.  And this year state government will be acting on a compressed timetable in a pivotal state and federal election year.  For the first time in decades, the Legislature is planning to wrap up its work by early June.  The reason is last year lawmakers moved up the state’s election primary date from mid-September to the end of June (the 23rd).  As a result, lawmakers are going to want to hit the campaign trail and to do so they want to be freed up from responsibilities in the state capital.

Of course, no one really knows how this will all play out.  But given the stakes, all New Yorkers should pay keen attention to the state Capitol.