Archive for June 2024

New Yorkers Go to the Polls – Some of Them Anyway

Posted by NYPIRG on June 24, 2024 at 7:41 am

Congressional, state Senate, and state Assembly primaries are being held Tuesday June 25th.  Not all districts have primaries, but some do, and, in those cases the primary winner likely will be the candidate who prevails in November’s general election. 

Primaries are important in American elections.  In fact, in many places primaries have become more important than general elections in determining the winner, especially in congressional and state legislative elections where one party typically dominates.  Due to a combination of the natural partisan divides (rural areas tend to be more Republican, urban areas more Democratic, and the suburbs “purple”) and partisan gerrymandering, the number of competitive seats for Congress and state legislatures has declined since the 1970s.  Most are “safe” seats—reliably Republican or Democratic.  As a result, primaries—when voter participation is typically lowest—are increasingly determinative of the general election outcome.

How low can voter participation be in primaries?  In a state like New York, turnout can be miniscule.  A review of the four most recent gubernatorial elections sheds some light.  Democrats have had four gubernatorial primaries in the last 20 years, with the highest turnout 24 percent in 2018.  On the Republican side, there have been only two primaries for governor over the past two decades, with the highest turnout at 16 percent in 2010.

In only one election did both major parties have gubernatorial primaries and that was in 2022.  In that election 1.1 million voters cast their ballots.  To put that in some context, there are over 13 million registered voters in New York.  Thus, roughly 10 percent of all registered voters selected the two major party candidates that the rest of us had to choose from.

Under New York law only those who are enrolled in a political party can vote in that party’s primary.  Not all states have adopted that approach.  There are five types of primary systems.  New York’s primaries are considered “closed,” meaning only party enrollees can vote; the primaries are “closed” to all others.  There are nine other states that have such “closed” systems.  Some states have primaries that are considered “partially closed.”  In those states, political parties are allowed to decide whether to allow unaffiliated voters or voters not registered with the party to participate in their nominating contests.  There are nine states that have such systems.

Some states are considered “partially open.”  These states permit voters to cross party lines, but their ballot choice may be regarded as a form of registration—essentially meaning that by casting a primary ballot the voter is registering in the political party in which they chose to vote.  Four states have a form of this system.

The fourth category allows unaffiliated voters to participate in any party primary they choose but does not allow voters who are registered with one party to vote in another party’s primary.  There are seven states that allow unaffiliated voters to participate in any primary.

The last category is the obvious one:  Some states allow any voter to vote in any primary.  These states are considered to have “open primaries.  In an open primary, voters choose the party in which to cast a primary vote, but this decision is private and does not register the voter with that party.

Here in New York, given the miniscule voter participation in primaries it makes sense to reexamine how the state conducts its political business.  New York’s Constitution has long held that elections are to be run jointly by the two major political parties. 

But does that system make sense in the current political environment?

Clearly, primary voter participation rates in New York are dismal.  Add to that the below the national average turnout in the general election—in which all voters can participate—and the upshot is that when it comes to voting, New York ranks in the bottom third of the nation.

In New York unaffiliated voter registrations—sometimes called “blanks” because the party enrollment part of their voter registration forms are not filled in—has seen the biggest growth over the past 20 years.  In 2006, 5.5 million voters registered as Democrats.  In 2022, that number had risen by more than one million to 6.5 million—or an 18 percent increase.  Republicans saw their registrations drop during that period.  In 2006, 3.1 million New Yorkers registered as Republicans; by 2022, only 2.9 million had. 

However, “unaffiliated” voters saw their numbers jump from 2.3 million in 2006 to nearly 3.1 million in 2022, a whopping 30 percent increase.

Yet, despite their numbers and their incredible growth, they are “second class” voters.  They have no representation in elections administration, and they cannot vote in primaries.  When Election Day rolls around they are simply left to choose among the candidates blessed by the political parties. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.  As mentioned earlier, there are other primary models to choose from.  And the administration of elections could be wrestled from the hands of the two major parties and handed to independent elections professionals. 

This week, a small number of New Yorkers will choose Congressional and state Legislative candidates for the general election.  From now until November, it is our opportunity to press our representatives to make New York’s elections more open and accountable to all voters.

New York Feels the Heat

Posted by NYPIRG on June 17, 2024 at 10:27 am

Last fall, many schools across the nation closed due to excessive heat.  Acknowledging that the planet is getting hotter and that students may be unsafe in schools when temperatures soar, New York lawmakers approved legislation to require schools to evacuate students if classrooms reach 88 degrees.  The bill, if approved by Governor Hochul, would mandate that students be moved to another location or sent home when temperatures hit 88 degrees.  The bill also requires that once the temperatures reach 82 degrees, school districts take immediate action to offer students an opportunity to get cool, but they would not have to leave.

There are a host of questions both in terms of what happens to students if temperatures soar and how to pay for the costs of cooling school buildings – many of which are not designed for a hotter climate.  Moreover, will school buses have to offer air conditioning, too?

While the legislation makes its way to Governor Hochul’s desk, the impact of a rapidly heating planet plays out beyond schools.  This week, much of the nation will be sweltering through the first massive heat wave of the summer season and for those in the northeast the heat will feel like over 100 degrees for most of the work week.  (Some schools are moving to protect students too, moving to half days.)

If you’ve noticed that we’re experiencing more heat waves than in the past, you’re right.  The reason?  Climate change.  Research has shown heat waves now occur three times as often as they did in the 1960s.  Heat domes (which are more stationary heat waves) are also 150 times more likely due to climate change.  As we all know, extreme heat is particularly dangerous — among the deadliest of all extreme weather events.

Across the world the hotter planet has caused carnage in many parts of the world.  According to the World Health Organization, “The number of people exposed to extreme heat is growing exponentially due to climate change in all world regions.  Heat-related mortality for people over 65 years of age increased by approximately 85% between 2000–2004 and 2017–2021.”

This week’s expected heat wave has triggered some governmental responses.  Citing the heat and humidity expected this week when temperatures will “feel like” 100 or more, Governor Hochul urged that “New Yorkers should take every precaution they can over this next week to stay cool and stay safe.”  She also urged that for those who do not have sufficient ways to keep cool that the state will make available “cooling centers” for those in need. 

Reducing the heat in schools and offering “cooling centers” come with a price tag.  And those costs can be added to the tens of billions of dollars that New Yorkers will face over the coming years to deal with the climate change impacts of intense heat, more damaging storms, floods, rising sea levels, and an overall worsening environment.

There is simply no getting around these costs and others.  New York, the nation, and the world will have to deal with these and other climate-related catastrophes over the remainder of the century.  The only thing we can do now is to act to avoid the worst of the possible outcomes.

Of course, it didn’t have to be this way.  If the oil companies had just alerted the world to the dangers when they knew about them (at least four decades ago) and led the charge to respond, the world likely would not be facing this existential crisis.

Things, however, are what they are, and we must act.

The Hochul Administration’s public warnings and services to those in need are important.  Yet, they are not sufficient.  The taxpayer costs for dealing with the climate catastrophe will be staggering and will total in the tens of billions of dollars.  Unfortunately, those costs – like the temperature of the planet – are expected to keep rising.

What can the governor do?  She can sign the “Climate Change Superfund Act,” which puts the world’s largest oil companies on the hook for at least some of those costs.  The bill requires those companies most responsible for the emissions of greenhouse gases to pay the state $3 billion annually for the next 25 years.  The major hangup had been concerns that the annual assessment will be passed on to the public.  That concern runs counter to basic marketplace economics, a view echoed in an independent economic paper published by the respected Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law. 

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 state, the nation, and the world need to stop using fossil fuels as quickly as possible.  Governor Hochul can help protect taxpayers by ensuring that Big Oil contributes to the cleanup of the mess that they made – which unfortunately includes kids baking in their classrooms before the calendar even says it’s summer.   

Lawmakers Head for the Exit, Will They Return Before the End of the Year?

Posted by NYPIRG on June 10, 2024 at 7:32 am

Last week both houses of the Legislature wrapped up their official sessions.  In many ways it was a return to the pre-pandemic sessions.  The Capitol and the Legislative Office Building were open to the public; committees were held in public and in-person; issue and budget hearings were held; lobbyists wandered the halls, buttonholing lawmakers and pleading their cases face-to-face. 

And when the dust had settled after lawmakers cast their final votes on June 7th in the Senate and the early morning of the 8th for the Assembly, the trend continued with the state Assembly approving far fewer bills than they did the previous year, while the state Senate increased theirs. 

Both houses agreed to a bit more than 800 identical bills.  That is the lowest number (other than the pandemic-truncated session of 2020) since 2018, when the Democrats took over control of both houses.  The reason for the numerical decline appears to be directly the result of far fewer bills passing the Assembly – 960 – the smallest number that that house had approved (other than the covid-impacted 2020 session) in nearly three decades

But the end of the official scheduled session doesn’t necessarily mean the Legislature is done for the year.  When the Assembly left the Capitol on June 8th, immediately there were rumors that the Legislature would have to return.  The most likely reason?  That would be that the governor’s scheme to block implementation of the “congestion pricing” program slated to begin in New York City at the end of this month forced lawmakers to use up valuable end-of-session negotiating time to figure out how they wanted to respond. 

At the end of the day, they chose to do nothing, but not until precious end-of-session hours had been spent in closed-door meetings as they plotted their responses.  That loss of time jammed up time to negotiate as well as time to debate bills.  As a result, bills that had been expected to be approved were not, leaving many members frustrated that their bills had been stopped short of passage during the regularly scheduled session.

An example: legislation designed to plug a loophole in the state’s lobbying law.  Last year, overwhelming bipartisan majorities approved legislation that would have defined “lobbying” to include advocacy to influence gubernatorial appointments.  Current law requires the reporting of lobbying to influence laws, executive actions, agency decisions, efforts to influence local governments, and some – but not all – appointments, for example appointments to the state Board of Regents – but not for efforts to influence the governor’s appointments to agencies or the courts. 

Legislation to close that loophole was approved last year but vetoed by the governor.  This year similar legislation was approved in the Senate, but the Assembly version was a casualty of the “clock” running out on the Assembly session.

Of course, that does not mean that nothing was accomplished during the session.  One of the more notable accomplishments was passage in both houses of legislation dubbed the “Climate Change Superfund Act,” which – if approved by the governor – will require that the companies most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions (Big Oil companies) would be on the financial hook for a chunk of the state’s climate costs. 

The legislation has garnered the support of hundreds of community, environmental, labor, religious, and youth organizations.  It passed the state Senate.  One hundred local elected officials support it.  Seventy-six Assembly Democrats are sponsors of the Climate Change Superfund Act, a huge majority of the 101 Democrats in that chamber (and an overall majority of the Assembly).

In an end-of-session surprise, the Assembly moved the bill to the floor for a vote.  After more than two hours of debate, the bill was approved by a vote of 95-46 at 3:22 a.m. in the marathon last day of session.

The major hangup had been concerns that the annual $3 billion Climate Superfund assessments would be passed on to the public.  Those concerns should have been allayed by a consideration of America’s system of marketplace economics.    The fact that the bill’s assessment would not impact the public was echoed by an independent economic paper published by the respected Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law. 

The Climate Superfund’s fate in New York now turns to whether the governor approves the legislation.  Governor Hochul is co-chair of the U.S. Climate Alliance – a bipartisan coalition of governors supposedly committed to fighting climate change.  Among the commitments of the Alliance is one that promises to build resilience to withstand the impacts of climate change.  Unless the governor approves the legislation, the entire costs of climate change – which already total billions of dollars annually – will be borne solely by New York taxpayers.  The bill shifts some of those costs to the companies most responsible for our worsening climate.

Looking ahead, lawmakers may return this year to tackle legislation that fell through the cracks at the end of session.  In the meantime, the governor and her staff will be rolling up their sleeves to figure out her position on 805 bills.  One of them could help save taxpayers big bucks in the coming years as well as build a safer infrastructure to better protect New Yorkers from a worsening climate. 

It makes sense for her to approve it.  Time will tell. 

Vermont Passes First In-the-Nation Law to Make Oil Companies Pay for Climate Damages — Will New York Follow?

Posted by NYPIRG on June 3, 2024 at 8:00 am

Like the rest of the world, the state of Vermont is dealing with the consequences of a rapidly-heating planet.  Just this past winter the state was hit by a storm that left well over 8 inches of wet snow in several towns and more than 35,000 homes without power.  The damage to power lines came from heavy, wet snow, weather that’s becoming increasingly common as climate change brings warmer winters and more extreme precipitation.

That storm was not a “one off”:  Billion-dollar climate-related disasters are hitting Vermont more frequently.  Since 1965, annual precipitation has increased by 7 inches, and the number of days per year with precipitation of 1 inch or more has nearly doubled. These trends are expected to continue. Heavy rainfall events are expected to occur more often, which increases the risk of flooding, damage to transportation infrastructure and buildings, water and crop contamination, wind damage, and power outages.

All of these impacts are costly.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the past five years Vermont has experienced three billion-dollar disasters, with two of them happening in the past year.  With a population of nearly 650,000, absorbing the mounting costs of climate disasters is a daunting  – and expensive – proposition for residents of the Green Mountain State.

Last week, in an historic move, Vermont became the first state in the nation to establish a program that will put the largest oil companies on the financial hook for the mushrooming climate costs.  Republican Governor Phil Scott, while expressing concerns over expected litigation with the oil giants, allowed the bill to become law. 

New Yorkers who have been paying close attention to environmental policy in New York will know that the state has advanced a similar program here.  That legislation, the “Climate Change Superfund Act,” was originally introduced two years ago.  The legislation has garnered the support of hundreds of community, environmental, labor, religious, and youth organizations.  It passed the state Senate in 2023 and 2024.  One hundred local elected officials support it.   Seventy-six Assembly Democrats are sponsors of the Climate Change Superfund Act, a huge majority of the 101 Democrats in that chamber (and an overall majority of the Assembly).

Yet, New York has not acted.  Why?

Surprisingly, the leader of the opposition appears to be New York Governor Hochul.  Despite her role as co-chair of the U.S. Climate Alliance – a bipartisan coalition of governors supposedly committed to fighting climate change – the governor has blocked approval of the legislation as part of the budget. 

Now despite the overwhelming majority of Assembly Democratic sponsors (and there are more supporters in that House), the bill seems stuck.  Last week, Assembly Speaker Heastie reportedly stated “I’ve never in my life seen corporations choose the ratepayer over the stockholder.  Asking these companies to pay more, it’s going to be, of course, taken out on the ratepayer.”

The Speaker’s statement represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Climate Change Superfund Act would work.  A failure to approve the legislation will leave New York taxpayers holding the bag for mounting climate costs, while Big Oil continues to make huge profits.  The Climate Change Superfund Act should not have an impact on utility rates, no impact on gas prices, no impact on home heating costs.  The bill’s impact will be to solely reduce climate costs currently paid by taxpayers.  An independent economic paper published by the respected Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law supports that view. 

Of course, the comments – however misguided – are those of only one man, an important one no doubt, but only one.  With well over three-quarters of his Democratic Conference in support of the legislation, including the chairs of the Codes, Energy, Environmental Conservation, Labor, and Local Governments committees.  Given that strong support, in a normal process the legislation should be approved. 

In the arcane ways of Albany, insiders too often accept without question the fate of legislation based on the words of the leaders.  If the leader is indeed speaking for the conference, then that view is a correct one.  If the overwhelming majority of the conference does not share the leader’s view and legislation fails, there can only be one possibility – that despite public statements of support, the conference doesn’t really care about the legislation and is willing to let the Speaker take the blame for its defeat.

From a constituent’s perspective, what only matters are who they elect, not that person’s legislative leader.  Thus, your Assembly representative is the person that can be held to account for a failure to act.

Thanks to Governor Hochul, Vermont now leads the nation in protecting taxpayers from the costs of climate change.  This week will determine whether the overwhelming support within the Assembly Democratic Conference pushes a vote.  If so, then New York will join the effort to protect taxpayers from climate costs.  If not, you’re still on the hook for the whole thing.  And that’s a bill with a lot of zeroes to it.