Archive for April 2024

Another of New York’s Biggest Environmental Threats

Posted by NYPIRG on April 29, 2024 at 2:18 pm

The state budget deal that recently was hammered out failed to adequately tackle the worsening climate threat, but it also did little to attack another environmental crisis: the generation and disposal of solid wastes.

But first, some background.  The number one place that residential trash goes to is a landfill; number two is export for disposal; number three is garbage-burning incinerators; and last is getting recycled.  There is no evidence that the problem is getting better.  In fact, the state’s residential recycling rate has been dropping over the past decade.  By the way, these disposal methods can contribute to the climate crisis: Solid waste accounts for 12% of statewide greenhouse gas emissions, most of which comes from decomposing waste in landfills. 

The state’s capacity to take this problem on is dwindling.  Again according to the New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”), “New York’s 25 municipal solid waste landfills have a combined landfill capacity of between 16 and 25 years.”

If the state’s landfills are filled to capacity in a decade or so, what will happen?  Trucking the waste somewhere else is likely to be the option, but that is expensive and uncertain:  who knows for how long someone else will be willing to take New York’s trash?  Already, New York City exports nearly all of its trash.  Unless something changes, the rest of the state will have to follow that expensive route.  Actions taken now could extend the lifespan of the state’s existing landfills, but waiting will make the options even more difficult.

In New York’s final budget, the state appropriated $400 million for the Environmental Protection Fund.  That Fund does – among other things – provide funding to spend on projects for “encouraging recycling; providing safe disposal of household hazardous waste; ensuring safe closure of landfills; and developing markets for waste materials.”

Is it enough?  There is some concern that the money appropriated into the EPF is not actually spent directly on environmental projects.  In any event, not all of the EPF goes to urgent solid waste issues.  About $20 million goes to recycling with small amounts going to other programs that could help deal with the mounting trash disposal problems. 

Creating a new landfill is not cheap – and certainly landfill siting can be controversial; ditto for attempts to expand existing ones.  Obviously, the state will want to extend the life of existing landfills as long as they can (although local communities understandably may oppose those efforts).  In order to do that, programs must be put in place to encourage New Yorkers to reduce the amount of trash that they create.

The DEC is considering a trash surcharge that would both generate revenues for dealing with the solid waste disposal problems and encourage New Yorkers to reduce their wastes.  Not surprisingly, adding a “tax” to encourage people not to produce trash can be unpopular and these proposals raise questions about the impacts on lower income New Yorkers.

So why not tackle the trash at the source?  According to the DEC, paper and plastics make up nearly half of municipal solid wastes.  There are two bills ready to take those two waste materials on.

First, the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act will reduce plastic packaging by 50% over 12 years to dramatically reduce waste, as well as phase out some of the most toxic chemicals used in packaging; improve recyclability of packaging; and slash greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic.  It will also make polluters pay by establishing a modest fee on packaging to be paid by packaging producers, generating new revenue that could help defray waste costs for local taxpayers.

Second, an expansion of the Bottle Deposit Law.  That’s the law that requires a nickel deposit on certain carbonated beverages and bottled water.  When you return the container, you get your nickel back.  The Bottle Law has been the most successful litter reduction and recycling program in New York history.  The DEC describes it as a “tremendous success.”  When the law kicked in 40 years ago in 1983, carbonated beverage containers were found everywhere; now the overwhelming majority of these containers are redeemed under the program.  But many beverages – most notably non-carbonated sports drinks – didn’t exist four decades ago and are not covered by the law today.  And the nickel deposit was put in place 40 years ago – that 1983 nickel when adjusted for inflation is worth 15 cents today.

Both of these measures would reduce packaging waste and promote the concept of a “circular economy” – one in which wastes are reduced to a minimum.  It is a concept embraced by the DEC in its recent report, the “New York State Solid Waste Management Plan.”

Reports are fine, but action is what matters.  As lawmakers return to the Capitol next week, they must take the solid waste disposal crisis head on.  The packaging reduction and bottle deposit law expansion bills are two good places to start.

New York Can Help to Make the World a “Greener” Place

Posted by NYPIRG on April 22, 2024 at 7:24 am

April 22nd is “Earth Day,” the global celebration of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.  History shows that Earth Day was not intended to be about personal actions – planting a tree or recycling one’s garbage, although both are good ideas.  Instead, the original Earth Day was a reaction to the enormous environmental damage done by the essentially unregulated discharging of pollution into the nation’s airways and waterways. 

At that time, Americans were combusting vast amounts of leaded gasoline in inefficient automobiles that belched out toxic pollution.  Industries pumped out smoke and sludge and considered those wastes the price of progress.  Chemical waste and garbage were dumped into waterways on a scale never before seen; air pollution was at staggering levels.  Toxic herbicides and pesticides were lightly regulated, if at all.  Much of the American public was largely oblivious to the fact that a polluted environment posed a substantial health risk.

Earth Day 1970 was a watershed moment that galvanized public awareness of the growing threat of pollution and its impact on the nation’s environment and public health.  That Earth Day and the nationwide rallies and actions, resulted in monumental improvements, including the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and passage of laws, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. 

Today, we are all facing threats that equal – if not exceed – those of the 1960s.  Like that time, Americans need to get involved without becoming cynical or depressed about the possibilities for improving the world.  Closer to home, actions in New York can set the tone for the nation – and the world. 

New York State’s population, while only the fourth largest in the nation, has an outsized impact since it is the 10th largest economy in the world.  What New York does not only impacts its own residents, but it can also influence the nation, and the world.  States are the nation’s laboratories for democracy and New York has been a leader in influential policymaking.

Yet, the final state budget agreement that was put in place this past weekend ignored the single most important environmental issue facing the state, the nation, and the world: the climate crisis. 

Global energy-related CO2 emissions hit a record high last year, according to the International Energy Agency, and 2023 was the hottest year on record.  The world’s climate experts urge that the world needs to virtually eliminate its reliance on fossil fuels by the middle of this Century or face environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.

Here in New York, action has been taken to set strong climate goals.  In 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) was signed into law.  The Climate Act is among the most ambitious climate laws in the nation and requires New York to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and no less than 85 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels.  Those goals are in line with the best climate science that is available. 

New Yorkers will foot the bill for tens of billions of dollars in expenses to deal with rising sea levels, more extreme storms, and increasing heat.  Long Island faces up to $100 billion in climate costs, more than half of New York local government spending outside of NYC was, or will be, related to climate change, it will cost New York City $100 billion to upgrade its sewers for more intense storms, and those costs are on top of the $52 billion needed to protect New York Harbor from rising sea levels.  Those costs – like the temperature of the planet – are expected to keep increasing.

Those staggering costs inspired legislation in both houses of the state Legislature to make fossil fuel polluters pay up for New York’s climate damages: the Climate Change Superfund Act.  In the budget fight, both the Senate and Assembly offered support for the measure, but Governor Hochul dug in and killed the effort to make the climate polluters pay.  Now New York taxpayers will bear the brunt of all climate costs.   

A second measure, the NY Home Energy Affordable Transition (HEAT) Act, would remove the legal requirement that all ratepayers subsidize the costs of hooking up customers to gas lines.  That subsidy costs New Yorkers $200 million annually.  Requiring this subsidy flies in the face of what the experts say must be done – do not expand fossil fuel use.   In this case, it was the state Assembly that killed the measure.

Of course, all is not lost.  Lawmakers return in early May to take up non-budget legislation.  The session will wrap up in early June.  Expect that both of these measures will rise again during the end-of-session debate.  After all, failure to act will only cost ratepayers and taxpayers more, while benefiting the fossil fuel lobby.

Protecting the fossil fuel lobby after all the damage it has done – and continues to do – can’t be the message out of New York.  Here’s hoping that next Earth Day will be one that looks back at climate achievements, not the embarrassing spectacle of New York’s political establishment acting as a toady to the fossil fuel lobby.  Fingers crossed and Happy Earth Day!

Coming Down the Home Stretch for a Higher Ed Budget Deal

Posted by NYPIRG on April 15, 2024 at 7:58 am

If media reports are to be believed, Governor Hochul and the state’s legislative leaders are inching toward a budget deal this week.  The big issues – housing, K-12 education funding, Medicaid – have been getting all of the airtime, but there are many other important policies that are in play.

One of those top issues is how will the final budget deal strengthen the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).  TAP is fifty years old this year.  For five decades, TAP has been the way of directing financial aid to the neediest students in both the public and independent college sectors.  Historically, TAP has covered the entire cost of public college tuition for the lowest income students and helped offset those costs for moderate- and middle-income students.

However, the TAP program has been neglected over the past few decades.  Policymakers have chosen to do little to strengthen the program in order to keep pace with changes in higher education.  The maximum family income for TAP eligibility has stayed the same for the past twenty years.  The minimum TAP award has stayed the same during that period as well.

Moreover, starting in the Cuomo Administration, the maximum TAP award was frozen as the state continually raised public college tuition.  It wasn’t until five years had gone by before lawmakers forced an increase in the maximum TAP award, but it still does not cover the full cost of SUNY tuition.

The impacts surely are clear to policymakers.  Combined with a decline in college enrollment, New York’s failures to update TAP have resulted in an enormous reduction in the amount of financial aid made available to students.  In fact, over the past 15 years the amount of TAP assistance has dropped by a whopping $237 million in real dollars.

When the “frozen” income eligibility and award amounts are adjusted for inflation, the reduction in higher educational purchasing power becomes evident.  Adjusting for consumer inflation alone and just comparing what would have happened if the maximum and minimum TAP awards had tracked the Consumer Price Index (the inflation rate in higher education tends to run higher than overall consumer inflation), shows that TAP awards would have been significantly greater if it kept pace with inflation for the higher education sector.

The Cuomo policy of keeping the maximum TAP award frozen while increasing public college tuition also destabilized some SUNY colleges.  Under the policy, public colleges were required to cover the difference between what their students received as the maximum TAP award and the rising SUNY tuition price tag.  That “gap” swelled over time and became known as the “TAP gap.” 

The TAP gap eroded public colleges’ finances as they were regularly being asked to cover rising tuition costs for their poorest students.  Independent colleges were hit too.  Since TAP awards were frozen, they too had to figure out ways to cover the financial assistance that would normally have come from the state’s TAP.

Rising costs coupled with restrained financial assistance contributed to a drop in enrollments.  Fewer students equal less money for colleges that were already seeing reductions in state assistance.  That “one-two” punch surely accelerated the weakening financial situations at SUNY – and smaller independent colleges – and the results are clearer every day.

The problems of the TAP program have long been known by New York’s leaders.  The hope was that this being the 50th anniversary of the TAP program, Governor Hochul would develop a modernization plan.

Instead, she essentially offered more of the same.

Both houses of the Legislature, on the other hand, advanced robust improvements in their budget plans.  Given the fact that the negotiations on the state budget are conducted in near complete secrecy, it’s hard to know what will happen with this important program. 

Colleges and universities have important jobs: they train the next generation of workers and help them to better understand civic life.  In addition, they are economic engines that create jobs that stimulate and anchor local economies.  They offer a stimulus to local economies that are virtually guaranteed to succeed. 

Whether the state’s political leadership agrees that New York’s economic future hinges on a robust system of higher education, only time will tell.  What will be clear is that if are no significant changes to TAP that reverse the program’s decline, New Yorkers will know exactly who opposed the reforms – Governor Hochul.  She did not advance significant changes in January, while both houses of the Legislature did.  With the future of higher education for New York students and families hanging in the balance, we should know the outcome of that debate soon.

Will Governor Hochul Make the Climate Polluters Pay?

Posted by NYPIRG on April 8, 2024 at 7:02 am

As they enter a second week of late budget negotiations, Governor Hochul and the state’s legislative leaders reportedly are focusing on their top budget priorities: funding for K-12 education, Medicaid, and housing.  An important looming issue that has drawn little media attention is the effort to put the largest fossil fuel companies on the financial hook for New York’s burgeoning climate damage costs. 

That issue is squarely on the budget negotiating table since the state Senate included it in their one house budget plan.  The state Assembly also included language showing that they too wanted the fossil fuel industry to kick in for climate damages.  Since thus far Governor Hochul has remained mum on the issue, any lack of agreement can only be attributed to her opposition.

Given the secrecy surrounding budget negotiations, New Yorkers are in the dark about what is going on behind Albany’s closed doors, but at some point soon, they will know.  Yet, the effort to make the climate polluters pay received a boost last week.

According to a report issued last week, only 57 oil, gas, coal and cement producers are directly linked to 80% of the world’s global fossil CO2 emissions since the Paris climate agreement,  the year when nearly all countries signed the U.N. Paris Agreement, committing to take action to curb climate change.  Although governments pledged in Paris to cut greenhouse gases, the report found most companies had expanded their fossil fuel production since 2015.

This expansion, which continues to this day, runs contrary to a stark warning by the International Energy Agency that no new oil and gas fields can be opened if the world is to stay within safe limits of global heating.  Climate scientists say global temperatures are rapidly approaching the Paris threshold of going no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above the pre-industrial era.  Failure to keep to that limit could lead to dire consequences for the planet.

Global energy-related CO2 emissions hit a record high last year, according to the International Energy Agency and 2023 was the hottest year on record.  The world’s climate experts urge that the world needs to virtually eliminate its reliance on fossil fuels by the middle of this Century or face environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.

Back in New York, action has been taken to set strong climate goals.  In 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) was signed into law.  The Climate Act is among the most ambitious climate laws in the nation and requires New York to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and no less than 85 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels.  Those goals are in line with the best climate science that is available. 

In December of 2022, a state commission issued its blueprint on how best to implement those goals.  The report called for the creation of a “resilient infrastructure fund and prioritize investments in Disadvantaged Communities.”  To date, no such fund – at least one that can handle the scale of the problem – has been established. 

It was that call that inspired the legislation advanced in both houses to make fossil fuel polluters pay up for New York’s climate damages: the Climate Change Superfund Act.  Governor Hochul has not said what her position is on the legislation and has advanced no alternative. 

New York’s climate costs are expected to skyrocket.  It has been estimated that Long Island alone faces up to $100 billion in climate costs.  A study from NYS Comptroller DiNapoli found that over a ten-year period (the last five and next five years), more than half of New York localities’ municipal spending outside of NYC was, or will be, related to climate change.  New York City estimates as much as $100 billion will be needed to upgrade its sewers for more intense storms.  And those costs are on top of the $52 billion that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated is needed to protect New York Harbor from rising sea levels.  Those costs – like the temperature of the planet – are expected to keep increasing.

New Yorkers could see those costs rise to as much as $10 billion annually.  Last year alone, the governor announced over $2 billion in spending on costs related to climate damages and efforts to boost the state’s climate resiliency.  Taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear that burden alone.

Unless Governor Hochul supports making the climate polluters pay, the costs of addressing the damages from a worsening climate – repairing roads and bridges, protecting low-lying areas, adding air conditioning to schools and much more – will be borne by taxpayers.  Unless the governor weighs in, those most responsible for the mess that we’re in – the biggest oil companies – are off-the-financial-hook. 

Big Oil has known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels would trigger a heating planet and possible devastation.  The most recent revelation is that the industry knew as early as 1954 of the possible dangers.  That adds to the evidence that despite knowing the industry did all it could to undermine efforts to address the climate crisis they caused and knew was coming.

New Yorkers will soon know where Governor Hochul stands on this important issue.  Once the final budget is approved, taxpayers will know if they will see some relief from climate costs.  If they don’t get it, there is only one person who should answer the question “why?” – and that’s Governor Hochul.

Another Late Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on April 1, 2024 at 9:22 am

Whoever established the date for the beginning of New York State’s fiscal year must have had an ironic sense of humor.  April 1st is the first day of New York State’s fiscal year, meaning that it should be the day that a new budget is supposed to be in place.  The April Fool’s joke is that in modern times it almost never is.

Under New York State’s Constitution, the executive branch is required to submit a balanced budget to the Legislature usually in January.  Unlike the vast majority of states, New York’s fiscal year starts on April 1st – the earliest in the nation.  While that gives lawmakers only three short months to cobble together a state budget, for the vast majority of the decades that the requirement has been in place, budgets were set more or less on time.  It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the fiscal “wheels” started to come off.

During the Mario Cuomo years (1980s and early 1990s), budget timeliness got progressively worse.  And it kept getting worse.  During the Pataki years (1994-2006), the late budgets grew later, one budget being adopted 133 days after the beginning of the fiscal year!

Chronically late budgets make a mess of the finances of local governments, which cannot develop responsible budgets when state aid is still up in the air; late budgets disrupt state services since agencies are not sure of funding levels; and late budgets fuel public cynicism about their own democracy.

When budgets have been late, it’s often due to a decision by one of the three top leaders – the governor, the Senate Majority Leader, or the Assembly Speaker – to hold up the budget as a way to derive some beneficial leverage in policy negotiations.  In addition, while the public outcry may have been loud, elected officials felt that there were no meaningful electoral consequences resulting from late budgets.

New York’s court system changed that with a decision in 2004 that gave the governor far more control over the budget process.  It wasn’t until the budget crisis in the aftermath of the financial meltdown of 2008-2009, (after a very late budget) that a governor chose to use those powers to drive the budget process.

It is now widely viewed that New York’s governor has outsized budgetary constitutional powers vis-à-vis the Legislature.  Former Governor Andrew Cuomo used that power to get approvals for on-time (or nearly on-time) state budgets.  That started to change toward the end of his tenure and the trend has worsened over the past four years, with last year’s budget being approved in early May.  

Add this year to that list.  The budget deadline came and went this weekend with no agreement.  Instead, lawmakers and the governor agreed last week to extend the current budget through April 4th, giving them another week to try to hammer out a budget deal.

Getting the budget done by April 1st is what Governor Hochul and state lawmakers are supposed to do.  The state budget is the centerpiece of the legislative session, the most important task that voters “hire” lawmakers to do when they cast their votes.  Failure to do so just feeds an increasingly cynical electorate’s assessment that Albany can’t get its work done like it’s supposed to.  In the real world, however, the impacts of a late budget – as long as it’s done within a week or so – are not significant.  As long as public employees get paid and agencies can do their work, the only real impact is that lawmakers will not get paid until the final budget deal is done.  As seen in the state’s past, the longer the budget fight goes the greater the impacts.  For example, late budgets can delay payments to those vendors – including nonprofit service providers – who have contracts with the state.

This year’s budget delay is tied to significant differences – some financial and some not – between the executive and legislative budget plans, particularly spending for education, Medicaid, and to encourage more affordable housing.  Last year it was Governor Hochul’s demands in the area of public safety that jammed up the budget process.  This year, housing policy might be the sticking point.  Whether a good or bad idea, the inclusion of a housing proposal in the budget will not be central to the finances of the state budget. 

But when it comes to state budgets, things can change very, very quickly.  Just when budget negotiations seem stalled, an hour later it accelerates toward conclusion. 

Unfortunately, all of those deals will be cut in secret.  By the time the public (and too often many rank-and-file legislators) finds out what the final product is, votes will have been taken and the new budget will be in the books.

No April Fool’s Joke:  It shouldn’t be this way. After all, it’s your money.  Until Albany changes its ways, New Yorkers should be on guard because the joke – such as it is – is on us.