Archive for August 2020

NY’s Budget Woes Are Coming to a Head

Posted by NYPIRG on August 31, 2020 at 8:05 am

With the Congressional stimulus negotiations seemingly at a stalemate, the financial health of New York is looking more and more grim.  Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released a report earlier this month that calculated that the state had collected $3 billion less during the April-July first quarter than last year.  But last week, his message got darker.

According to the Comptroller, the state should expect a further decrease in revenues of $1 billion, with the total budget gap projected to be $14.5 billion.  He said that budget gaps will total over $60 billion for the next four years.

Let me repeat:  $14.5 billion this year, with a total accumulated budget hole of more than $60 billion over the next four years.

Those catastrophic budget numbers reflect a state economy that has cratered since the COVID-19 pandemic began.  It reflects real pain; hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs, countless businesses have faltered or are on the brink, and unemployment has risen to levels unseen since the Great Depression.

New York’s political leadership has been holding onto the hope that the Congress would approve another stimulus package that would reduce the state’s financial pain.  Those negotiations continue, but it is increasingly clear that whatever benefits result, the state will still face massive financial problems.

In addition to the state’s problems, local governments are hurting too.  The City of New York, for example, is facing a $9.6 billion revenue loss over the next two years.  The sprawling Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) – which runs the down state mass transit systems – announced last week its “doomsday” scenario. 

The MTA is facing a $16.2 billion deficit through 2024.  Under the MTA’s ‘doomsday’ plan, subway and bus service would be slashed by 40 percent. The budget cuts would also affect long-awaited improvements.

With such massive deficits in every corner of the state, even if a federal stimulus is approved, service cuts to programs like education and health care as well as revenue increases will dominate the debate in Albany.  What has become crystal clear is that at a time of pressing needs Albany cannot cut services by more than $60 billion; revenues must be raised.  But how?

A new coalition headed by former New York Governor David Paterson weighed in on that question saying that taxes on the wealthy must not be raised.  Paterson – who has been a lobbyist for casino developer Sheldon Adelson – announced the formation of the coalition to fight taxes on the wealthy.  Within days a number of the groups dropped out saying that they were misled about the intent of the effort.  In fact, some stated that they supported raising taxes.

And also last week, New York State Assemblymember Phil Steck convened a forum on raising taxes.  The panel, which included Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, focused on reviving a specific revenue idea.  For over a Century, New York State has collected a small tax on the buying and selling of stocks.  Since the early 1980s, instead of keeping the revenues, the state has rebated the money collected under the Stock Transfer Tax law back to Wall Street investors.  The amount that the state collects – and then rebates – varies by year between $5 billion and $16 billion annually.

According to the panel, that tax should not only be collected, but expanded to cover other forms of financial activities.  Their argument was that the tax would really only be paid by Wall Street speculators, the vast majority of investors don’t trade stocks frequently and thus would not notice the tax.  In fact, they don’t really notice the tax now since it is collected (and then rebated).  Moreover, the experts argued that the size of the tax – 0.25% or one quarter of a penny per trade – was so small that it would have no meaningful impact on the industry.

But it would raise billions for a state in desperate need of revenues.

Ultimately, Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers will face a serious choice – to cut services and raise revenues from middle- and low-income families and essential workers, or make the wealthy pay more.  Most New Yorkers know what should be done, let’s see what the political leadership decides to do.  Their decision will dramatically affect the quality of life for most New Yorkers.

Voting in NY Should Be Easier This November

Posted by NYPIRG on August 24, 2020 at 9:19 am

New York has a long and deserved reputation for having one of the most dysfunctional elections systems in the nation.  Election after election, New York has ranked at – or near – the bottom in terms of voter participation. 

The reasons for those poor participation rates are complex – a combination of gerrymandering, in which the major parties set political boundaries in ways that limit electoral competition, to persnickety rules for getting on the ballot that keep challengers at bay, to a campaign financing system that allows incumbents to tap into the wallets of those with business before the government, and a voting system that creates unnecessary hurdles to registration and voting itself.

Those laws have seen changes in the past few years.  Some of those changes were insignificant and others more meaningful.  When it comes to the way New Yorkers register and vote, the changes have been meaningful.

Last year, for example, the Legislature approved first passage of a constitutional amendment that (if approved by the Legislature again and then by a direct vote of New Yorkers) would allow new voters to register and vote on Election Day.  So-called “same-day registration” is found in states that have the highest rates of voter participation.

And just last week, the governor approved additional measures that should make it easier for New Yorkers to vote this November.

The first allows eligible voters to cast their ballots by mail instead of going to a polling place.  First used during the June primary, the legislation allows voters to cite generalized health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic in requesting an absentee ballot to vote by mail.  In the past, New Yorkers had to claim actual illness or disability, or that they’d be out of town on election day in order to vote “absentee.”  The new law also eliminates a longstanding provision that prevented voters from requesting absentee ballots until 30 days before Election Day and now allows them to request an absentee ballot anytime.

One of the new laws allows ballots to be deemed valid if postmarked on the day of the 2020 election, November 3.  This law also allows the Board of Elections to count all absentee ballots that have the agency’s time stamp showing it was delivered to the Board of Elections no later than the day after the election, even if the ballot does not have a dated postmark.  The new law requires that the Board of Elections consider ballots received in that fashion to be considered timely.  During the June primary, thousands of ballots were deemed invalid when the post office failed to postmark them. 

Lastly, legislative leaders and the governor are discussing giving voters an opportunity to fix mail-in ballots that are considered invalid.  The plan would give New York voters a chance to correct missing signatures and other clerical errors so their absentee ballots can be counted after being received and initially rejected by boards of elections. 

Last Friday, it was reported that the governor said that he would sign the legislation on notifying voters about problems and allowing them to fix those problems.  However, the governor was said to want as-yet-unreported changes in the new law.  He stated that the legislation – which would allow the voter seven days to fix a mistake – would be too burdensome for election officials and that he would make temporary changes to that requirement. 

Of course, all of these changes rely on well-resourced boards of elections to pull them off.  With fewer than three months until the vote, the state must provide the necessary money to ensure that officials can properly run the election.  New York’s state elections agency has been universally criticized as incapable of running efficient elections due to the partisan gridlock among its leadership.

But it definitely can’t run efficient elections if it doesn’t have the resources to do so.  According to elections officials, the state will need to appropriate $50 million to run this November’s elections.  While there is no doubt that the state is facing serious budgetary problems, running elections should be at the top of its “must do” list.

New York Closes the Frack Waste Loophole

Posted by NYPIRG on August 17, 2020 at 9:01 am

As lawmakers scrambled to wrap up the session last month, they passed hundreds of bills, most of which were well outside of the public’s view.  Due to the intense interest in the COVID pandemic, the public unrest over race relations, and the deepening financial crisis, it’s not surprising that other important issues were decided outside of the limelight.

One such issue is legislation addressing the disposal of wastes from the fracking of natural gas.  In recent years there has been an intense national debate over new methods of extracting fossil fuels.  The most notable has been the debate over the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to access fossil fuels.  This new approach allows easier access to natural gas (and oil) than ever before.

In an era of climate change, when the planet is rapidly heating up due to the emissions of the burning of fossil fuels, using new technologies to allow easier use of those fuels has been a flash point of growing national environmental debate.  The threats that such industrial-scale mineral extraction pose to drinking water supplies adds another dimension to that fight. 

Five years ago, New York State banned fracking, citing both the drinking water threats as well as the concern over global warming.

Yet, oddly, New York has allowed the dumping of wastes from that practice to be disposed of in state landfills without much oversight.  That longstanding loophole, commonly known as “the hazardous waste loophole,” exempts oil and gas waste from being classified as hazardous waste, even if it met the definition. This loophole exists federally and was replicated by many states, including New York.

Despite New York’s ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, New York landfills have accepted over 650,000 tons and approximately 23,000 barrels of fracking waste from Pennsylvania’s drilling operations since 2011.  Oil and gas waste is known to contain hundreds of chemicals, many of which are known or suspected carcinogens, heavy metals, salts, and high levels of naturally occurring radioactivity.  Improper disposal of these toxic wastes can pose significant threats to nearby drinking water supplies.

As part of the frenzy of legislative activity at the end of July, legislation was approved – and subsequently signed into law by the governor – that superseded current regulations and classified wastes from oil and natural gas exploration, drilling and production activities as hazardous waste.  More appropriate disposal of these wastes diminishes the threat posed to drinking water.

That environmental victory adds another nail in the coffin of the fracking industry and helps to protect New York’s drinking water supplies from contamination.

Yet, the efforts to protect New York’s drinking water supplies should not end there.  The state has begun to regulate heretofore unregulated contaminants currently found in drinking water supplies.  In particular, the state set safety levels for the contaminants PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane. These three contaminants have polluted the drinking water serving millions of New Yorkers – and that is only where testing has already been conducted.  It is critical to establish maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for these chemicals to ensure testing takes place in every community, no matter its size, and to prevent people from getting sick.

However, the safety levels set need to be regularly updated in order to ensure the highest possible level of protection.  In addition, the state has to tackle other unregulated contaminants, which also pose threats to drinking water supplies.

As the planet heats up, drinking water supplies will face increasing threats.  Industrial pollution legacies have always threatened water supplies and the world can ill afford to lose access to drinking water due to pollution.

New York State has been blessed with plentiful freshwater supplies, yet a historic legacy of poor pollution practices leaves too much of that water unfit to drink.  Banning fracking waste is a victory worth celebrating, but the ongoing struggle to ensure that New Yorkers have access to clean drinking water continues.

The State Shortchanges Tobacco Control

Posted by NYPIRG on August 10, 2020 at 9:32 am

It is well established that tobacco use addicts and kills.  For decades, the power of the tobacco industry blocked measures that would have protected the public’s health and saved lives.  That power ebbed in the late 1990s as states’ attorneys general brought legal actions.  At the heart of the litigation was the charge that the tobacco companies deliberately misled the general public, and specifically smokers, about the dangers of their products.  As a result, more people smoked, more people got sick, and the states had to pick up additional – and significantly higher – health care costs, particularly through the Medicaid program.  Medicaid offers health insurance for the poor and states’ pick up much of the tab. 

As the evidence piled up, the legal strategies of Big Tobacco weakened and the industry’s concern over losing a gigantic legal verdict forced the tobacco companies to cut a deal.

That deal, known as the Master Settlement Agreement, resulted in the states dropping their legal claims if the industry made marketing changes and paid the states hundreds of billions of dollars over the next few decades to compensate them for the health care costs resulting from the misery of sick smokers.

New York was a party to that agreement and at that time heralded the MSA as a way for the state to have new resources for health care and financing to keep children from starting to smoke and to help smokers to quit.

A report released this week examined the financial impact of the MSA on New York and concluded that the state shortchanges its programs to keep children from using tobacco products and to help smokers to quit.  According to the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), the state has collected over $40 billion from tobacco taxes and revenues from the MSA.  As part of that agreement, the tobacco industry has paid the state over $16 billion over the past twenty years. 

Despite promises to use a significant portion of the revenues for tobacco control programs, the state spends far less than recommended by the federal government and, when accounting for inflation, spends less today than it did two decades ago on the program.

The report, Falling Short, reviewed the revenues collected by New York State and its spending on tobacco control.  The report found:

  • New York State has received over $16 billion in tobacco revenues from the MSA since it went into effect in 1999.
  • New York has collected over $24 billion in tobacco taxes and fees since the MSA went into effect.  Combined with tobacco revenues from the MSA, New York has collected over $40 billion.
  • Despite this windfall, New York spends less today (adjusted for inflation) on its state tobacco control program than ever.  During the years of the Cuomo Administration, the program has suffered significant budget cuts and is now spending less than half of what it did ten years ago.
  • While the state has added responsibilities to monitor vaping use, it has failed to provide additional resources for these activities.  This is true despite the availability of millions of dollars in new revenues generated by a tax on vaping products.
  • Flavored tobacco products, like their vaping cousins, are designed to entice youth to a deadly addiction.  A loophole in federal law allows the sale of menthol flavored cigarettes and the current federal restriction does not cover flavored cigarillos, chewing, and cigar tobacco products.  While New York now prohibits the sale of flavored vaping products, it has not banned the sale of flavored tobacco.

Time has eroded the health and financial benefits of the state’s tobacco tax rates due to inflation.  The state’s cigarette tax (and little cigar tax) has remained unchanged over the past decade.  Other tobacco taxes have not changed and are lower than those found on cigarettes. 

In the report,NYPIRG recommended:

  • New York should increase its commitment to tobacco control efforts by following the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines; it recommends the state spend at least $140 million annually.
  • Given its added responsibilities, additional resources (beyond the amount recommended by the CDC), should be added to ensure adequacy in tackling the vaping epidemic.
  • For the same reasons that the state banned the sale of flavored vapes, it should prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products. 
  • The state’s cigarette and little cigar tax should be raised $1 and other tobacco products should be taxed at equivalent rates.  The state should embrace new tax stamp technologies and bolster tax enforcement efforts to crack down on illegal untaxed sales.

As New York State grapples with a new public health crisis and the devastating financial impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted, it is critical that it devote resources to successful public health programs.  Boosting the state’s tobacco taxes and earmarking more for the biggest cancer killer – tobacco – are decisions that should be included when lawmakers return to balance the state’s budget.

Shopping Smart for Medicines

Posted by NYPIRG on August 3, 2020 at 1:13 pm

The crisis in the cost of medicines in America is well-known.  Americans spend more on prescription drugs — about $1,200 per person per year — than spent anywhere else in the world.  The prices can be staggeringly high.  For example, newly-approved cancer drugs in the U.S. can cost $10,000 a month.  

These costs are often not directly borne by the average American who has insurance coverage.  Generally speaking, private insurers and government programs pick up the biggest share of the bill.  However, high drug costs directly impact health care premiums and taxes – both of which are rising.

Unlike other countries, the U.S. doesn’t directly regulate medicine prices.  In Europe, governments negotiate directly with drug makers to limit the cost to their state-funded health systems.  Private payors in the U.S., such as employer health plans, typically negotiate discounts for their enrollees.  But for those without coverage, there is no negotiation.

As a result, patients in the U.S. directly pay about 14 percent of prescription medicine costs out of their own pockets.  In one survey, one in five adults in the U.S. said they failed to complete a prescribed course of medicine because of cost.

And failing to take prescribed medicines can have devastating consequences.  According to a 2019 Gallup poll, more than 13% of Americans reported knowing of at least one friend or family member in the past five years who died after not receiving needed medical treatment because they were unable to pay for it.

If private employers negotiate for the price of medicines and states limit drug choices to help offset costs, who looks out for those without health insurance coverage or whose plans do not adequately cover prescription drug costs?

Other than possible help offered by drug companies or pharmacies, New Yorkers without coverage are left to comparison shop for the lowest drug prices.  The state of New York tries to assist that effort by collecting drug prices for the most widely prescribed drugs.

Under New York law, the state Health Department has created a website to allow consumers to comparison shop for the most frequently prescribed medicines.  The website allows consumers to search as many as six medications simultaneously by zip code, county or city.  For consumers who lack adequate coverage for prescription drugs, the Department’s website could yield considerable savings.  The law also requires that at the checkout area of each pharmacy a written notice must be provided informing consumers about the availability of the website.  (The website can be found at:  

The need that could be filled by this program is real.  According to recent U.S. Census information, about one million New Yorkers lack health insurance, meaning they must pay full retail price for prescriptions. 

A survey of drug prices in New York pharmacies showed a shockingly large range in retail prices across the state.  In fact, a recent survey of prices posted on the state Health Department’s website by the New York Public Interest Research Group, revealed that in some cases consumers could be paying as much as $400 more for the exact same prescription in the exact same county.

NYPIRG reviewed twelve of the state’s largest counties and examined the prices for five brand name medications.  NYPIRG found an enormous range in prices charged, with the greatest disparity of $433 for the drug Spiriva in Manhattan.  In Albany county, the drug Januvia had the greatest range in price surveyed – a difference of nearly $160. 

Clearly, it pays for consumers to shop smart.  Yet, those comparisons only work if the public knows of the existence of the program.  Under New York State law, each pharmacy is required to post a sign alerting the public to the drug pricing website.  Too often, they do not. 

Given that about one million New Yorkers need to know the costs of their medicines, the state must do better.  If costs are too high, those who can’t afford medications often go without.  Not taking needed medicines can result in devastating consequences. 

Of course, expanding coverage is the best response, but in the meantime, New York must make sure that this program works.  New York should publicize the website, make sure pharmacies are conspicuously displaying the website information and come up with an easy-to-remember website address so the program can benefit all New Yorkers who need help purchasing the drugs to keep them well.