Archive for March 2023

The Climate Culture War Comes to New York

Posted by NYPIRG on March 27, 2023 at 9:14 am

The fight over how New York should address the worsening climate crisis has hit a fevered pitch at the state Capitol as lawmakers debate the state budget.  Embedded in the state Senate’s “one house” budget is a series of initiatives to match New York’s climate goals with policies to achieve them.  Most notably, a plan to mandate that new buildings constructed later this decade would have to be powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels, like gas, was advanced by the Senate, the Assembly, and the governor.    

Opponents have launched a well-financed counter-offensive to stall these measures as part of a national strategy to protect the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry and their utility allies.

The industry’s counter strategy hinges on a few talking points that get repeated over and over, the cornerstone of any effective propaganda campaign.

First, opponents always state that they do believe that the climate is changing so they can neuter criticism that they don’t believe in science.  It is, after all, well-documented that the planet is heating up and in a way that poses an existential threat to civilization as we know it.

Second, opponents use culture war language to attack the policies that are being advanced as well as attack the supporters of those policies.  Front groups funded by the fossil fuel industry, and their ideological allies, will repeat that climate protection policies are “radical” and that supporters are “zealots.”  The head-in-the-sand crowd instead repeatedly raises the specter of huge costs to be borne by utility ratepayers and the public at large in an effort to shift the conversation away from climate to one of costs. 

The opponents’ campaign is comprehensive and well-funded.  It seeks to stoke fear and build anger among the public.  Their goal is to bamboozle the public enough that they ignore the looming threat posed by a rapidly heating planet. 

In order to respond, let’s first start with the science.

First, there is no scientific doubt that the planet is heating up to a level that poses a threat to human civilization and the health of all species.  Moreover, the world’s climate science experts agree that human activity is driving this heating.  Primarily the burning of fossil fuels, oil, gas, and coal, plus the methane emissions from the extraction and transportation of gas supplies, are at the heart of those human activities fueling global climate changes.

Second, the world’s climate science experts have issued dire warnings, most recently last week, that unless we shift to powering the world through non-fossil fuels, the climate may reach a tipping point of no return.

Third, there is broad agreement about what should be done.  The world agreed to a target of keeping the global heat increase at no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above what it was before 1900.  While that doesn’t sound like much, the increase to date has triggered sea level rise, more intense storms, unprecedented wildfires, famine, and violence across the planet.  Exceeding the 2.7-degree limit will undoubtedly result in far more damage.  Beyond that point, scientists say, the impacts of catastrophic heat waves, flooding, drought, crop failures and species extinction become significantly harder for humanity to handle.

The world’s experts have stated that public policies will need to make an immediate and drastic shift away from fossil fuels to prevent the planet from overheating dangerously beyond that level.  Specifically, in order to avert climate disaster is the need for immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors of the economy.  According to the scientists, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 43% by 2030.  And the world must meet a goal of “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Those goals track New York’s 2019 climate law; hardly a “radical” idea if state public policies are following the best science.

Last year tied with 2015 as the fifth hottest year on record with human-driven greenhouse gas emissions rebounding after a short dip in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an analysis from NASA.  Additionally, NASA researchers reported that the past nine years have been the warmest years since modern record-keeping began in 1880.  It is virtually certain that the trend will continue.

There can be no doubt that we will all have to sacrifice in order to avert the worst of climate changes.  But we cannot follow the people who lied about the dangers of the burning of oil, coal, and gas to again bamboozle us about the direction of public policy.  In fact, those industries should be on the financial hook since they have, and continue to do, all they can to undermine climate policies designed to save lives and the planet.

The Senate package considers that too and puts the world’s largest oil companies on the hook for some of the state’s future climate costs.

As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  Let’s make sure that the fossil fuel industry and their mouthpieces are not able to block science-based climate policy in New York.

New York’s Budget Negotiations and Climate Change

Posted by NYPIRG on March 20, 2023 at 8:46 am

New York State’s fiscal year begins on April 1st – one of the earliest deadlines in the nation.  Governor Hochul kicked off the budget process by unveiling her plan on February 1st.  The state Legislature then convened public hearings to examine the governor’s plans.  In response, last week the Senate and Assembly released their respective budget plans.

Now that each house has its own plan, the public process of the budget unfolds with joint conference committee meetings starting this week and – perhaps – rolling through the end of the month.  The real negotiations will play out behind closed doors with the goal of coming to a budget agreement by April 1st – or soon thereafter.

In a state budget that is likely to end up with record spending somewhere between $227 and $233 billion, there are still policy and spending disagreements between the governor, the state Senate, and the state Assembly that must be resolved.

For example, both houses of the Legislature rejected the governor’s plan to mandate new housing, instead advancing their own plans to spend millions of dollars in incentives for such housing.  Both houses rejected the governor’s plan to hike tuition at New York’s public colleges and universities.  Both houses agreed with the governor’s proposed mandate that new building construction must rely on electricity – not oil or gas – for power.  Yet within that general agreement is disagreement on approach to electrification of new housing construction.

In some areas, the differences among the leaders can be substantial.  One such area is climate change. 

Governor Hochul has advanced a “cap and invest” program to reduce the release of greenhouse gas emissions.  The cap-and-invest program sets a limit, or cap, on overall carbon emissions in the state and requires businesses to obtain allowances equal to their covered greenhouse gas emissions.  The cap will be tightened over time to ensure New York achieves its emissions-reduction commitments, which means the state will issue fewer emissions allowances each year.

Cap-and-invest is a market-based program – as allowances become more scarce, they become more valuable due to the powers of supply and demand.  Businesses that do not sufficiently reduce their emissions will be faced with increasing compliance costs, so investing in cleaner operations is good for the planet and their bottom line.  Governor Hochul’s plan also includes a legislative proposal to create a universal Climate Action Rebate to send more than $1 billion in future cap-and-invest proceeds to New Yorkers every year.

But there is opposition.  The program relies on the regulatory power of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and opponents complain that, so far, the Administration has provided too little information on how the program will be run – and how much businesses will have to pay.

The Senate advanced their own cap and invest plan that would make climate program spending subject to legislative oversight in appropriating funds, not leaving it up to the Administration.  The Assembly simply dropped a greenhouse gas emissions cap out of its plan altogether.

And there is opposition to the whole idea.  Some opponents are arguing that plans to fund climate initiatives will raise the prices of travel, electricity, and heating.  Thus, New York utility ratepayers and taxpayers will end up bearing the costs of climate-fighting initiatives.

Of course, there can be no doubt that dealing with the worsening climate catastrophe will cost – and cost big.  Yet, it doesn’t have to be ratepayers and taxpayers alone who shoulder the burden.

Included in the state Senate’s budget plan was a measure to force the world’s largest oil companies to pick up a large portion of the tab for climate damages.  Under the Senate plan, oil companies would be on the hook for $3 billion per year for each of the next 25 years to pay for climate costs.  The Senate’s plan is also designed to make sure that oil company investors – not the public – are the ones who pay the assessment.

Neither the governor nor the state Assembly have included anything like it in their budget proposals.

Which, of course, plays into the hands of opponents – ideologues, partisans, and oil companies – who want nothing to happen.  Scoring political points over costs to the public is an obvious move to stall climate progress.

The state Senate’s plan, on the other hand, offers a real alternative.  A plan that not only generates large amounts of money but does so in a manner that protects the public. 

The Senate is posing a pointed question to the governor and the state Assembly:  When it comes to paying for climate costs, where do you stand – protecting the public or the oil companies?

New Yorkers will know that answer by the end of the month.

Darkness Plagues Albany During “Sunshine Week”

Posted by NYPIRG on March 13, 2023 at 8:56 am

This week we “spring” ahead by setting the clocks forward and enjoying more light in the evening.  But in the state Capitol, there won’t necessarily be more sunshine.

This week is the annual recognition of the need for government openness.  First celebrated in 2005, “Sunshine Week” was launched as a collaboration of national news organizations to promote transparency in government.  The idea is that governments are more effective when they allow public oversight and access to documents and proceedings as well as openness helps curb waste and increases government efficiency and effectiveness.

The rationale for celebrating the need for government openness this week – as compared to any other – is that March 16th is the anniversary of the birth of James Madison, our fourth President, and one of the principal figures in the Constitutional Convention.  Madison advanced guarantees incorporated into the Bill of Rights, in particular the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press, protected by the First Amendment.  He understood the value of information in a democratic society, as well as the importance of its free and open dissemination.

It was Madison who observed that “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”

Too often, Madison’s comments have proven true.  From the catastrophe of the Vietnam War, to the corruption in the Watergate scandal, it has been clear that the lack of public oversight of governmental decisions can lead to disastrous results.

Here in New York, governmental secrecy has resulted in some of the state’s biggest scandals.  Recent decisions to limit the state Comptroller’s oversight of state governmental procurement decisions have contributed to shocking scandals.  The top aides to the previous governor were convicted of corruption and sentenced to prison because of their decisions to rig government contracting in favor of major campaign contributors.

It is unlikely that such schemes could have succeeded if another agency had monitored those decisions.  People behave differently if they think they can be caught.  Corruption risks increase in secrecy.

It was revealed last week that the Hochul Administration is enduring a controversy surrounding an alleged effort to circumvent normal government contracting processes.  According to media reports, the former acting state budget director was relieved of her duties as the result of an investigation by the state Office of the Inspector General.  She has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

While the inspector general’s office would not provide details of the probe until it is completed, Albany’s Times Union reported that some government vendors have complained about multi-million-dollar contracts being awarded to the company where the former acting budget director previously had worked.  Some of the specific complaints centered on contracts that were awarded outside of the normal competitive bidding process. 

As mentioned, no charges have been filed but the former budget director and another top ranking official have left their positions.

In addition to that controversy, it was also reported that Governor Hochul’s budget plan proposed to strip away some of the state Comptroller’s oversight of government contracting. 

In an analysis of Hochul’s budget, the state Comptroller’s office stated that the governor’s plan would exempt some $12.8 billion in state spending from competitive bidding as well as oversight requirements he called “essential for maintaining the integrity of the procurement process.”

There is a reason why New York’s Constitution establishes a separately-elected Comptroller.  It’s an effort to ensure that independent audits of state spending are conducted and done so in a way to prevent waste, fraud and abuse in government.

Cutting back those powers is an invitation to scoundrels – and New Yorkers have seen how the results – scandals.

The shenanigans playing out around the Comptroller’s powers and the controversies around procurement in general also raise an interesting question:  Why allow no-bid contracts at all (outside of a bona fide emergency)? 

Albany should use “Sunshine Week” to strengthen – not weaken – the oversight powers of the Comptroller and begin public hearings into the state’s process of awarding contracts. 

Let’s heed Madison’s prescient warning that the lack of public oversight of government is “a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”  Let’s let the sunshine in.

Doing the Same Thing and Expecting a Different Result – Governor Hochul’s Higher Ed Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on March 6, 2023 at 9:35 am

Albert Einstein is often credited with making the observation “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  So it is with New York’s approach to higher education, trying the same policy over and over and expecting different results is a failed approach.

The state’s system of higher education is in deep financial trouble.  Far too many community colleges, four year public colleges as well as private ones are facing declining enrollments – some significantly – and receiving at best stagnant state financial help.

Decades of state neglect – and worse – have taken their toll on New York’s higher education sector.  For example, the roll out of the higher education policy named “NYSUNY 2020” in 2011 resulted in nearly constant hikes that raised tuition rates by more than 42%.  When factoring in inflation, the automatic tuition hikes at the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY) far exceeded the growth in the economy.  And while students and their families were asked to shoulder more of the tuition burden, the state did not keep up its end of the bargain to increase state funding.

In fact, policies adopted under NYSUNY 2020 created widening gulfs between the financial needs of colleges and the funding levels provided by the state.  Prior to 2011, New York would increase the maximum TAP award to match the state’s public college tuition. This protected the lowest income students from the impacts of tuition hikes.  In addition, students attending independent colleges and universities would benefit from enhanced affordability by boosting TAP support.

The state’s NYSUNY 2020 law de-coupled the maximum TAP award from rising public college tuition rates and decreed that the colleges themselves would have to supplement financial assistance to the lowest income students.  This hole – the “TAP Gap” – cost millions of dollars every year that had not been borne by colleges over the past decades before. Laudably, the governor and Legislature eliminated it in last year’s final budget.  However, the financial damage caused by the prior years’ gaps was not restored.  Those previous years’ policies have undermined the financial strength of public colleges and universities today. 

As a result, even prior to the pandemic, the SUNY system was losing undergraduate enrollment from its 4-year colleges and community colleges, which continued through the pandemic.  Only SUNY’s four University Centers escaped this enrollment slide.  For institutions inside SUNY that are overly reliant on tuition dollars, lost enrollment can translate to financial insolvency quickly.  And that day is rapidly approaching.  All but six of the twenty-five state-operated SUNY campuses have structural or projected deficits.  In total, these institutions have an aggregated deficit of $160 million.

The experience in the independent sector was similar to SUNY.  During the pre-pandemic period, larger colleges and universities saw growth in the student populations, where smaller ones saw losses.  The pandemic has made it worse for the smaller private colleges, most notably with central New York’s Cazenovia College announcing it will permanently close after the spring 2023 semester, two years before the college’s 200th anniversary.

The governor’s budget plan unfortunately does too little to reverse the trajectory of New York’s system of higher education.  Moreover, she has proposed policies that contributed mightily to the decline.  Raising the costs by hiking public college tuition while freezing financial aid will only shift more of the costs of attending college to families and further undermine efforts to increase enrollment.  Furthermore, freezing state support for both the private and public sectors will do little to help keep struggling colleges afloat.  Local economies will be collateral damage of this short-sighted approach.

Therefore, shortchanging higher education falls into the Einstein definition.

The final state budget should take steps to make colleges – both public and private – more attractive to would be college students.  A few ideas would be to freeze public college tuition and commit to a multi-year increase in state support to help balance SUNY’s (as well as CUNY’s) books.  In addition, return the state support to private colleges to 1990 levels – rather than providing assistance that is one-third of what it was thirty years ago. 

A smart approach would put more resources into financial aid programs in order to offer services that help to attract and keep students.  Look to modernize the 50-year-old Tuition Assistance Program.  The students of 2023 are similar, but not the same, as the college students of 1974.  Increasing assistance as well as coverage for non-traditional and part-time students could also go a long way toward meeting the needs of today’s generation of students and improving their job prospects and the state’s economy.

We know how this movie ends.  It’s time to stop doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  It’s time for New York to reverse the college financial “death spiral” and do something innovative.