Archive for March 2020
Posted by NYPIRG on March 30, 2020 at 8:24 am
Posted by NYPIRG on March 16, 2020 at 10:39 am
For those confronting it, a crisis hits first with the shock and then unfolds – hopefully – as a growing recognition of what has to be done to respond to that crisis. Earlier this month, Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature (like the rest of us) was presented with the shock of a growing pandemic.
Governor Cuomo, the head of the executive branch, moved
quickly to establish himself as New York’s pandemic “commander in chief.” He acted swiftly to respond to the crisis in
a clear and commanding manner that instilled confidence in New Yorkers and the
nation at large.
The Legislature has yet to figure out how to respond to
the shock of the crisis. It was able to
approve legislation that allowed the governor freedom to act, largely without
the Legislature. But one month into the
crisis the Legislature is just now trying to figure out how it can go about its
business during a pandemic.
In many ways, it is harder for the Legislature to
respond. Unlike the executive branch,
which has one elected leader, the Legislature is organized around the
majorities formed out of 63 state Senators and 150 state Assemblymembers. They are considered a co-equal branch of
government and their role is to be able to bring to state governmental decision-making
the feedback they get from their constituents.
They are the closest to the grassroots.
But their decision-making requires them to act collectively
in small groups and ultimately as legislative bodies, and act in public. They do so through committee deliberations
and votes by the entire house. No one
person makes the call.
During the legislative session hundreds of lobbyists and
constituents flock to the Capitol to make their case to state lawmakers,
charged with making the decisions on hundreds of pieces of legislation. Legislators spend much of their days in
face-to-face meetings with those pressing their budget and other legislative
That’s during normal times, but we no longer live in
normal times. With 213 state lawmakers,
hundreds of legislative staff and hundreds more lobbyists and constituents all
in one building, the recipe for contagion is obvious.
Meanwhile, a $178 billion state budget must be approved
and New York must take steps to deal with the crisis as well as the hundreds of
other issues that need to be addressed.
There are rumors that a budget deal will get done and
lawmakers will simply stop coming to Albany to do their work representing the
people of the state. While an
understandable concern, New Yorkers simply cannot be represented in democratic decision-making
if the people they vote to represent them don’t convene.
In what is likely the first time in New York’s history,
the Legislature must figure out a way to finalize a budget and act on other
pressing matters without convening itself in-person.
So what should happen?
Like all of us, they must establish a system that relies on technologies
to allow for remote legislative deliberations.
Luckily, examples exist.
In two states – Oregon
and Wisconsin – specific provisions allow
the remote or virtual meeting of the legislature if emergencies exist.
Oregon authorizes legislative participation in session by
electronic or other means in the event of an emergency. Wisconsin allows virtual meetings of the
legislature and legislative committees when an emergency (or imminent threat of
Of course acting deliberately and openly is not a
requirement of the legislature alone, but of the executive as well. It must operate openly, and not only follow
the letter but the spirit as well of the state’s open meetings and freedom of
While open and transparent government is fundamental to
democracy, it’s perhaps even more critically important during a crisis as the
public wants to know what its government is doing and how it is doing it. Rarely have the stakes seemed so high. New Yorkers are paying particularly keen
attention to what Albany does.
Actions must be taken.
And the legislature must continue to function even after the budget is
approved. It is scheduled to be in
session for two months after the budget is finally approved and there are many
issues that must be addressed.
Democracy needn’t be a
pandemic casualty. Thanks to widely
available technology, government can work even in these extraordinary times. Now more than ever, New Yorkers expect government
to address the problems that we all face while meeting its constitutional and
Posted by NYPIRG on March 9, 2020 at 7:18 am
The Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote, “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” As we all grapple with the pandemic known as coronavirus, it is important to know that many will heed Machiavelli’s advice and see an opportunity.
Last week a price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and
Russia that pushed the price of crude oil into its steepest single-day nosedive
since 1991. The oil companies operating
in the United States – the world’s largest producer of oil – immediately took a
The news of that financial shock hit while the nation was
reeling and still trying to absorb the reality of the mushrooming coronavirus pandemic. Few in the nation were paying close attention
to the oil war between the Saudis and the Russians, but the Trump
Administration and its fossil fuel allies saw an opportunity in the crisis.
The Trump Administration, which has as cozy a
relationship as any have had with the oil, gas and coal sectors, last week offered
a bail-out – a bail out to an industry that has made enormous profits while it
was lying to the American public about global warming, an industry that used
its public relations expertise to undermine and discredit the science of
climate change, an industry which has used its enormous wealth to push its
candidate into the White House and the leadership of the U.S. Senate.
Is the industry being asked by the Trump Administration
to pay for the mess that they have caused?
No. Instead, while the nation was
engulfed in the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, the Administration pushed to
protect Big Oil.
paying attention. Environmental groups and conservatives opposed to bailouts
pulled together to block the bailout plan.
But in the end, the oil companies got some help when the President directed
the U.S. Department of Energy to purchase crude oil for the Strategic Petroleum
Reserve in an effort to support the energy companies. No requirement that they help stop the world
careening toward a global warming catastrophe.
Here in New York, there is no love for the fossil fuel
industry. The Cuomo Administration has
blocked fracking and has committed to develop alternative,
non-fossil-fuel-powered energy sources.
But this week lawmakers return to a changed state Capitol,
the seat of state government trying to chart a path with a looming budget
deadline amidst a crisis the likes of which has not been seen since 1918. Adding to the tension: It was reported over
the weekend that at least two lawmakers have tested positive for the
coronavirus. As a result, the Capitol
was closed to the general public and closed discussions
began on how best to arrive at a budget agreement this week – two weeks before
the state deadline.
Given the circumstances, the speed is reasonable. A key strategy in minimizing the impact of
the coronavirus is to reduce meetings of lots of people – people who could
infect others. Wrapping up the budget
early minimizes the likelihood that public officials or their staff members who
might be positive for the virus will spread the contagion to others.
But debating a budget is the most important action state
government will take. And a closed,
secretive process increases the likelihood that those with the most hotwired
lobbyists will have their voices heard, not members of the general taxpaying
public. The shadows are where special
interest groups are often most effective, where their ability to leverage a
crisis is heightened.
We all agree that hammering out a state budget is hard in
the best of times and will be even more difficult during these trying
times. But it is incumbent on the
governor and state legislators to take additional steps to open up their discussions
to the public at large, for example, by offering daily public updates by the
leaders on the progress of negotiations, publishing with specificity the
differences in policy and spending choices among the leadership of the Senate,
the Assembly, and the Executive. And
ensuring that legislation is in its final form and reviewable by the public for
the constitutionally-required three days before final passage.
Not only would the public be informed, but it would limit
the ability of the well-heeled, powerful interests to undermine the public
interest. And maybe, just maybe, force
the oil companies to pay for the environmental damages that they have caused to
New York. When it comes to the public’s
interest, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
In the best of times, Albany’s budget-making is marked by
secrecy and policy horse trading. We do
not live in the best of times. During
this new challenge, Albany can show the nation not only how to aggressively
attack the coronavirus, but how to do so while improving its budget making.
Posted by NYPIRG on March 2, 2020 at 7:58 am
It’s hard to keep track of the
important news when living through what increasingly appears to be a
pandemic. Justifiably, public officials
are focusing attention on the emerging coronavirus public threat. That threat is certainly real, but the focus
obscures public attention on other important issues.
Just such an issue is the census and
that issue is beginning to heat up.
First, some background. The U.S. Constitution mandates that each
decade the nation counts its population and it has been doing so since 1790.
The U.S. census counts every resident in the United States. The goal of the 2020 Census is to count
everyone who lives in the United States as of April 1, 2020 (Census
Day). Census statistics are used to determine
the number of seats each state holds in the U.S. House of Representatives and
informs how billions of dollars in federal funds will be allocated by state,
local and federal lawmakers annually for the next 10 years. Beginning this week – March 12th –
households across the nation will be able to respond online, by phone or by
mail to questions posed by the census.
The census asks questions of people in homes and group living situations,
including how many people live or stay in each home, and the sex, age and race
of each person. The goal is to count
everyone once, only once, and in the right place – the place where they live as
of April 1st.
Federal funds, grants and support to
states, counties and communities are based on population totals and breakdowns
by sex, age, race and other factors. Community
benefits the most when the census counts everyone. When all respond to the
census, communities gets its share of the more than $675 billion per year in
federal funds spent on schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other vital
programs, and they get their fair share if the census is accurate and complete.
New York faces significant challenges
in achieving a complete count for the 2020 Census. In many parts of the
country, the self-response rate in the 2010 census was significantly higher
than in New York. Wisconsin had the most successful response rate with 85
percent, while New York was 45th in the nation with a 76 percent response
Given that New York is second only to
California in having the highest percentage of foreign-born residents (22
percent) in the country, confusion by these residents could lead to a
substantial undercount. Within New York,
the boroughs of New York City and the surrounding suburban counties have the
highest percentage of foreign-born residents.
Five upstate counties estimate that they have double-digit percentages
of foreign-born residents; Putnam, Tompkins, Dutchess, Orange, and Albany.
addition, colleges pose unique challenges.
There’s the challenge of simply informing students, a majority of whom
have never participated in the decennial census, about the detailed
questionnaire they will be receiving from the federal government and why it’s
important to fill it out.
spread of misinformation on social media, misconceptions on how students are
counted and propaganda campaigns that generate mistrust in government are also
barriers that could impact student participation. A controversial plan by the Trump
administration to add a question about citizenship status on the census
questionnaire, while ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, has
already made some students and immigrants distrust the government’s motives for
doing the count and will likely discourage participation.
make matters worse, scam artists can use it as an opportunity to con people out
of private information. They may pretend
to be from the census. We all know that
thieves are always looking for ways to steal personal info and then use it to
commit identity theft and other frauds.
order to protect yourself from a scam, remember that census takers must show a
photo ID with the U.S. Department of Commerce seal. Second, the Census Bureau will never ask for
your full Social Security number, bank account or credit card numbers, money or
donations, or anything on behalf of a political party.
all of that, however, answering the census really does matter – it matters
politically, economically and socially.
This week marks the beginning of that once-in-a-decade responsibility.
make sure we all get counted.
Last year, Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers
agreed on ambitious goals to show the nation how to attack the climate crisis
here in our own backyard. It is
well-established that the burning of oil, coal and gas has triggered global
warming that threatens our habitat.
Removing the atmospheric “blanket” created by
fossil fuel emissions requires humankind to drastically reduce its reliance on
oil, coal and gas for power. Instead the
world will have to rely on newer, non-carbon-based, sources of power – like
solar and wind – and prioritize energy efficiency and conservation.
The nation is well aware of this necessary
change, but the failures of the political leadership – most notably of late the
negligence of the anti-science policies of the Trump Administration – has
required American states to lead the way.
With much fanfare, last year New York set
some of the most ambitious goals for tackling the looming climate
catastrophe. In 2019, the legislature passed
the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The legislation established an ambitious plan
that mandates that, by the year 2040 100 percent of the state’s electricity be
generated non-fossil fuel power, and that 70 percent of electricity be
generated by renewable sources by 2030.
In addition, the new law requires that by
2050 the state must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent from 1990
levels and offset the remaining 15% by reforestation, carbon sequestration in
soils and other actions.
After the governor approved the legislation, New
York joined Maine, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, New Mexico, California, and
New Jersey, which have passed substantive clean energy policies in the past
year or so. (Hawaii has had its 100
percent renewables target in place since 2015.)
But the legislation offered little in the way
of details on how the state would achieve these laudable goals. Instead, the legislation established a panel,
a 22-member Climate Action Council, to develop the roadmap for action. The Council, composed of the heads of various
state agencies, along with members appointed by the governor, the Senate, and
the Assembly, will be holding its first meeting this week.
The first action the Council must take, and
it should be done right away, is to develop a baseline of where the state is at
currently in terms of renewable power and greenhouse gas emissions. It is critically important that the Council
set that benchmark and develop an easy-to-use, publicly accessible climate goal
dashboard to ensure accountability of the progress the state is making. If we don’t know where we are at now, we have
no way to determine whether we’re making progress in meeting these ambitious —
but absolutely necessary — goals.
The public must believe that progress is
being made and the state must make progress.
Waiting until the last minute ensures that New York won’t meet its
There is a history of the state’s
environmental rhetoric not meeting the environmental reality.
2004, then-Governor Pataki promised that the state would achieve 25% renewable
energy for electricity by 2013. That
goal was increased to 30% by 2015 under then-Governor Patterson. In 2009, Governor Paterson amended the goal to
obtain 45% of the state’s electricity by clean power and energy efficiency. In 2015, the state did not meet those
fact, since these goals were established, New York has added less than
5% of its power production from wind and solar sources.
In order to meet the new legislation’s goals, New York
must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2.7% each year to meet its 2030 goal, and
2.25% each year afterwards to meet the 2050 goal. Emission reductions must be accelerated across
all sectors, especially in transportation, which accounts for the largest share
of greenhouse gas emissions in New York.
If New York is going to meet its renewable energy goals,
solar and wind will need to increase by 6.5% annually until 2030, and 3%
annually afterwards to meet the 2040 goal.
But unless there is widespread public support for these
changes, the overhaul of the state’s energy sector will be much harder to
achieve. And the key to that success
hinges on the Climate Action Council taking its first steps – immediate
steps – to ensure accountability and transparency in tracking progress toward
its important goals. Failure to achieve
those goals could result in a more devastating future for the people of the
world. Among its first tasks the Council
should develop a dashboard so New Yorkers can monitor whether New York is
meeting its mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to
renewable energy. Everything is riding
on a successful effort.