Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Immigrants in America

Posted by NYPIRG on September 11, 2017 at 11:34 am
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The incredible natural calamities occurring around the world have understandably taken away public attention from important policy decisions, such as the Trump Administration’s move to end federal policy protecting the children of undocumented immigrants.

The Trump Administration overturned a federal policy called the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” or DACA, which was established during the Obama Administration.  The rationale then was that undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children should be dealt with differently.  Adults who illegally immigrated to the United States did so knowing that they could face challenges by government authorities.

Their children, on the other hand, had no say in the decision.  Thus, the Obama Administration argued, those children should be protected from deportation and allowed to stay temporarily in the country to work or study.  The Obama Administration made its decision through executive action without Congress.

In order to qualify for DACA, an individual may request DACA protections if the person was under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012; came to the U.S before they turned 16; lived continuously in the U.S. from June 15, 2007 to the present; were in U.S. on June 15, 2012 and when the person requested deferred action status.

According to estimates, there are 800,000 undocumented immigrants covered by this order in the U.S., with over 40,000 of that total in New York.  The Dreamers, as they’re often called, are students, but also in the military, emergency responders, healthcare aides, doctors in training and perhaps the person who served you breakfast at your local coffee shop this morning.

Last week, President Trump ended the program.   His argument is that the Obama decision was unconstitutional because Congress, not the White House, is supposed to set immigration law.

Of course the President is entitled to his opinion on what’s constitutional and what’s not, but the federal courts are the decisionmaker, not him.

And this is not an academic issue; hundreds of thousands of people’s futures are on now at risk—as well as their families, friends and people who work with them and benefit from their presence..

The President’s argument is that the Congress can figure this out.  Under the President’s decision, the Congress has six months to do so.

However, real people are now being held hostage.  If the Congress fails to act, hundreds of thousands of people who grew up in American could face deportation.

And why?

The Trump Administration and the Congressional majority argue that DACA recipients have taken jobs away from Americans and that the program unfairly protects people who are in the country illegally.

In a nation of over 300 million people, the number of DACA recipients is relatively small and can’t possibly have had much impact on the American jobless rate.  Moreover, these individuals came here as children.  They’ve grown up in this country, come through the public school system and view it as home.

As a result, the Trump Administration’s policy means that the nation is turning its back on immigrants who contribute to the American economy and society and who’ve basically spent their whole lives in the US.

Members of both parties in Congress say they want to come up with a fix that won’t leave these immigrants out in the cold.  We’ll see.  This Congress hasn’t been productive so far.

Fixing DACA is only one action that must be taken, and that action should be clear.  But there is the much larger issue of what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, as well as the policy for accepting immigrants in the future.

For a nation founded on immigration, shutting its doors to future immigrants and threatening the livelihoods and very lives of those already here – even those without documentation – is both cruel and shortsighted.

The Campaign Season Begins

Posted by NYPIRG on September 4, 2017 at 9:15 am
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Not only does Labor Day herald the beginning of the football season, it also kicks off the final quarter of New York’s election campaigns.  And while the focus of this year’s elections is on local offices, there are three ballot questions that impact the state’s constitution.

Since New York does not have a process for citizens to directly change the constitution, the only ways that the constitution can be changed is either by an amendment approved by two successive legislatures and then put to voters for approval, or through a constitutional convention at which elected delegates develop changes to submit to voters for approval.

The three questions will likely appear on the back side of this year’s paper ballot.  The questions each have a number, one, two or three.  In reverse order, here are the questions being put to voters.

Question 3 is a proposal to amend the state constitution to allow for the creation of a 250-acre land bank to be used in the Adirondack Park.  If approved, the land bank would allow local governments to request the use of the land in the Adirondack forest preserve for projects in exchange for the state acquiring 250 acres to be designated for the Park.

The reason that this question is on the ballot is that the Adirondack Park forest preserve is protected under the “Forever Wild” clause of the New York State Constitution.  As a result, the Park is protected as wild forest land, thus prohibiting the lease, sale, exchange, or taking of any forest preserve land.

Question 3 would allow counties and townships of certain regions that have no viable alternative to using forest preserve land to address specific public health and safety concerns.  In order to offset such uses, the proposal requires that the state obtain another 250 acres of land that will be added to the forest preserve, subject to legislative approval. The proposed amendment also will allow bicycle trails and certain public utility lines to be located within the width of specified highways that cross the forest preserve while minimizing removal of trees and vegetation.

Question 2 amends the constitution to allow judges to reduce or revoke the state pension of a public officer convicted of corruption, defined as a felony conviction stemming from a corrupt act that occurred during his or her official duties.

Under current law, public officials can put their pension at risk if they are convicted of corruption and they took office after 2010.  Under New York’s state constitution, public pensions cannot be altered once the individual is in the system.  Changes can only be made for future public employees.

Question 2 would make a constitutional change that would allow for the reduction or removal of a public pension from a public official who was in the system prior to 2011.

Question 1 may be the question which, if approved, could have the biggest impact on the future of the state.  Question 1 is the proposal for voters to decide whether they want to convene a constitutional convention.

Under the state constitution, every twenty years voters have the opportunity to decide if they want to convene a convention at which the current constitution could be re-written.  If voters approved the creation of a convention, then delegates would be elected the following year.  Those delegates could rewrite the constitution in any way it wanted.  The changes proposed by the delegates would then be forwarded to voters in the following election to decide whether they want to approve the changes.

All three questions will be on the ballot this Election Day, November 7, 2017.  In order to be registered to vote in time for the election, New Yorkers would need to be registered no later than October 13th – which is also the deadline for changing a political party to vote in the 2018 primary elections.

Off-year elections are usually marked by low voter turnouts. Many voters are simply disinterested in voting on candidates for local offices.  But this year is different, there are two proposals to change the state constitution and a once-in-two-decades chance to vote on whether to convene a convention to alter the blueprint for government in New York.

The election season is in its fourth quarter, now is the time for voters to get ready for the final drive.

Harvard Study Says Exxon Knew

Posted by NYPIRG on August 28, 2017 at 12:23 pm
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A standard page out of the American Business playbook is that if there is a serious problem emerging down the road, corporate chieftains ramp up a massive disinformation and lobbying campaign to undermine the threat.

The tobacco industry used it to great effect for decades.  It was in the mid-1960s that the U.S. Surgeon General first issued the warning that smoking cigarettes can cause cancer, but it took decades of battling the industry’s fake news, public relations consultants and corrupt researchers before public health advocates were able to make significant headway in protecting the public.

Apparently, that playbook was also used by the oil, gas and coal industries to undermine climate science.  Last week, two researchers from Harvard University published a study that reviewed internal and public records of oil industry giant ExxonMobil to see whether the company knew about the dangers of climate change, yet misled the public and investors about the dangers their own research had found.

Essentially the researchers found that Exxon knew about the dangers and engaged in a campaign that made “explicit factual misrepresentations” in newspaper ads it purchased to convey its views on the oil industry and climate science.

Over the past few years there has been a significant, and growing, number of media reports that have shown that Exxon — along with other fossil fuel companies — has known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels was a key contributor to global warming.

The Harvard researchers went a step further by demonstrating that Exxon acknowledged the reality of climate change in academic papers and internal documents while promoting doubt in public-facing communications.

The researchers said they examined 187 Exxon documents, including internal memos, peer-reviewed papers by Exxon scientists and New York Times “advertorials” that Exxon paid to have published in the style of opinion pieces.  The researchers said they used a social science analysis method to turn statements in the documents into data points that could be counted and compared.

The authors wrote: “Accounting for expressions of reasonable doubt, 83% of peer-reviewed papers and 80% of internal documents acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, yet only 12% of advertorials do so, with 81% instead expressing doubt. We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science — by way of its scientists’ academic publications — but promoted doubt about it in advertorials.”

The Harvard researchers wrote that their analysis of the documents makes the answer to that question clear.  “Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public,” they said.

The researchers also stated that the Exxon scientists acknowledged that burning fossil fuels was adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and causing global temperatures to rise as early as 1979. But the company’s position in newspaper ads consistently asserted doubt about climate science.

ExxonMobil angrily disputed the researchers’ claims, stating that the company’s “statements have been consistent with our understanding of climate science.”

What is without doubt is that the industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fund organizations and research to undermine the growing body of independent research showing the connections between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change resulting from global warming.  Those efforts were so successful that their allies now control the public health and science policies of the federal government – which is eviscerating public health protections and steps that had been taken to combat runaway global warming.

And while this latest volley between researchers and ExxonMobil may not completely resolve the dispute, what is clear is that the issue will eventually be resolved in court.

New York State Attorney General Schneiderman two years ago launched an investigation into Exxon’s behaviors and whether its actions constitute fraud.  It is reasonable to expect to see some action on that investigation soon.  Exxon will get its day in court and the public may finally know for sure what the company knew about climate change and the steps it took to protect – or threaten – the environment.

Colleges Open Up

Posted by NYPIRG on August 21, 2017 at 8:27 am
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All across New York State, colleges and universities are opening up for the Fall 2017 academic semester.  This annual rite of passage is life-changing for the students and deeply impactful for the families.  One key way that college can impact is the cost.

Attending college can add significant economic stress on the families of college students.  Rapidly increasing costs can lead families to go into debt to pay the tuition, housing, books and fees of attending college.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York collects data on student loan debt in the state.  It reported that as of 2015, the average college debt in New York is $32,200, higher than the national average of $29,700.

Moreover, the debt steadily increased for a decade. According to a report from the State Comptroller’s office, the average student debt load in New York State increased by more than 47 percent between 2005 and 2015.

Yet, for most people, getting a college degree is more important than ever.

By nearly any measure, college graduates outperform their peers who have only completed their high school degree.  For example, the average graduate is 24 percent more likely to be employed and average earnings among graduates are $32,000 higher annually and $1 million higher over a lifetime.  And 75 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree vote in presidential election years, compared with about 52 percent of high school graduates.

Clearly, public policies should be focused on making a college education more accessible, while ensuring that families don’t need massive debts to pay for it.

In New York, there have been some innovative steps to address those problems.

Two years ago, Governor Cuomo advanced a plan to help curtail some of the debts facing students.  The “Get On Your Feet” program offers up to two years of federal student loan debt relief to recent college graduates living in the state.

The program supplements the federal Pay As You Earn loan repayment program and by allowing eligible college graduates living in New York State to pay nothing on their student loans for the first two years out of school.

In addition to offering students some debt relief, earlier this year the governor advanced a plan to lower the cost of tuition for those attending public colleges.  The state’s Excelsior Scholarship program supplements current financial aid programs and allows for free tuition to waive the cost of two- and four-year public colleges and universities for families earning less than $125,000 per year.

Access to the Excelsior Scholarship will be widened over time, with a household income limit of $100,000 this year, $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019. However, the scholarship also includes restrictions. It requires students to average 30 credits per year, for example, and finish their degrees on time.

While there has been innovation, both the loan forgiveness program and the “free tuition” program have limits and the numbers of students benefiting is relatively small.  Of course, for the students benefiting, the programs are tremendously important and the programs should expand to meet financial needs in the future.

Yet, the state hasn’t kept up when it comes to providing support for public colleges.  As part of this year’s budget deal, the state agreed to a “maintenance of effort” promise.  Essentially, the state promised not to cut its support for SUNY and CUNY and that the new revenues generated by the tuition hikes would go toward enhancing college programs, not filling in budget cuts.

But the maintenance of effort pledge does not include inflationary costs or salary increases, which means that millions of dollars for those increases had to come from somewhere, likely students’ tuition.  As a result, both the State University and City University systems will be scrambling to cover state budget shortfalls unless the state provides some relief.

Before the end of session, legislation was passed that fills the state gap.  Given the extraordinary increase in state revenues over recent years, it makes sense that the state should be enhancing its support for public higher education, instead of hitting up college students and their families.

Innovative programs to help students attend college are important improvements, but unless the state ponies up more of its share, students will end up paying more anyway or services will shrink.

The new semester offers new promise to college students. Let’s hope that the state adds more support to help make those promises realities.

The State of the Climate

Posted by NYPIRG on August 14, 2017 at 10:06 am
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Last week the nation’s top science agencies released a report on the planet’s deteriorating climate.  The report, State of the Climate 2016, by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made it official: 2016 was the warmest year in recorded history.  And it was the third year in a row that the record was set.

According to the scientists, the planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.

Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with 16 of the 17 warmest years on record occurring since 2001. Not only was 2016 the warmest year on record, but eight of the 12 months that make up the year were the warmest on record for those respective months.

The report also found that

  • Global land surface temperatures last year were highest in 137 years of record keeping.
  • Sea surface temperatures were also at their highest.
  • Sea levels were at record highs in the 24 years that satellite record keeping has been used.

The peer-reviewed report stated that with a global annual average CO2 concentration of 402.9 parts per million, 2016’s greenhouse gas concentrations are the highest on record—and the first year in more than 800,000 years in which CO2 levels exceeded 400 parts per million.

From a climate perspective, the news is all bad.

The increasingly dire situation underscores the need for more aggressive responses: greater investments in alternative energy sources and a halt to the expansion of new fossil fuel investments.

It makes no sense to invest in new infrastructure to transport fossil fuels with the planet now increasingly destabilized by the burning of fossil fuels.  In order for such investments to pay off, they must be used for years – years that the planet simply does not have.

It is precisely for that reason, that Governor Cuomo should do all in his power to block new such projects in New York.  He has his one such opportunity with his decision on whether to allow the operation of a new natural gas plant, the Competitive Power Ventures project in the Hudson Valley.

The project would import and burn large quantities of natural gas.

And in order for it to succeed financially, it would have to do it for quite some time.  Time, which when it comes to climate change, that the world does not have.

Given the dire circumstances, the state has begun to act.  Other new fossil fuel projects have been scrapped but others, like the Competitive Power Ventures project, are still under consideration.

Earlier this month, energy scientist Amory Lovins laid out a plan for focusing state resources on efficiency and renewables as the best path toward responding to the climate crisis.  His analysis argues that investing resources in efficiency programs reduces energy demand and is so much cheaper per kWh that it could replace much of the power generated by current energy plants.

The longer the world waits in seriously tackling the climate crisis, the more difficult the options.  Blocking the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, as well as curtailing the billions that the governor is using to prop up inefficient, aging nuclear power plants, and instead using those resources to boost efficiency and the use of renewables, are the best options now. New York shouldn’t wait.