Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Early Voting 2023 Has Started

Posted by NYPIRG on October 30, 2023 at 10:01 am

New York’s early voting option started up last weekend and will go through this coming Sunday.  The General Election will follow on Tuesday, November 7th.  The 2023 election is not a “high-visibility election”; most of the races are for offices at the local government level.  Of course, those elections matter.  Local races include seats on town and city councils, county legislatures, candidates for mayor, town supervisor, town clerk, town justice, and highway superintendent.  Often the decisions made by these individuals have a more direct impact on voters’ lives than those made in Albany or even Washington.  These elections can often be decided by a small number of voters, so every ballot cast is important.

These local elected officials appoint county managers and county auditors, town chiefs of police and chairs of zoning and planning boards.  They allocate the funds in local budgets and decide when and whether to apply for additional funding in the form of federal, state and county grants.

Early voting lasts through Nov. 5th. Polling hours may vary, and early voting sites may differ from Election Day voting sites.  The best way to know the hours of early voting and the polling locations – which are often different from those used for the traditional General Election – is to check with your local county board of elections.  Registered voters may cast ballots during early voting.  Voters may check their eligibility to vote through the state Board of Elections website.  Of course, voters may cast ballots at their local polling places on the traditional General Election Day, November 7th during the period 6 a.m. through 9 p.m. (remember if you have voted during the early voting period, you cannot vote again during the General Election).  You can find your polling site by going to the state Board of Elections website

In addition to choosing local elected officials, New Yorkers will also get to cast their votes on two statewide ballot measures.  New York State’s Constitution does not allow citizens to petition to put questions directly on the ballot, but the Legislature can choose to do so, and they have.  The two proposals deal with increasing debt limits.

Proposal 1would remove debt limits on small city school districts.  The proposal was approved by two successive legislative votes and with overwhelming bipartisan support. 

“yes” vote supports this amendment to eliminate the constitutional debt limit for small city school districts (a “small city” is a city with less than one hundred twenty-five thousand people), which currently amounts to 5% of the average full value of the last five years’ property tax rolls within the district.  A “no” vote opposes this amendment, thereby keeping the constitutional debt limit for small city school districts, which can be surpassed if 60% of the voters approve a measure to do so.

Proposal 2 would allow greater debt for localities’ calculation of debts for sewage treatment facilities.  This provision was designed to exclude constitutional debt limits when it comes to the construction or maintenance of sewer facilities.  Under the New York Constitution, state municipalities have a limit of how much debt can be incurred.  The percentage varies by municipality.  This question is put to voters every ten years and has been approved regularly since 1963.

A “yes” vote supports allowing municipalities to exclude from their constitutional debt limits indebtedness for the construction or reconstruction of sewage facilities for an additional ten years (through 2034).  A “no” vote opposes allowing municipalities to exclude from their constitutional debt limits indebtedness.

While it may seem like a relatively quiet election, partisans will be looking to see which political party shows signs of strength going into the more consequential election of 2024, when the President is chosen.  The ballot questions in 2021, for example, showed signs of Republican strength since their opposition sunk three ballot questions.  In 2022, Republicans ran a strong campaign that came close to unseating Democratic incumbent Governor Hochul. 

However you view the partisan divide, over the next week you have your annual opportunity to have your voice heard.  You can vote through this Sunday at an early voting polling place or during the traditional General Election Day next Tuesday.  As the saying goes, not choosing is choosing.  Vote.

Albany Looks to Tackle the State’s Solid Waste Crisis

Posted by NYPIRG on October 23, 2023 at 8:50 am

New York State – like the rest of the nation – is grappling with a growing solid waste crisis.  Americans have never really tackled the incredible amount of trash that the nation generates.  And until China reversed its decades-old policy of taking our trash, we got away with it.

China enacted its “National Sword” policy in 2018.  That policy banned the import of most plastics, electronic waste and other materials headed for that nation’s recycling programs.  China had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter century.  The rationale for ending the program was simply that industrialized China was tired of being the world’s garbage dump.

Without an adequate American national policy, it’s been left up to the states to handle the problem.  In 1988, New York’s Solid Waste Management Act established the preferred hierarchy of solid waste management.  In short, the hierarchy stated that first, reduce the amount of solid waste generated.  Second, reuse material for the purpose for which it was originally intended or recycle the material that cannot be reused.  Third, recover, in an environmentally acceptable manner, energy from solid waste that cannot be economically reused or recycled.  Fourth, dispose of solid waste that is not being reused or recycled, or from which energy is not being recovered, by land burial or other methods approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

Despite that policy, little has been done to curtail the amount of waste generated, recycle it, or make manufacturers responsible for the end life of their products.  New York State has on its books a coherent approach.  This week, the Legislature scheduled hearings to examine how it handles packaging – both those of beverage containers and other types of packaging that too often ends up in garbage dumps.

One exception to the state’s anemic track record on reduction of, or recycling of, wastes has been its 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.  That program is a good example of a “circular economy” – one in which the manufacturer of a package becomes responsible for its disposal. 

The Bottle Deposit 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 such 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.

In addition, the program itself is due for a good review, like any 40-year-old program should be.  Good for the Legislature in holding that first hearing.  The second hearing examines so-called “extended producer responsibility” legislation, a concept which essentially covers non-beverage container packaging. 

As we all know, packaging generates a lot of waste.  Just look in your home trash bin.  Not only does it cause a solid waste problem, but it contributes to the climate crisis as well.

Solid waste accounts for 12% of statewide greenhouse gas emissions, most of which comes from landfills.  Landfills emit methane, a greenhouse gas on steroids.  Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming.  Methane levels in the atmosphere have doubled over the last 200 years as a result of industrialization.  Reducing this pollutant rapidly would have a tremendous and immediate impact on mitigating the worst effects of climate change. 

The state’s climate plan, which offers a roadmap on how New York can meet its climate goals, recommended that “To reduce emissions to achieve the required 2030 GHG emission reductions, significant increased diversion [of solid wastes] from landfills as well as emissions monitoring and leak reduction will be needed.  A circular economy approach to materials management is understood and employed.” 

The plan calls for the enactment of legislation to curb the generation of waste by reducing and recycling the waste generated by New Yorkers.  Specifically, the plan calls for expanding the state’s bottle deposit law to include additional beverage containers. 

That call has broad-based public support.  In a recent poll, 71 percent of New Yorkers support expanding the state’s bottle deposit program to include all types of beverage containers, with just 23 percent opposed.  

Expanding the Bottle Bill would be a major financial benefit both for New York’s municipalities and the state as a whole.  According to one estimate, expanding the law would save New York municipalities at least $70.9 million dollars annually through waste diversion and add as much as $200 million to the state’s coffers.   Not only would municipalities and the state save financially, but diversion on this scale would save an estimated 332,000 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of removing 32,000 cars every year.

Expanding and modernizing the Bottle Deposit Law is a win, win, win.  It helps with the climate crisis, helps with the solid waste crisis, and generates money for the state and local governments.  That’s an important message for lawmakers to hear.  It’s a message for Governor Hochul as well, as she is now putting together her budget plan for next year: expand the Bottle Deposit Law in 2024. 

Governor Hochul Faces a Big Reform Test As a Campaign Financing Bill Moves to Her Desk

Posted by NYPIRG on October 16, 2023 at 9:23 am

Running for political office is not easy.  A candidate has to put together a campaign, one that attracts a significant constituency, one that carries a compelling message, and one with adequate resources.  To be successful, a campaign needs money.

All of this is well known; it’s an old political adage that “money is the mother’s milk of politics.”

In America, by and large, the financing of electoral campaigns for any office is done by those with business before the government.  Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, it is difficult to do anything meaningful to curb the obvious conflict of interest that occurs when wealthy individuals and powerful interest groups fund the elections of soon-to-be-incumbents.

Here in New York, the system of campaign financing has been described as a “disgrace.”  Until recently, the requirements for disclosing donors were mediocre, enforcement was non-existent, and contribution limits were ridiculously high.  Elected officials were so brazen about ignoring obvious conflicts of interest that during the legislative session they hold campaign fundraisers for lobbyists within walking distance of the Capitol.

Reforms have come about in recent years.  New York’s highest-in-the-nation campaign contribution limits have been lowered, although they still far exceed the national average.  The public now has online access to campaign disclosures.  A new office of elections enforcement has been created, although it is still under the thumb of the two political parties that run the state Board of Elections. 

Most notably, the state approved the creation of a voluntary system of public financing.  Under that system, candidates for governor, attorney general, comptroller and the Legislature can receive public resources if they agree to focus their fundraising on obtaining smaller contributions.  The new state system allows candidates to get a public match for every dollar in small-sized contributions.  The smaller the contribution, the larger the public match.  Under the program, every dollar of the first $50 of a small contribution receives a $12 match, meaning that the $50 becomes $600.

The legislation loosely tracks the 30-year-old program that has been in place in New York City.  The City’s program is considered a model for the nation and has a long track record of adapting to and learning from changes in campaign financing.  

The new state program started up the day after the 2022 general election and will be in place for the 2024 election (with only state legislators on the ballot).  So far, over 100 candidates for the 2024 election have chosen to participate.

Despite the fact that this program is just starting up, during the 2023 legislative session a deal was cut to change the program.  There had been no public hearings on the program, no extensive legislative debate, in fact no public discussion at all.  Just a last-minute deal rammed through at the end of session.

What does the legislation do?  It includes many changes, some big and some small.  Two examples of the most impactful changes are: (1) Under current law, the public “matches” donations up to $250; the legislation changes that so that any legal donation can be matched with public funds. (2) It sets higher campaign financing thresholds for eligibility in the program.  For example, candidates for the Assembly must raise $12,000 from 145 in-district donors, which is an increase over the current law which requires candidates to raise $6,000 from 75 in-district donors.  Similar changes are made for Senate candidates. 

The legislators’ rationale for the changes is that they “aim to facilitate participation in the public campaign finance program for candidates.”  Undoubtedly some of the changes will do that, but as mentioned earlier, the legislation was rushed through with little public debate.  So, who supported the changes?  All the good government groups opposed the bill, stating it will create “huge structural damage to the state’s landmark public campaign finance law and is counter to the law’s goals.” 

Reformers argue that the legislation advanced changes that would make participation in the program harder – not easier – for challengers.  No surprise that incumbent legislators would find those changes worthwhile, but what will the governor do?

The legislation was sent to Governor Hochul for her review and action.  Under state law, she has ten days – excluding Sunday – to review and either approve the legislation or veto it.  Reformers have urged a veto due to the changes that weaken the law and the secretive process that conjured it up in the first place.

New Yorkers will soon know how the governor views her legacy of reform.

Algal Blooms Continue to Threaten Water Supplies

Posted by NYPIRG on October 9, 2023 at 10:54 am

The 2023 summer months set new records for heat.  Along with the falling records, increasingly there have been deadly reminders of how global warming is destroying the environment:  unprecedented heat waves, rising sea levels, huge wildfires, once-in-a-millennium droughts, staggering rainstorms and floods.  These all are examples of the impact that a rapidly heating planet is having on the world.

The decades-old predictions of how climate changes would destabilize the world’s climate sadly have turned out to be accurate – if not underestimating the negative impacts.

The heat, the droughts, the fires, the famines are all obvious examples.  But there are other threats that have received less attention.

The rapidly heating planet is causing big problems in lakes across the globe, including here in New York.  Freshwaters used for recreation and as drinking water sources, are under threat from a poison – algal blooms.

The blooms are a blue-green slimy substance that floats in water.  Harmful algal blooms aren’t your typical green surface ooze that you may see on the top of lake waters.  While ugly to look at when at the surface, a bloom can also be dangerous, so much so that the state has a blanket policy warning to stay out of the water should there be evidence of one.

The heating planet drives the production of algal blooms.  Warmer temperatures prevent water from mixing, allowing algae to grow thicker and faster.  Algal blooms absorb sunlight, making water even warmer and promoting more blooms.

While every algal bloom isn’t toxic – some algal species can produce both toxic and nontoxic blooms – toxic blooms can cause problems for swimmers and other recreational users in the form of rashes or allergic reactions.  People who swim in a bloom may experience health effects, including nausea, vomiting, headaches, respiratory problems, skin rash and other reactions. There have also been reports nationwide of dogs and livestock dying shortly after swimming or wading in a bloom or drinking from water bodies with blooms.

Heat alone doesn’t stimulate algal blooms.  Climate changes have also caused stronger, more powerful storms, storms that release much more rainwater than in storms of the past.  Those incredible downpours swiftly flush whatever is sitting on the land directly into lakes, so instead of letting a natural filtration process take place, nutrients that would benefit the soil are washed into surface waters and wreak havoc in the water in the form of algal blooms.

The nutrients these blooms primarily rely on are phosphorus and nitrogen.  The algal blooms have increased due to a rise in nutrient runoff from sources such as soil erosion from fertilized agricultural areas and lawns, erosion from riverbanks, riverbeds, land clearing (deforestation), and sewage effluent.  All of these are the major sources of phosphorus and nitrogen entering waterways.  These nutrients coupled with warm, calm water is the recipe for an algal bloom.

Usually, algal blooms crop up in late summer and early fall.

This year, as in other recent years, this threat showed up in lakes as the summer progressed.  New Yorkers who are increasingly concerned about this threat to water supplies, have begun to mobilize to call on Governor Hochul to take action.  They point out that the threat has been growing for years and they want stronger and swifter regulatory action by the state government.

In their letter, they urge the governor to act to resolve problems in lakes that have documented algal blooms.  Moreover, they urged that the governor set strict timetables for state action and provide the necessary funding to in order to clean up affected lakes.

There can be no doubt that the state must develop a more aggressive game plan for dealing with the growing threat posed by algal blooms.  The planet will continue to heat up, storms will become more intense and as a result blooms will get the nutrients to grow and multiply. 

Only through concerted action can the state begin to adequately address the problem.  Unfortunately, for too long, efforts to attack this menace have fallen far short of the actions needed.

In the meantime, New Yorkers can check to see if a lake has had a confirmed algal bloom and can report their observations of one to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. 

Of course, the world must do everything possible to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and aggressively embrace energy efficiency programs and alternative energy sources.  But when it comes to protecting surface water and drinking water supplies, the state has to do a lot more to reduce the runoff from agriculture, landscaping and wastewater sources.  New York must be proactive about protecting drinking water supplies and recreational waters.  The costs for prevention are vastly cheaper than the cost of remediation and illness.

Climate Catastrophe, Dark Money, and the Cost of Inaction

Posted by NYPIRG on October 2, 2023 at 10:12 am

Last week, biblical rains devastated the tri-state area.  Flooding in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York were fresh evidence that the costs of adapting infrastructure to the world climate’s “new abnormal” will be staggering. 

The Friday storm dumped an incredible amount of water on the metropolitan area.   Nowhere got more rain than southwestern Nassau County on Long Island.  Over nine inches of rain reportedly fell on the Nassau County town of Valley Stream, the area around Kennedy Airport was hit with nearly the same amount.  The amount that hit Kennedy Airport was a new record in September rainfalls – including those from hurricanes.

New York City’s mass transit systems – particularly its underground subways – got hammered and had to largely shut down.  As a result, Governor Hochul issued a state of emergency for Long Island, New York City and the Hudson Valley, allowing her to suspend laws, deploy resources, and seek reimbursement from the federal government for the staggering costs of the cleanup.

The storm that triggered this flooding was not from a hurricane, but instead came from a severe rainstorm.  How could a mere rainstorm cause so much havoc? 

The most probable explanation for why the Northeast has been so wet, according to the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center is that “Low-pressure systems like nor’easters now have greater amounts of water vapor available to them.  And with a warmer Atlantic Ocean combining with warmer air, the atmosphere is primed to produce more rainfall.”

Urban infrastructures were designed for a pre-climate change world, according to experts at the Columbia Climate School at Columbia University.  New York City’s sewer system, for example, was largely designed over a century ago.  New York’s aging sewer system was designed to handle no more than 1.75 inches of rain in a one-hour rainstorm.  Heavy rainfall of 2.5 inches fell in one hour in Brooklyn.

Upgrading that system to handle the world’s increasingly hotter and wetter climate will cost big bucks:  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 it will cost to protect New York Harbor from rising sea levels and storms.

Of course, it’s not only New York City that is facing these rising costs.  It was recently estimated that Long Island 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), 55% of New York localities’ municipal spending outside of NYC was or will be related to climate change.  Not counting the damage from last week, Governor Hochul has spent a good chunk of her past year responding to this state’s climate catastrophes.  Since last summer, the governor has unveiled at least $1.8 billion in state money for climate related projects – either responding to disasters or spending to help protect from future ones.

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 by the middle of the century.  

So, what should policymakers do?  Two important steps should be taken.  First, make those responsible for climate costs bear at least some of the burden for adapting to this new reality.  And second, rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels, which are driving the heating of the planet.

When it comes to the question of climate costs, there is no doubt that they will be massive.  The only question is: Who should pay?  Right now, the financial hit will be borne by the taxpayers.  All of it.

The clear answer is that the oil companies should pay:  They have known for decades that burning fossil fuels warms the planet, yet they waged a campaign to block climate protection while continuing to be fabulously profitable.  It’s time for them to pony up – big time.

Governor Hochul and the state Assembly should embrace the Senate’s legislation and make the oil companies – not taxpayers – pay for the problems they have caused and do it in a manner that will stop them from passing the costs on to consumers. 

New York has established science-based greenhouse gas emission-reduction goals in response to the growing threat posed by climate changes.  Also last week, the Business Council of New York, The Partnership for New York City and local chambers of commerce announced a million dollar “dark money” campaign to undermine New York’s climate goals.  Their campaign will likely mimic the strategy of the oil companies’ use of “front groups” to advance its agenda without the public knowing who was funding the effort.  One can only wonder how the New York City Partnership and Long Island chambers of commerce can defend their actions to their members and the communities they serve – which are suffering from flooding and staggering costs.

Public policy should be designed to protect the public and not Big Oil.  Make Big Oil pay.