Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Fukishima Anniversary and New York’s Subisidies of Nuclear Power

Posted by NYPIRG on March 12, 2018 at 12:14 pm
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Last weekend was the seventh anniversary of the disaster at the Japanese nuclear power plant located in Fukushima.  On March 11, 2011, an earthquake occurred in the Pacific Ocean that spawned a huge tsunami.  The quake itself caused considerable damage to the Japanese islands near the center of the quake, but the tsunami’s impact was catastrophic.

The waves caused by the earthquake hit the Fukushima area with such force that over one million buildings were partially or completely destroyed and about 19,000 residents were killed.

At the same time, eleven reactors at four nuclear power plants in the region were forced to shut down.  However, the tsunami disabled the emergency generators that would have provided power to control and operate the pumps necessary to cool the superheated reactors.  The insufficient cooling led to three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen-air explosions, and the release of radioactive material during the next few days after the tsunami hit.

The result of this disaster forced tens of thousands of Japanese to relocate from the area and the uncontrolled release of radioactive materials into the area and the Pacific Ocean.

The power plants in Fukushima are of the same design as some in New York State, which are located on Lake Ontario.  While no one would expect the same scenario to occur, those plants have been the focus of state policies in recent years.

The plants, built in the 1960s, have exceeded their expected useful lifetimes.  Generally, plants of that design and era are expected to be used for roughly 40 or so years.  Yet those plants continue to operate under a deal negotiated largely outside of public view.

In the summer of 2016, negotiators from the Cuomo Administration and the plant owners agreed to a multi-billion dollar bailout of the plants – which were slated for closure.  At that time, the state did not reveal the estimated costs, but subsequent analyses estimated that the costs could run anywhere from $2.9 billion to $7.6 billion over a 12-year period.  The negotiation contained no new safety requirements for the plants, just a guarantee that virtually all New Yorkers would be required to pay to make the nuke plants profitable – whether they received power from the plants or not – to keep them open.

The safety records of the plants came under new scrutiny in a report issued last week by the Alliance for a Green Economy, an upstate New York nuclear watchdog organization.  The report analyzed recent inspection reports and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) documents and identified three issues of concern:

  • The group identified regulatory violations without penalties: 18 violations of Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations were reported between March 2017 and February 2018 for the four Upstate reactors, but no penalties or fines were assessed.
  • The group identified examples of weakened regulations at the request of nuclear operators. For example, at the request of one of the plant’s owners, the National Regulatory Commission changed the requirement for what constitutes an “unusual event” regarding Lake Ontario flooding. As we all know, there had been extensive flooding last year in the Lake Ontario area.
  • Lastly, the group identified missed deadlines for fixing known safety and maintenance issues: one plant near Oswego does not have a containment vessel likely to be able to contain the pressure and radiation released by a meltdown and installation of a required vent has been delayed; the plant’s owner is behind schedule for fixing numerous maintenance issues.

New York State should learn the lessons of the dangers of relying on nuclear power and follow the path set by California: move to shut down these aging facilities, and instead move toward greater reliance on solar, wind and geothermal power.  Those power generators have been starved of adequate support since so much of the state’s wealth is tied up in propping up the Lake Ontario plants.  New York energy efficiency programs are anemic and lag far behind neighboring states and currently solar only generates about 1 percent of the power for the state.  Instead of mandating that New Yorkers subsidize aging, inefficient, 20th century nuclear plants, that money should be redirected to 21st century conservation and renewable energy programs.

New York’s Ethical Failings

Posted by NYPIRG on March 5, 2018 at 8:09 am
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New York State’s long running corruption crisis continues to this day.  For each of the first seven months of this year, a new high-profile corruption case goes to trial.  Last week the first of those cases went to the jury for deliberations and in the second case, a trial was averted when a former legislator pleaded guilty.

Quite a week.

In the guilty plea case a former state Senator from Niagara (George Maziarz) admitted to the criminal misuse of his campaign funds by illegally steering them into the pocket of an aide.  Maziarz will pay a fine, but the misdemeanor plea avoids jail time.

In the first trial a top aide to the governor is facing decades in the slammer if convicted (of course everyone is innocent until proven guilty).  And while the jury deliberates over whether he violated federal bribery laws, the evidence and testimony in the trial revealed serious ethical questions over how the Cuomo Administration monitors ethics.  Here are a few of those questions:

According to testimony and evidence presented at the trial the governor’s aide, while outside of government service and running the governor’s re-election campaign, was able to keep his government security card to gain access to the executive chamber and appears to have been able to use his old office, including conducting business on the executive office telephone.

Question: Who approved this decision and was the state’s ethics watchdog (the Joint Commission on Public Ethics) consulted about this arrangement?

According to testimony and evidence presented at the trial, the aide was allowed to have an outside consulting business while running the campaign and, apparently was still deeply involved in government decision-making.  Legal advice on ethics issues was given to him while he was employed outside of government by an Administration official.

Question: Was JCOPE consulted on this arrangement?

According to testimony at the trial, then-gubernatorial candidate Cuomo, who was also the incumbent Attorney General, traveled on a donor’s personal jet for his gubernatorial campaign.

Question: Did the state’s ethics watchdog at that time, the Commission on Public Integrity, approve this travel?

According to testimony at the trial, a top Administration official vetted campaign contributions made to the governor from political appointees and others seeking government contracts.  That official also, reportedly on her own time, vetted campaign contributions for the governor’s re-election campaign.  According to the New York Times, nearly $900,000 in campaign contributions were made by political appointees during that period.

Question:  How is it possible that despite the vetting of contributions by the Administration, such money was raised in apparent conflict with the Administration’s executive order to prohibit such a practice?

According to testimony and evidence presented at the trial, $125,000 in campaign contributions were directed by an outside lobbyist, working with a company seeking to do business with the state, to the governor’s re-election campaign through a network of limited liability companies.  According to the evidence, at least some of those contributions were disguised by being sent from related LLCs, whose names did not contain the name of the parent company.

Question: How was this decision and how were these donations vetted by the Administration?

According to testimony and evidence presented at the trial, an outside lobbyist regularly communicated with top Administration officials through their private email accounts.  Contained in those emails were decisions that directly impacted public policies.

Question: Why was it that so many high ranking officials were allowed to conduct business through personal emails?

While the governor’s former top aide’s case is before the jury, the verdict is in on the way New York State conducts its political business: its deeply flawed system directly raises the risk of corruption.  And that increased risk of corruption led last week to another conviction, adding to the dozens so far.  And it is a system that will continue to be on trial deep into this summer.

Regardless of the verdicts in these trials, the current system is failing to produce integrity in government.  New Yorkers deserve only the highest ethical conduct from elected and appointed officials.

Lawmakers Return, Debate Higher Education Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on February 26, 2018 at 10:39 am
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New York lawmakers return to the Capitol this week to begin their push to agree on a state budget, due by April 1.  There are a number of issues on which they must agree: first the amount of money that is available and then how to spend it.

Generally speaking, what the governor proposes in his budget plan is 90 percent of what will become law.  A large portion of the budget is money from the federal government that requires little action by New York State other than the approval to spend it as expected by the feds.

Much of the state spending has the quiet approval of the legislature, but there can be disagreements over how much to spend on programs as well as how the governor proposes to spend allocated funds on programs.

Those disagreements are what can lead to the controversies that often dominate media coverage of the Albany budget process.

One area in which there is expected disagreement is the governor’s proposed higher education budget.  In his budget plan, the governor proposed big cuts to colleges’ “opportunity programs.”

Opportunity programs, which are designed for educationally and economically disadvantaged students, have a steady track record of success in increasing graduation rates among the most at-risk students.  In general, students in opportunity programs come from low-income communities and often rank low on traditional measures of collegiate admissions standards, such SAT scores, high school GPA, and class standing.  New York State has several opportunity programs in place to help increase access to and success in higher education to New Yorkers.

These programs include Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK), Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), and others.  The State University of New York’s EOP students may receive support services, such as academic, career, and personal counseling; tutoring and supplemental instruction.  As part of a student’s overall financial aid package, EOP provides financial assistance for non-tuition related expenses (e.g., books, supplies, etc.).

Similarly, the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (known as ASAP) and similar programs build in robust advisement services, and funding for textbook and transit costs, among other costs.  And it works.  Students involved in the nationally recognized ASAP graduate at more than double the rate of non-ASAP students.

Despite the track records of success for these programs, the executive budget proposes cuts, not improvements, to the tune of nearly $24 million in reduced support.  Here is what the governor proposed:

  • The executive budget cuts $5 million from State University of New York’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).
  • The executive budget cuts nearly $5 million from Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK), which offers help to CUNY students in four-year colleges and universities.
  • The executive budget cuts $2.5 million from CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP).
  • The executive budget cuts nearly $6 million in the HEOP, which is similar to EOP, but offers help to students in independent colleges and universities.
  • The executive budget cuts $1 million to child care centers at SUNY and $900,000 dollars from child care centers at CUNY.
  • The executive budget eliminates funding for the state’s Bundy Aid program – which offers aid to independent colleges and universities that is usually used for student services.

Why would the governor propose cuts to programs with demonstrated successes in helping students to succeed and graduate college?  The argument often heard is that the plan is a way to put some pressure on the legislature to “buy back” those cuts.  In the contorted, horse-trading world of Albany, sometimes the governor proposes cuts that he believes that the legislature will restore.

Of course, when he does that he runs the risk that those programs don’t get restored and, in this case, deserving students may lose out on a college education, which could drastically hurt their career opportunities.

And sometimes cuts do happen.  Last year, for example, the governor proposed cuts to public health programs – funding for efforts to help Alzheimer’s patients, address lead poisoning and other issues – that took a 20 percent cut.

While there may be ways that such budget maneuvers make sense in a tactical way, they unnecessarily put people’s education or health at risk.  Let’s hope that this year’s budget sees not only restoration but expansion of these – and other – important programs that can make a huge difference in the lives of New Yorkers.

And let’s hope that in future budgets these games end.

Lead Poisoning Threat Persists in New York

Posted by NYPIRG on February 20, 2018 at 12:03 pm
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Almost 50 years after New York banned the sale of lead in paint, each year some 1,800 children are found to be lead poisoned in New York.  This epidemic affects mostly young children of color from low-income communities who live in poorly maintained housing, where windows, doors, walls and ceilings produce invisible lead dust that is ingested by infants and toddlers through hand-to-mouth behavior and inhalation.

Lead creates a host of health, cognitive and behavioral problems, including loss of IQ, attention deficit, impulse control issues, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and, in extreme cases, coma and death.  There is no safe level of lead and it has no beneficial use in the human body.

While children may be exposed to lead through a number of sources—including toys, old water pipes and soil—the primary lead poisoning threat for New York’s children is from paint dust in older, substandard housing.

Unfortunately, New York’s housing puts children at elevated risk of lead poisoning.  New York has both the nation’s greatest number (3.3 million) and the highest percentage (43.1%) of its housing stock built before 1950, the houses most likely to contain lead paint, the leading source of childhood lead poisoning.

Because lead harms children even in tiny concentrations—parts per million levels—seemingly small increases in the concentration of lead in a child’s blood level can have substantial cognitive impacts, with comparatively low blood lead levels correlating with significant IQ loss.

In 1970 when it banned lead in paint, New York was among the vanguard of states—almost a decade before the national residential paint ban.  However, in 2018 New York lags in childhood lead poisoning prevention in several key respects.  As a result, thousands of New York’s children ingest dangerous levels of lead and could suffer permanently from this entirely preventable exposure.

New York must do more.  Here’s five steps that the state can take immediately to dramatically reduce childhood lead poisoning in New York.  The 2019 state budget—being examined and negotiated now through the end of March—is the vehicle to enact these changes.

  1. Use existing authority to lower the level at which a child is considered lead poisoned and action is undertaken to identify and eliminate the lead hazard. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered its recommended action level five years ago.  It’s past time for New York to follow suit.
  2. Reduce the dust level standard that’s used to determine whether a lead hazard exists and whether a clean-up effort has been effective. The current “dust-clearance standard” is based on rules formulate in the 1990s.  While U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has formulated a significantly stronger standard, under the Trump Administration the agency is dragging its feet.  New York doesn’t have to wait for EPA to act and should adopt the stronger standard immediately.
  3. Despite the scope of the problem, New York spends too little on lead poisoning prevention, citing budget constraints. The state could nearly double its budget—currently proposed at around $14 million—by adopting an idea Mario Cuomo put forward in 1992: Place a twenty-five cent per gallon surcharge on large paint manufacturers based on the amount of paint they sell in the state.  Based on Maine’s successful program, New York could generate another $12 million a year for lead poisoning prevention programs.
  4. Lead poisoned families can face myriad health problems, learning disabilities and behavioral issues. Unfortunately, for many with serious, permanent injuries from lead poisoning due to poorly maintained rental housing, the civil courts provide no recourse.  This is because the state allows insurance companies to exclude lead poisoning coverage from standard liability policies sold to landlords.  The governor should direct the state Department of Financial Services to close the childhood lead poisoning liability loophole so lead poisoned kids can get their day in court.
  5. The governor has proposed that local government housing code agencies enforce strict lead paint maintenance standards in housing located in areas with a track record of high numbers of poisonings. This “primary prevention” approach make enormous sense.  But without a long-term commitment by the state to fund prevention programs, it will never get off the ground.  The governor should commit to fully fund this proposal.

As the state’s chief executive overseeing state agencies and as the former administrator of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Governor Cuomo is uniquely qualified to be a champion in this area.  This is a matter utmost importance to public health, social justice and investment in New York’s future, its children.  2018 should be the year New York gets the lead out.

New York Undermines Its Cancer Fighting Efforts

Posted by NYPIRG on February 12, 2018 at 9:16 am
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The governor has done a lot to promote the state’s program to boost breast cancer screening rates.  He spent considerable time advocating for the expanded program and made it a centerpiece of his 2016 State of the State address and earlier this month issued a news release about his Administration spending nearly $38 million on breast screening services.  But cancer is not only a women’s issue, it affects all of us.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in America – a close second to heart disease. According to the American Cancer Society’s estimates, in 2018 over 110,000 New Yorkers will receive a cancer diagnosis and over 35,000 New Yorkers will die from the disease.

Four cancers – female breast, prostate, colon and lung cancers – are responsible for roughly half of the cancers expected in New York State – both in terms of the number of cases and the estimated number of deaths.  Those “big four” drive the state’s cancer experience.

Of course, high rates of cancer occurrence do not necessarily translate to deaths occurring at the same rate.  While female breast cancer is the leading cancer for women, for example, it is not the leading cancer killer.

That “distinction” is reserved for lung cancer.  Lung cancer is far and away the biggest cancer killer in New York State, accounting for roughly one quarter of all cancer deaths.

And that key statistic should drive public policy.  We know that the overwhelming majority of lung cancers result from exposure to tobacco smoke.

There is no news there.

Using the experiences of states like New York, the federal government has offered blueprints on how to design tobacco control programs to have the most beneficial impact.  And here is where New York’s program starts to slide off the rails.

The CDC recommends that New York State spend roughly $200 million on its tobacco control program.  But New York never has.  In terms of spending on tobacco control, the high water mark was in FY2007-08 when the state spent over $85 million.  But tobacco control spending has declined since 2008.

The program has suffered from devastating cuts during the Cuomo Administration and has lost more than half of its funding from ten years ago.  New York State was once considered the fifth best in tobacco control efforts; due to these budget cuts, it has tumbled to 22nd.

What is most inexplicable about this approach is that the state has the money for the program.  It collects over $1 billion in tobacco taxes and other revenues.

In this year’s budget, the Administration is expecting additional revenues from legal settlements with the tobacco companies to total $400 million.

Yet, the governor proposes no new money to fight tobacco use.

In another cancer-fighting area, the state is not improving its efforts.  New York State offers a Cancer Services Program (CSP), which provides breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screenings and diagnostic services at no cost to women and men, typically those that lack health insurance.  If the screening test finds something abnormal, diagnostic (testing) services are available for eligible women and men at no cost.  The CSP will also provide a case manager who will guide someone with cancer through their follow-up diagnostic appointments.

If breast, cervical or colorectal cancer is found, eligible women and men may be able to enroll in the special cancer treatment program to receive full Medicaid health insurance coverage for the entire time they are being treated for cancer.

But that program has never been adequately funded, with experts stating that it only historically offered help to 15 percent of the eligible population.  Even with the expansion of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, the CSP is still not adequately funded to meet the needs of the uninsured.

The governor’s budget ignores that best scientific evidence behind cancer screening and instead has consistently tried to cut spending for this important program.  Last year, CSP took a 20 percent reduction in funding.  This year, the governor is not proposing to increase the program’s spending to meet the state’s needs.

As lawmakers move ahead on developing a final budget, they should make sure that new revenues are added to the state’s tobacco control and cancer screening programs.  Not only is it the right thing to do, those investments will save lives down the road.