Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Will the Legislature “Kick the Can” on Climate Costs?

Posted by NYPIRG on March 11, 2024 at 12:19 pm

This week Albany heads into a new phase in the development of the state budget as both houses of the New York State Legislature unveil their budget priorities.  Governor Hochul advanced her plan back in January.  With the expected approval of the Senate and Assembly plans this week, the battle to reconcile the three competing plans will start in earnest.

The final budget is supposed to be completed by the end of this month, although in recent years the fight over the final version extended well into April — beyond the start of the new fiscal year.

The final budget will authorize the state to raise and spend somewhere around $235 billion over the next twelve months.  In addition to the fiscal side, the final budget will address pressing state programmatic and policy priorities.  Yet, in one key area — the rising costs of spending on damages caused by a rapidly worsening climate — Governor Hochul’s budget plan comes up short: It includes some spending on climate projects, but does so in a way that would pass those costs solely onto the backs of taxpayers.

What will the Legislature do in response?

Last year, the state Senate advanced a budget that shifted a large portion of climate damage response costs off taxpayers and onto the largest oil companies.  The plan also was designed to protect the public from having those fees shifted back onto taxpayers in the form of higher consumer costs.  Unfortunately, last year’s Assembly plan sided with the governor in requiring that all climate costs be paid by taxpayers, not Big Oil.

Will it happen again?

This year is different — the coalition calling for Big Oil to pay is large and diverse and at least half the Assemblymembers support the proposal that matches the Senate’s plan.

A coalition of over 400 environmental, civic, religious, and youth groups and 100 local elected officials have been demanding that the world’s largest oil companies pay for New York’s staggering infrastructure climate change costs as part of a final budget agreement.

The Climate Change Superfund Act requires the companies most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions to pay $3 billion annually for each of the next twenty-five years to help cover the environmental damage they have done.  The legislation is designed to prevent these costs from being shifted onto the public, as confirmed by an independent think tank’s analysis.

Climate change resiliency measures are uniquely necessary — and expensive — in New York.  A recent review of Governor Hochul’s climate-related public announcements documented that she had pledged over $2 billion in 2023 to cover damages and projects to boost the resiliency of New York’s infrastructure damaged by climate change-driven extreme weather — funds that would instead be paid by Big Oil if the Climate Superfund was approved.

It’s expected that the state’s climate costs will be enormous.  A study by New York State Comptroller DiNapoli revealed that over a ten-year span, more than half of New York localities’ municipal spending outside of New York City was or will be linked to climate change.  New York City may need to spend around $100 billion to upgrade its sewer systems to withstand intensified storms.  And those costs are on top of the $52 billion that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated it will cost to protect New York Harbor from rising sea levels and storms.  Estimates suggest that Long Island alone could incur up to $100 billion in climate-related costs.

These financial burdens are projected to escalate, potentially reaching $10 billion annually for New Yorkers by the middle of the century.

Who’s on the financial hook?  Right now you are — unless legislation is passed to allocate at least some of those costs to those who are most responsible and who have the greatest ability to pay — the largest oil companies.

Remember, scientists working for oil companies like Exxon decades ago made “remarkably accurate projections of just how much burning fossil fuels would warm the planet.”  Yet for years, the industry “publicly cast doubt on climate science, and cautioned against any drastic move away from burning fossil fuels, the main driver of climate change.”

This week, we’ll know which side the Legislature is on.  Will they protect taxpayers and put Big Oil on the hook?  Or will they adopt the governor’s position and agree to pass all of those climate costs onto the public?  The answer will have a big impact on your wallet.

Dealing With New York’s “Other” Crisis: The Trash Tsunami

Posted by NYPIRG on March 4, 2024 at 10:20 am

When New Yorkers think of pressing environmental issues, many think of the worsening climate crisis.  And with good reason:  Last year was the hottest in recorded human history and it is deteriorating rapidly.

Yet, there is another environmental crisis that demands attention – the mounting problem of what to do with trash.  According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Americans now generate twice as much waste as they did 50 years ago.  What to do with the trash that we all produce?  Right now, the number one place that residential trash goes to is a landfill, number two is that it is exported for disposal, number three burned, and last 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 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 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 who knows for how long someone else will be willing to take New York’s trash.  Actions taken now could extend the lifespan of these landfills, but waiting will make the options even more difficult.

Policymakers have long known what to do about it, but as yet have done far too little to take on the mounting crisis.

During the last week of December, the state’s DEC released its review of how New York handles its wastes and offered a 10 year plan for how to deal with it. 

The “New York State Solid Waste Management Plan” contained six major “Focus Areas” with goals and action items.  Overall, the Plan called for a shift toward a “circular economy.”  A “circular economy” is one in which the manufacturer of a product, like packaging, ensures that it can be reused, repurposed or serve a beneficial purpose upon disposal, e.g., composting.  The Plan’s six major focus areas include:

  1. Waste Reduction and Reuse;
  2. Recycling;
  3. Making Waste Producers Responsible for the wastes they generate;
  4. Organics Reduction and Recycling;
  5. Toxics Reduction in Products; and,
  6. Advanced Design Solid Waste Management Facilities.

But a plan is just a plan, no matter how good.  Action items are needed. 

To that end, last week hundreds of New Yorkers descended on the state Capitol to urge legislative action to curtail a major contributor to the residential trash problem – packaging.  These activists called for action on two major proposals:

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 paid by packaging producers, generating new revenue 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.

The advocates calling for these measures are trying to turn plans into actions — actions that have to be taken sooner if they are to have the effect of reducing the state’s trash problem.  You only have to look at our worsening climate to see what happens when policymakers don’t act.  This year, lawmakers should act and turn those cans into cash to make headway on the threat of the state’s trash tsunami.

Albany’s Consequential Week

Posted by NYPIRG on February 26, 2024 at 8:08 am

Control of the next Congress may turn on what happens in Albany this week.  Lawmakers will be considering – for the second time – the political boundaries of the state’s delegation to the House of Representatives.  How those lines are drawn may well shape the future of the Republic and its role in the world.

Right now, Republicans have a razor-thin majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the smallest in American history.  According to the Cook Political Report, New York has six incumbents that are considered vulnerable, four Republicans and two Democrats (both are in districts that “lean” Democrat). 

Five of those incumbents won their 2022 races with bare majorities.  The sixth, Tom Suozzi of Long Island, just won his old seat back in a special election earlier this month.  Thus, whichever political party dominates those New York races may well control the House in 2025.  Control of the House has obvious national implications, but it also may determine world history.  For example, the current Republican House majority has blocked U.S. support for Ukraine to defend itself from the unprovoked Russian invasion.  Democrats see that matter otherwise.  Control of the House may determine the outcome of that war. 

Even tiny majorities can have a big impact. 

The current slim Republican majority exists, to some extent, due to the Congressional boundaries drawn by the New York courts.  Instead of a significant Democratic advantage in the Congressional boundaries, Republicans received a significantly better political landscape from the court-appointed mapmaker.  Instead of as many as 22 Democrats heading to the House after the 2022 election, only 15 did.  That gave the House to the Republicans.

Those lines were subsequently challenged by Democrats in New York.  The fact that the courts established the lines, Democrats argued, should not be for the remainder of the decade.  Instead, the state’s so-called Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) should get another crack at it.  The IRC was established in the state’s Constitution to handle redistricting.  In a Court of Appeals  decision last year, (the state’s top court) decided that the political boundaries of New York’s Congressional districts should be redrawn by the IRC.

The IRC’s structure allows for equal representation of Democrats and Republicans on its 10-member board, making it a bipartisan commission, not an independent one.  In simplest terms, the Commission develops the maps for federal and state offices and then the Legislature and the governor approve or reject them.

Under the redistricting rules, the IRC develops maps, and the Legislature then approves them with no changes or rejects them.  If rejected in the up-or-down vote, the IRC then develops a second set of maps, also subject to thumbs up or thumbs down vote by the Legislature.  If the second set of maps fails to get approval, the Legislature itself (currently controlled by Democrats in each chamber) is allowed to draft maps of its own – subject to the governor’s approval.

The lines drawn after the 2020 census were the first under this new system.  Critics had argued that the bipartisan nature of the IRC would lend itself to gridlock unless the two major political parties could come to an agreement – unlikely when faced with consequential political decisions.

In the debate over the maps for the 2022 elections, gridlock occurred.  The IRC could not agree on maps, so the Democratic and Republican members of the IRC sent separate maps to the Democrat-dominated Legislature, which rejected them.  Then the IRC could not agree on advancing a second set of maps, so the Legislature stepped in and approved one of their own.

Republicans challenged that decision and in the litigation that followed, the Court of Appeals rejected the Legislatively-drawn maps, saying that they were unconstitutional.  Instead, the court drafted maps of its own for Congress and the Legislature for the 2022 election. 

Those court-drawn maps helped Republican candidates in New York and contributed to the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in Washington.

While the courts settled the boundary battle for 2022, after that election Democrats challenged those lines in advance of the 2024 election arguing that the court-drawn lines were only for that one election cycle and that the court should allow the IRC another chance to draw lines as required under the state Constitution. 

Last year, the court sided with the Democrats, returning the task to the IRC.  Two weeks ago, the IRC completed its work and in a 9-1 vote advanced its first plan to the Legislature.  The first vote on the IRC plan will be this week.  Whether the Legislature will agree to that plan, or kill it, may well determine next year’s House majority. 

Given the high stakes in redistricting, it should not be overlooked that the “do over” of Congressional map drawing is the result of New York’s fatally flawed redistricting system – one that relies on the two major political parties to determine political boundaries. 

Changes are needed both in New York and in the nation.  Independent, professionally-run, competent commissions using stringent criteria should be developing the political boundaries of the nation, not those appointed by the political parties.  Until that system is put in place, we will all live with the consequences of these political deals.

Cuomo Is Back in Court to Protect His $5 Million Book Deal

Posted by NYPIRG on February 19, 2024 at 10:34 am

Former Governor Cuomo’s attorneys were back in court last week in their ongoing effort to protect the former governor’s $5 million payday for the book written during the covid pandemic.  Their tactic is innovative – destroying the legal authority of the ethics agency (the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government or COELIG) that is looking into whether the former governor had received the book deal money illegally. 

COELIG had begun an investigation into whether Cuomo had violated the law in the use of his staff to research and write the book for which the former governor was so handsomely rewarded.  When Cuomo was still governor, his staff had persuaded the ethics agency at that time (then known as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics or JCOPE) to allow the former governor to write a book on his experiences in dealing with the covid pandemic.  The former governor needed that approval since as a full time employee of the state (the New York Governor has the highest salary of any governor) he was not allowed to “moonlight” without ethics approval.

The former governor was widely praised for his communication of how government and the public should handle the unprecedented threat from the virus.  At the peak of his popularity, the former governor pitched a book deal to a publisher.  At around the same time the former governor’s lawyer told the ethics agency staff that they had the authority to approve the deal based on previous decisions.  The ethics staff approved the book deal — without bringing the question to the ethics agency’s commissioners.  However, the approval stated that the governor could not use public resources in writing the book.

It was that provision that a JCOPE investigation found the governor had violated.  According to the investigation, the former governor used staff to work on the book and negotiate with the publisher and used state resources to assemble the manuscript.

JCOPE had hired an outside law firm to review the situation and that firm agreed with the agency’s previous conclusion: that Governor Cuomo “misused the power and authority of his office to create, market and promote for enormous personal profit a work that not only was derivative of his official duties but could only have been brought into existence and completed on schedule through the . . . assistance of a group of Executive Chamber and other state officials.”

JCOPE then concluded that the former governor had violated the agreement and had to again request approval or pay the money back to the state.  However, soon thereafter the entity was disbanded under legislation advanced by the current Governor Hochul.

The new ethics agency, COELIG, then decided to investigate the JCOPE conclusion that Cuomo had violated the book deal agreement.  It was that renewed investigation that the former governor is trying to block in court.  He is now, however, not seeking to challenge the investigation directly, instead he is seeking to undermine the legality of the new ethics agency itself and in doing so stymie the ethics agency’s look into the book deal.

In September, the former governor won the first round.  A state Supreme Court judge found that the ethics agency is indeed unconstitutionally constructed and blocked it from further investigating the book deal.  That decision said that the ethics agency’s independence from the governor violated the state Constitution’s separation of powers principle.  Last week, the appeal of that decision was heard

At the appellate court argument, lawyers for the state and the former governor battled it out over the authority of the governor to cede her authority to an “independent” ethics watchdog.  The law establishing the current ethics agency should be allowed, the state Attorney General’s lawyer argued, since the constitutional framing of the separation of powers should rely on flexibility and common sense.  It can’t be so inflexible a principle that a governor cannot address a public crisis in confidence in government by establishing an entity that can have some oversight over the executive branch.  After all, the state ethics agency is tasked with overseeing the ethics of the governor.  How can that happen if they are under the authority of the governor?

The lawyer representing the former governor disagreed.  His argument was that the state Constitution mandates that any agency established within the executive branch must be controlled by the governor’s authority.  Thus, since the current ethics agency contains only three of eleven appointees of the governor, it is not under her control.  As a result, it is unconstitutional (and cannot investigate the former governor’s book deal).

Whichever way the court rules, it is likely that the losing party will appeal to the state’s highest court.  If that court rules against the former governor, he could be out $5 million.  If the former governor wins, it’s back to the drawing board for ethics enforcement and Cuomo will be able to keep his covid book windfall.

World Cancer Day and New York’s Failure

Posted by NYPIRG on February 12, 2024 at 10:23 am

The world focused its attention on cancer last week.  World Cancer Day was a way to educate the public about the threats posed by cancer and create pressure on policymakers to adopt science-based approaches to reducing the incidence of the diseases and to cut deaths from cancer.

The Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), the organizer of World Cancer Day, laid out its mission, that it hoped that the Day “encourages everyone to ask their governments to improve health equity, to make it easier for all populations to enjoy affordable and accessible cancer services, and to reduce disparities in cancer incidence and mortality.”

While there are hundreds of different kinds of cancers, including many that are the result of environmental exposures or genetics, there is one that far and away is the biggest killer: lung cancer.  Last week, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer released its worldwide data on the incidence and deaths caused by cancer.  While there is a lot to be learned from the IARC, what is crystal clear is that lung cancer is the single biggest killer worldwide. 

According to its report, “Lung cancer was the leading cause of cancer death (1.8 million deaths, 18.7% of the total cancer deaths) followed by colorectal cancer (9.3%), liver cancer (7.8%), breast cancer (6.9%) and stomach cancer (6.8%). Lung cancer’s re-emergence as the most common cancer is likely related to persistent tobacco use in Asia.”

The situation in the U.S. is consistent with the world.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that cancer is the second leading cause of death in America.  Here in New York, the most recent cancer statistics from the American Cancer Society estimated that the top five cancer killers account for half of all the estimated cancer deaths in New York, with lung cancer far and away the biggest killer.  According to the group, over 6,000 New Yorkers will die from lung cancer – which is more than the combined deaths from colon and breast cancers.

Lung cancer is most often caused by tobacco use.  But lung cancer is not the only cancer that can be caused by tobacco use.  According to the CDC, tobacco use results in cancers of the mouth and throat, voice box, esophagus, stomach, kidney, pancreas, liver, bladder, cervix, colon and rectum, and a type of leukemia.  And tobacco users aren’t the only ones at risk, exposure to tobacco smoke by those who are non-smokers raises their risk of cancer. 

Of course, while the statistics may be new, the devastation resulting from tobacco use and its impacts on cancer go back a very long way in America.  It has been well-studied and the policies that should be implemented are also well-researched. 

The CDC offers the states the scientifically-based best practices for reducing tobacco use.  The CDC recommends that New York State spend between $142 million and $203 million annually on its tobacco control efforts.

Governor Hochul’s budget rejects that expert recommendation.

Governor Hochul has consistently failed to advance tobacco control funding that comes anywhere near what the CDC recommends.  According to an independent review of the state’s tobacco control funding, New York’s budget is “only 17% of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) recommended level for the state, even as New York faces ongoing health and economic effects from tobacco use. The low funding levels in recent years have posed challenges for the Program to make progress across its areas of focus.”

Why does Governor Hochul fail to follow the expert advice of the CDC?  It can’t be from a lack of money.  Her proposed state budget this year totals more than $233 billion.  It also can’t be that the state doesn’t collect enough from tobacco users – through taxes and other revenues – to fund efforts to help them quit and to keep kids from starting.  Last year, the state increased its cigarette tax by $1, making it the highest in the nation. 

New York annually collects nearly one billion dollars in tobacco taxes and received last year another $740 million as the result of a litigation settlement (the Master Settlement Agreement) with Big Tobacco.

New York State has the money to adequately fund its tobacco control efforts, but it chooses not to.

State lawmakers are wrapping up their budget hearings this week.  New Yorkers should hope that the final budget agreement follows science and invests an adequate portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars it gets from smokers into programs that will help them kick the addiction and keep kids from starting.  Rejecting science and starving the program will result in the needless misery and early deaths of far too many of lawmakers’ constituents.