Archive for January 2020
Posted by NYPIRG on January 27, 2020 at 9:13 am
Posted by NYPIRG on January 20, 2020 at 8:11 am
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
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
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
But now, Big Tobacco is
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.
Posted by NYPIRG on January 13, 2020 at 8:07 am
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
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
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
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
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.
Posted by NYPIRG on January 6, 2020 at 8:31 am
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
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- He proposed that lawmakers
approve a plan to require that all elected officials making over $100,000
publicly disclose their tax returns.
- 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.
- 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
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 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
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.