Archive for July 2022

Getting Ahead of Crises

Posted by NYPIRG on July 25, 2022 at 9:58 am

It’s hard to be optimistic about today’s world.  The planet feels like it’s in tatters.  There’s the escalating climate crisis that has left much of Southern Europe in flames, regions of the U.S. with dwindling water supplies, heat waves claiming lives worldwide, and the threats from rising sea levels; an ongoing pandemic that shows no signs of relaxing its deadly grip; and an unprovoked savage war launched by Russia.  These are just some of the present threats to public safety and the economy.  With all that’s going on, the impulse to ignore rather than act on these difficult problems is understandable.

But ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.  Action is the appropriate and necessary response.  While a pandemic had been predicted, it nevertheless caught the world unready.  Systematic underfunding of public health programs – and stockpiling the necessary equipment to handle pandemics, like face masks, gloves, and gowns – resulted in more carnage than if we’d been prudently prepared.

Even when it comes to war, not electing people who coddle the Russian war machine can help.

Clearly governmental preparation and competence are central to reacting to the inevitable crises that arise.  Yet, even then, efforts can fail.

For example, scientists have known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels would lead to global warming that could threaten civilization as we know it.  However, instead of alerting the public to these dangers, the fossil fuel industries made it worse by their  deliberate misinformation campaigns to undermine the science and then to install climate denier toadies into public offices. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sounded the alarms earlier this month on an often overlooked issue with its report on the number of American deaths caused by antibiotic resistant “superbugs.”  According to the CDC more than 30,000 Americans died in 2020 from these killer “superbugs.”

The CDC tied some of these deaths to the COVID pandemic.  According to the CDC, the number of deaths caused by infections impervious to antibiotics and antifungal medications rose 15 percent during the first year of the pandemic compared to 2019.  Much of the increase was the result of doctors and nurses struggling to treat seriously ill patients whose disease they did not fully understand.  Experts have speculated that the recent growth of antibiotic-resistant infections due to overuse and misuse during the pandemic has wiped out whatever gains had been made to slow the growth of these “superbugs.”

Like the climate crisis, public experts have been warning of the threat of antibiotics resistance for decades.  In 1968, a paper published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine detailed how more than a dozen patients and a nurse at a facility became infected with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, more commonly known as MRSA.  It was the first documented MRSA outbreak in the United States and the doctors concluded that “it seems reasonable to predict that [MRSA] will become more widespread in the United States and may present some clinical and epidemiological problems in the future.”

A half century later, the researchers’ conclusions have come true.  MRSA is widespread and other more dangerous “superbugs” threaten our health.

Antibiotics are miracle drugs.  They treat common infections and make possible modern medical interventions such as chemotherapy, organ transplants, and surgeries. Before antibiotics, more soldiers died of their wounds than died on the battlefield.

But these life-saving drugs are being taken for granted and many bacteria have become resistant to them.  Given enough time, bacterial evolution will render every antibiotic ineffective.  According to experts, unless new medicines come on the market, by the year 2050 more people will die from “superbugs” than die of cancer.  Unless science comes to the rescue, we are entering into a post-antibiotics age.

The future of new medical breakthroughs is, as of now, looking bleak.  According to the World Health Organization, development of new antibacterial treatments is inadequate to address the mounting threat of antibiotic resistance.  Since 2017 only 12 antibiotics have been approved, 10 of which belong to existing classes with established mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance.

So what to do?  The public health strategy should be focused on reducing the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, thus slowing the evolution of “superbugs” while scientific research can catch up.  The world’s and nation’s experts have argued for a “One Health” approach to coordinating programs to reduce the speed of the “slow moving pandemic” of the rise of “superbugs.”

Yet no state has embraced the “One Health” approach.  Legislation has been introduced to require New York to establish one central coordinating entity to battle “superbugs.”  Enactment should be at the top of the list of “must dos” for the next governor.

New York State has often stepped up when national policies have failed.  It has done so on climate policies, it can do so again on fighting “superbugs.”

Action, not ignorance, is what we should demand of those we elect to lead.

Some Gripe About Early Voter Turnout

Posted by NYPIRG on July 18, 2022 at 7:46 am

Last month, an anemic voter turnout propelled Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul and Republican Congressmember Lee Zeldin to resounding victories over their primary opponents.  A win is a win, but last week some county boards of elections were reported to be griping over the cost of early voting.  Their argument was that the costs of running the early voting system greatly outweighed the benefits to voters.

Overall primary election results showed that voter turnout declined dramatically – by nearly half – from the 2018 Democratic primary for governor to the one in June.  Nearly 1.6 million voters showed up on primary day 2018 in Andrew Cuomo’s 2-to-1 victory over his challenger Cynthia Nixon.  In Kathy Hochul’s equally strong performance, only 865,000 of the 6.5 million Democrats voted in the June primary, or 13%.  The 2018 results were unusual, the 2022 results were a return to the traditionally low rates of primary turnout.

The turnout in Representative Zeldin’s big win mirrored the paltry Democratic turnout, 447,000 of the 2.8 million Republicans showed up, or 16%.

Media reports on the numbers of voters who showed up at the polls during the early voting period were fractions of the total:  Statewide nearly 180,000 people, or about 14 percent of the total number of primary voters, cast their ballots at polling places during early voting in June.

It was the weak early voting – not the overall pathetic – turnout that drew some elections officials’ ire.

Some background on early voting:  According the National Conference of State Legislatures, forty-six states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands offer early in-person voting (this includes states with all-mail elections).

The time period for early in-person voting varies from state to state:

  • Early voting periods range in length from three days to 46 days. The average number of early in-person voting days is 23.
  • Early in-person voting may begin as early as 55 days before the election, or as late as the Friday before the election. The average start date for early in-person voting is 30 days before the election.
  • Early voting typically ends just a few days before Election Day.

New York’s early voting system is more or less average – it starts ten days before the primary, special, or general election day, with one day off before the traditional election day for vote casting. 

Some New York local elections officials were challenging the state’s approach given the costs of staffing early voting sites for nine days with so few voters. They have a point, but what are the causes?

There is no doubt that voters prefer to have the early voting option instead of trooping to the polls on one Tuesday – usually a workday.

One notable change from 2018 is that the state primary was in June, not September. Obviously, that change could cause voter confusion. In addition, due to the state’s redistricting fiasco, there is a second primary date – in August – voters could have been confused by that too.

Of course, that problem could have been offset by a rigorous voter education effort by the boards of elections, but that didn’t happen. Why? One reason could be a shortage of funds. Despite approving a record $220 billion state budget in April, lawmakers appear to have shortchanged local boards of elections. 

Since 2019, the state has reportedly appropriated $12 million to help county boards of elections pay costs associated with early voting; but that money was used up prior to the June primary, with no new funds added this year.  Thus, virtually all of the costs were absorbed by counties.

County officials have a right to complain about the lack of funds, but their situation doesn’t justify new limits on early voting. Yes, there are costs to early voting and general election day voting. And in both cases, New York’s turnout is regrettably far too small.

Instead of griping about the low turnout in early voting, officials should be demanding more of an investment in democracy from the governor and state lawmakers. And how about making it easier for non-affiliated voters to participate too? After all, there are more New Yorkers who are not enrolled in any political party than there are Republicans, yet their tax dollars pay for primaries in which they cannot vote. 

How come no local officials are complaining about that?

Yes, there is a lot more work to do to make New York’s democracy a beacon of hope. Pushing to cut back on the right to vote by making it harder is a clear step in the wrong direction.

Another Ethics Chapter Closes

Posted by NYPIRG on July 11, 2022 at 7:00 am

New York’s oversight of its ethics and lobbying laws was back in the news last week.  The state’s oversight entity, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), closed its doors on Friday and will be replaced by a new agency: the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying (CELIG).

Among its final acts, JCOPE released a report on its secret decisions that allowed former Governor Andrew Cuomo to obtain ethics clearance for a $5.1 million book deal.  Essentially the report found that the former governor’s staff muscled JCOPE to get approval in a manner that circumvented the normal approval process.

The approval for the Cuomo book released in 2020, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” should never have been allowed.  The book was written about the public work of the former governor during the first year of the pandemic.  Essentially, he was able to cash in on his job as governor, to the tune of millions. 

The New York governor is the highest paid in the nation.  The job is supposed to be full-time, meaning no outside income.  This is the standard for the executive branch of government – full-time, no moonlighting.  Of course, there are times when top ranking officials are involved in outside income activities, but approval of those must be made by the ethics agency.

In this case, the former governor was able to obtain approval by the JCOPE staff, without full consideration by the entire Commission membership.  Moreover, the legal work done to obtain that approval was done by the governor’s public staff, not some outside attorney.  Thus, the governor’s staff working on the taxpayers’ dime were put to work to generate approval of a book deal that allowed the former governor to enrich himself to the tune of millions of dollars. 

This is not the first time the former governor had pushed for JCOPE approval of a book deal.  Ten years earlier, the governor’s staff also working at the public’s expense obtained JCOPE approval of a book deal worth roughly $700,000.  It was that approval that provided the justification for the multi-million-dollar payday in 2020.

The book deal reeks in other ways, most notably that the former governor used his public staff to be involved in writing the book, a clear no-no, and as a result JCOPE has sued Cuomo to force him to return his ill-gotten gains.

Why did this happen?  Well, JCOPE was never designed to be an independent agency.  It was designed as a political creature, one which was susceptible to pressure from Albany’s political elite.

The agency’s demise is long overdue.  Unfortunately, its replacement shares the same fundamental flaw – the Commissioners for the new agency also are chosen by the top-ranking elected officials in New York State.  There are new safeguards to limit political influence, but whether those guardrails are adequate, only time will tell.  The new agency was approved as part of April’s state budget deal and garnered no support from outside watchdog groups.

As a result, New York’s ethics and lobbying watchdog will conduct its duties based on an “honor system”: a system in which the governor and the state’s political leaders will behave honorably and leave the agency to act in the public’s interest.  We’ll see how that works as new ethical controversies bubble up.

Regrettably, the problems besetting ethics enforcement are not isolated.  The enforcer of the state’s election laws is appointed by the governor.  That government official recently allowed the former governor to keep $18 million in campaign contributions for his use, even though the former governor is not running for office.

The state’s Inspector General is also appointed by the governor and reports to her office; the same IG office that failed to adequately investigate leaks of confidential enforcement discussions by JCOPE; the one that has received notoriety for how the former governor got wind of JCOPE’s discussions on how to punish a former Cuomo aide (now in prison for corruption) and complained to the Assembly Speaker about his JCOPE appointees.  The IG did not interview the former governor to find out how he obtained that information and then stated that there was no evidence that there was a leak – even though it was publicly reported!

New York’s system of campaign financing, the awarding of government contracts, lobbying and ethics all are marred by deeply flawed oversight systems.  Real changes must occur.  Here are some steps that should be taken to boost the quality of democracy in New York:

  1. New laws must be enacted to ensure that CELIG, the IG, and the election law counsel are independent of the individuals and entities that they must monitor.  A corps of civil service professionals should be responsible for ethics and democracy, not elected officials and political parties.
  2. New restrictions on campaign donations from those seeking government contracts or lobbying.
  3. New campaign contribution limits that do not exceed those for President of the U.S.  A system that relies on a large number of small donors is less of a corruption risk than one that relies on a small number of very large contributors – like New York has now.

Until steps like these are taken, New Yorkers will continue to have their confidence shaken by the actions of elected officials and an erosion of their confidence in democracy.

The U.S. Supreme Court Acts to Dismantle Environmental Protections

Posted by NYPIRG on July 4, 2022 at 7:00 am

Among the flurry of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that flipped over the tables on American societal norms was a decision to reduce the power of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate and enforce air pollution.  The Supreme Court struck down the E.P.A.’s plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, essentially stating that such decisions are to be left to Congress, not governmental agencies.

The Court argued that the courts should strike down regulations that raise “major questions” if Congress was not explicit enough in authorizing such actions.

“In certain extraordinary cases,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, the court needed “something more than a merely plausible textual basis” to convince it that an agency has the legal ability to issue specific regulations.  “The agency,” he wrote, “instead must point to ‘clear congressional authorization’ for the power it claims.

Last week’s decision involved the E.P.A.’s primary mission: to curb pollution of harmful substances, which the court previously ruled included carbon dioxide emissions.  Under the text of the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. is empowered to devise the “best system of emission reduction.” Yet, the Court struck down the Clean Power Plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Under the Court’s logic, members of Congress would have to enact a law explicitly declaring that the E.P.A. is authorized to curb air pollution under the Clean Air Act and tracked what the agency’s regulations had proposed. 

The reality is that Congress is incapable of making such a decision.  The thin majorities in each House of Congress are too fragile to ram through such a change.  Thus, the nation has to turn its hopes to states to attack the threat posed by climate change. 

Also last week, the New York State Climate Action Council’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was up for final public comment.  The Council was established under state law to determine how New York should meet its aggressive climate goals. 

New York has recognized that the world is at an unprecedented crossroad, and failure to act could lead to catastrophic consequences for all living things.  The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change October 2018 report made clear the world needs to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times if catastrophic results are to be avoided. 

Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC requires rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.  Three years ago, New York established climate goals: mandates to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2050 with the interim goal of emitting no more than 60% of 1990 GHG by 2030.  New York’s Climate Act required the state to power its electric grid through at least 70% renewable energy by 2030, and achieve electricity generated by 100% renewable energy by 2040.  The Act also established the Climate Action Council to develop a blueprint for state energy and climate policy to follow in order to meet its goals.

Action was – and is – needed.  According to a federal database, from 2000 to 2021, New York State experienced 53 climate disasters each totaling $1 billion in damages or more: 28 severe storms, 11 tropical cyclones, 7 winter storms, 4 droughts, and 3 flooding events.  The cost of these disasters is up to $100 billion over the last 21 years, and in 2021 alone, up to $20 billion.  Communities in New York City, and along the shores of Long Island, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, the Hudson River and other water bodies are especially at risk from storm surges and flooding.

The world is witnessing unprecedented fires, floods, intensifying storms, famines, and heat waves resulting from the burning of oil, gas, and coal.  Despite the ideological views of six individuals who happen to be on the Supreme Court, the world is facing an existential crisis and it must respond.

While we can all wring our hands and complain about the ideological push by the Court, now is a time for action.  New York State has one of the biggest economies on the planet.  Coupled with other large states, such as California, state actions can drive the nation’s public policy.

The science is crystal clear, and the debate is long over; climate change is real and in a crisis state, and human activities are at the heart of the problem.  New York must lead.