Last Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. For five decades, the world has marked Earth Day as a time to reflect on the state of the environment and to debate how best to improve the only habitat we have.
Marking the half-Century anniversary, this year’s Earth Day occurred during the coronavirus pandemic. The world’s attention has been focused on the terrible impact that COVID-19 has had – and is continuing to have – on the world’s population and economy.
But some were taking steps on the environment – unfortunately, the steps taken were backward. The Trump Administration has used its time in office to do all it can to erase whatever advances have been made to curb environmental degradation and, in particular, to slow the rate of global warming.
In recent weeks, while the nation was transfixed by the pandemic, the Trump Administration’s anti-environment actions picked up steam:
- the Administration announced weaker emission standards for cars. The Administration is in a legal battle with California over whether it can revoke the state’s longstanding power under federal law to require tougher auto standards.
- the Trump Administration suspended much of the EPA’s enforcement of environmental laws. Then it acted last month to advance a new rule to limit the science the EPA is allowed to consider in its day-to-day analytical work.
- the EPA is moving towards a rollback of coal power plant standards that limit the amounts of brain-damaging mercury and arsenic the plants release. The EPA is seeking to change how the costs and benefits of environmental rules are calculated, downplaying the savings from improved human health while elevating the costs to polluters to implement them.
- the Trump Administration weakened the Clean Water Rule to roll back clean water regulations limiting discharges from various industrial facilities, including power plants and petrochemical plants.
- the Administration weakened regulations issued under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) by providing regulatory relief and fee exceptions for a wide range of chemical manufacturers, including petrochemical manufacturers. TSCA is the main federal law regarding the safety of chemicals used in commerce.
- the EPA has allowed power plants to delay testing and reporting under federal Acid Rain and Cross-State Pollution programs, citing the impact of “travel, plant access, or other safety restrictions implemented to address the current COVID-19 national emergency.”
- the Department of Transportation has moved to finalize the weakening of some pipeline safety requirements, including creation of oil spill response plans and safety and reporting requirements for pipelines transporting hazardous liquids or carbon dioxide. Weakening those requirements increases the risk of spills from oil pipelines.
The rationale for these actions? The underpinning for many of these Trump Administration actions is its anti-science bias. However, these recent actions have a lot to do with 2020 potentially being the final year of the Trump Administration (unless re-elected this Fall). The Administration faces an artificial deadline set by the 1996 Congressional Review Act that allows a simple majority in Congress to easily reverse the Administration’s rollbacks in 2021, if the President is defeated in November.
But the law only applies to regulations that were passed in the final 60 days of the congressional calendar. The Trump administration is racing against the clock to limit the ability of a future Congress to undo his anti-environment regulatory actions. This means that this surge is just the beginning of actions that will be taken until the end of May. If the President is defeated, a new Democratic Administration could spend much of its first term slowly working to reverse the policies implemented by the Trump White House.
While the nation is understandably fixated on the enormity of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump Administration has been busy as bees rolling back protections for the environment and public health. The nation should be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. Instead, under the cloak of the virus, the quality of the nation’s environment is experiencing unprecedented destruction. This is the Trump Administration’s way of “celebrating” our one and only planet.
As the pandemic rages, the impact it is having on all aspects of our lives becomes clearer. Take for example, voting. We saw the stunning scenes in Wisconsin where partisan differences blocked a voting-by-mail reform that would have allowed Wisconsin residents to avoid the risk of contagion at polling sites.
Partisan differences – in which Republicans blocked a last minute move by the Democratic Governor to allow mail-in voting – put the health of a political party ahead of the health of voters. Moreover, as election day poll watchers dropped out of participation – to protect their own health – fewer polling sites could be opened. The result was that the nation was stunned to see long lines of voters in Democrat-heavy Milwaukee wearing face masks as they waited – for hours in some cases – to cast their ballots. In 2020 it shouldn’t take an act of courage to vote in the United States.
Just as the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China in December should have been a call to act to prepare the nation’s public health system, the debacle in Wisconsin should be a wakeup call that the pandemic poses a threat to American democracy.
Yet, as the nation has learned about the Trump Administration, those calls are being ignored. In fact, the President has taken to his twitter account to attack mail-in voting calling it corrupt – a charge that is a lie.
Mail-in voting is not new to America. Some states and localities have allowed mail-in voting now for years. Oregon, for example, put in place direct mail voting in 1998.
Five states currently conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. At least 21 other states have laws that allow certain smaller elections, such as school board contests, to be conducted by mail. For these elections, all registered voters receive a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off.
While mail-in voting means that every registered voter receives a ballot by mail, this does not preclude in-person voting opportunities on and/or before Election Day. For example, despite the fact that all registered voters in Colorado are mailed a ballot, voters can choose to cast a ballot at an in-person vote center during the early voting period or on Election Day (or drop off, or mail, their ballot back).
As a result of these experiments, it is clear that there are some advantages and disadvantages to mail in voting. For example, it is clear that there is an increase in voter convenience and satisfaction — Citizens can vote at home and take all the time they need to study the issues. Voters often express enthusiasm for mail-in voting elections. During the time of a pandemic, it’s likely that enthusiasm will surge as safety is added to ease of use. In addition to voter support, some reports indicate that because of its inherent convenience, voter participation increases.
Some disadvantages include the traditional benefits of in-person voting; the civic experience of voting with neighbors at a local school, church, or other polling place no longer exists. Vote counts can take longer and the U.S. Postal Service does not have a uniform efficiency for all communities.
But in a pandemic, voters would maximize their safety and still be able to act on their constitutional right to vote. After all, shouldn’t democracy seek to promote participation and protect public safety?
Here in New York, Governor Cuomo took a step to expand voting by mail. He has issued an Executive Order for the upcoming June primary that allows any voter to request an absentee ballot and mail it in.
The state Constitution allows for voting by absentee ballot when the voter has an excuse “because of illness or physical disability.” The governor’s Executive Order includes the possibility of getting exposed to COVID-19 within the definition of “illness” in order to allow primary voters to obtain an absentee ballot.
The governor’s order still relies on voters to request an absentee ballot, though. Voters can obtain an absentee ballot application online from the state Board of Elections.
The Executive Order, however, does not cover the fall general election. Legislation has been introduced to make permanent the governor’s interpretation of New York’s Constitution. Given the uncertainty of what things will look like in November, to protect the public’s health and safeguard democracy for all New Yorkers, let’s hope that legislative to do so gets approved before the end of the session.
Despite New York being at the epicenter of a growing pandemic, Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers were able to cobble together a budget for the fiscal year that started on April 1st, “cobbled together” because it was a budget assembled under unprecedented pressure and based on the understanding that many of its assumptions may be dashed by what happens over the next few months. In that way, it is a budget more written in the sand than etched in stone.
The $177 billion budget was approved during the growing public health threat posed by coronavirus. In fact, five legislators have tested positive. Yet, the Legislature amended its rules in a way that allowed them to approve a budget deal hammered out by the governor and legislative leaders in near total secrecy and by waiving the normal review period for legislation.
Essentially, the approved budget mirrors the one introduced by the governor in January. But in one major way it is different: The final budget reflects the massive budget deficit projected as a result of the coronavirus epidemic.
According to the governor’s office, the state is facing a deficit that is growing and could be $15 billion. Yet, the economy could change and new federal bailout monies could flow that may alter that difficult situation.
As a result, the new budget allows the state expanded authority to borrow to “paper” over financial shortfalls in the hope that federal monies will be made available.
In addition to the borrowing power, the governor got the Legislature to agree to grant him new powers, providing the governor near-total power over budget spending until the end of the fiscal year on March 31, 2021. Under the budget agreement, the governor can act on his own to cut spending if the state’s budget situation worsens, without waiting for the Legislature – a co-equal branch of government – to act.
The logic of the decision is more about expediency than anything else. The formal schedule has the Legislature meeting and acting on legislation through the beginning of June. Despite that schedule, there is a feeling that lawmakers will not return to do their work and, as such, the governor will need to act without them.
In seeking the new budget cutting powers, the governor repeatedly said that lawmakers will be loath to cut popular programs when they are up for re-election this year. If true, the Legislature’s abdication of their responsibilities is simply indefensible. They are paid to act on the public’s behalf; if they are afraid to do so, then they are not doing their jobs.
On the substance, the budget agreement achieved funding for a number of programs, the Legislature made some changes in the governor’s proposed cuts, and policy initiatives were approved. Here are some key budget items:
In the area of the environment, the governor and the Legislature agreed to put on the ballot this November a $3 billion “Restore Mother Nature” bond act designed to provide funding to offset the impacts of climate change – an idea worthy of support and desperately needed. The agreement does not create a new funding stream for the borrowing – such as making the oil companies who have undermined the science of global warming pick up the borrowing tab – thus New Yorkers will foot the bill unless lawmakers develop a new funding stream.
The new budget maintains funding for environmental programs contained in the Environmental Protection Fund. The agreement also permanently bans fracking in New York, provides an additional $500 million in clean water funding and bans polystyrene food packaging and packing peanuts, beginning January 1, 2022.
The budget agreement also prohibits the sale of flavored vapor products, the public display of tobacco products, electronic cigarettes, or vapor product advertisements near schools, and requires disclosure pf the ingredients in vape products. Unfortunately, it does nothing to restore the massive funding cuts approved in previous years in the state’s tobacco control program.
Despite significant budget shortfalls, the higher education budget largely avoided cuts to programs and the agreement rejected the governor’s plan to allow additional years of automatic tuition hikes at the State University and City University of New York.
Of course, this budget is built for changes – possibly dramatic changes. If the economy stabilizes and adequate federal support is delivered, few changes will be needed. Whether the Legislature completes its scheduled work for the 2020 session can also determine if other important issues, policies that are outside of the budget, are debated and acted upon.
We live in unpredictable times. But elected officials get paid to solve problems, to the best of their abilities. The legislative session is not over yet. Let’s hope actions are taken.