Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

New York Can Help to Make the World a “Greener” Place

Posted by NYPIRG on April 17, 2023 at 8:16 am

April 22nd is “Earth Day,” the global celebration of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.

History shows that Earth Day was not intended to be about personal actions – planting a tree or recycling one’s garbage, although both are good ideas.  Instead, the original Earth Day was a reaction to the enormous environmental damage done by the essentially unregulated discharging of pollution into the nation’s airways and waterways. 

At that time, Americans were consuming vast amounts of leaded gasoline emitted from inefficient automobiles.  Industries pumped out smoke and sludge and considered those wastes the price of progress.  Chemical waste and garbage were dumped into waterways on a scale never seen, air pollution was at staggering levels.  Much of the American public was largely oblivious to the fact that a polluted environment posed a substantial health risk.

Earth Day 1970 was a watershed moment that galvanized public awareness of the growing threat of pollution and its impact on the nation’s environment and public health.  A nationwide organizing effort hinged on college campuses.  Students held teach-ins to focus public attention on growing environmental threats.  April 22nd was chosen as the date, since it landed between college Spring breaks and academic finals. 

Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment and there were massive coast-to-coast rallies in cities and towns. Millions of Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate against the impacts of decades of industrial development and the resulting legacy of serious human health problems.

Those actions, as well as the work of community groups all across the nation, resulted in monumental improvements including the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and passage of laws, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. 

Today, we are all facing threats that equal – if not exceed – those of the 1960s.  Like that time, Americans need to get involved without becoming cynical or depressed about the possibilities for improving the world.  Closer to home, actions in New York can set the tone for the nation – and the world. 

New York State’s population, while only the fourth largest in the nation, has an outsized impact since it is the 11th largest economy in the world.  What New York does not only impacts its own residents, it can also influence the nation, and the world.

As we celebrate the 53rd Earth Day anniversary, here are five things New Yorkers can do to improve the environment and reduce health risks.

One.  Make New York the leader on the shift to renewable energy – such as solar, wind, and geothermal.  In the weeks ahead, state lawmakers will consider a proposal to require that all new buildings rely on electricity, not oil and gas, for power and heat.  An increasingly green electric grid will drive down greenhouse gas emissions. As climate scientists have urged, now is the time to act to address the climate crisis.

Two.  New Yorkers will foot the bill for tens of billions of dollars in expenses to deal with rising sea levels, more extreme storms, and increasing heat.  It is time to make the biggest oil companies pay for their past greenhouse gas emissions which caused global warming– and do it in a way that prohibits them from passing those costs onto the public.  Legislation is under consideration right now that would do just that.

Three.  Require packaging manufacturers to reduce and detoxify its packaging wastes and to expand the state’s highly successful bottle deposit law so that more beverage containers are collected and recycled. 

Four.  The EPA recently released guidance on “safe” levels for PFAS chemicals in drinking water supplies.  But the Department of Health is still considering allowing PFAS levels that are higher than the EPA guidance.  The state’s responsibility is to protect the public from these “forever” chemicals; it must follow the science to develop safe standards.

Five.  Deforestation of tropical forests is worsening the global climate crisis. If it continues at its current pace, the entirety of the world’s tropical rainforests could be degraded or destroyed in the next 100 years.  Deforestation contributes to global warming, can violate the land rights of indigenous peoples, and results in the loss of habitat for hundreds of animal species.  New York should ban state government purchases of these wood products.

If Governor Hochul and state lawmakers embraced these five steps, it would go a long way to showing the world a clear path forward to a brighter and safer future.  Policy action is what Earth Day is all about.  Let’s all roll up our sleeves and get to work.  Happy Earth Day.

The Consequences of Late Budgets Negotiated in Secret

Posted by NYPIRG on April 10, 2023 at 9:08 am

Groundhog’s Day of New York politics comes in early April when the governor and state lawmakers are at loggerheads on the budget and need to do a short-term “extender.”  That’s where we are this week.  The state budget was supposed to be approved by April 1, but like recent ones, it’s late.  The extender allows negotiators to keep working on a deal while ensuring that the state’s workers continue to be paid.

Despite the fact that some $230 billion in taxpayer monies are in play, these negotiations are conducted in secret.  Secrecy allows the governor and state legislative leaders to horse trade items – some of which may have no relevance to the budget – as part of an overall budget deal.  Last year’s surprise was the deal for New York taxpayers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. 

This year’s budget is moving along more slowly than last year’s, which was put to bed on April 9th.  And while the consequences for New Yorkers tend to be minor when the budget isn’t too late, the deals can have far-reaching consequences.

By definition it’s hard to know what’s going on in secret negotiations, but a fight over one deal spilled out into the public last week: Governor Hochul’s plan to weaken the state’s climate law.

First some background.  In 2019, New York approved a new law that set aggressive goals to tackle the worsening climate crisis.  That legislation was based on the recommendations of the world’s climate experts, most notably that the state achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.  The 2019 law requires New York to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and no less than 85 percent by 2050 over 1990 levels.  The remaining 15% of emissions will be offset by things like planting trees, which take carbon dioxide out of the air, to reach net-zero emissions.

The Hochul Administration proposal would change the way the law measures greenhouse gas emissions from the current law’s 20-year accounting method to a 100-year standard.  The current law smartly focuses on methane, the main component of natural gas, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas in the near term than carbon dioxide.  Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.  Even though CO2 has a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming for two decades after release.  Thus, the lawmakers who crafted the 2019 law set a 20-year time horizon – also the timeframe climate scientists predict the world has to avoid the most devastating consequences of a heating planet.

The 2019 law also established a Climate Action Council tasked with developing a blueprint for the state to follow in meeting its climate goals.  That Council didn’t recommend a change to current law – and in fact incorporated the 20-year standard into the climate plan it developed over 2½ years.  And no such recommendation was included in the budget plans of the governor, Senate or Assembly.

But thanks to secret negotiations, the governor tried to make that fundamental change – one that is supported by the fossil fuel industry, since it would be free to sell gas for a longer period. 

The governor’s rationale was that keeping to current law would have a big negative impact on New Yorkers’ wallets.  Of course, that issue had been raised in the Climate Action Council proceedings and until a week or so ago, all – including the governor – argued that those costs would be less than the impacts if New York did nothing.

But a week after the budget was due, the Hochul Administration advanced a near total repudiation of its earlier arguments.  Now the governor argued the costs were significant and the state needed a plan to weaken the methane standard.  There have been no public hearings, no public discussion in legislative committees, no public debate at all.  It was put on the table in secrecy as part of the Hochul Administration’s horse-trading plan.

Unfortunately for the governor, the scheme made its way into the public domain and resulted in a firestorm of opposition.  Environmental groups, frontline communities and climate scientists protested the plan and last week the governor pulled back her proposal from the budget negotiations. 

The governor’s arguments that the costs of acting to deal with the climate crisis is, however, an important issue to consider.  The state Senate did in its budget plan.  The Senate, after public hearings and committee consideration, approved a proposal to charge the biggest oil companies for the costs of the state’s climate damages.  Their ingenious plan also makes it impossible for Big Oil to pass those costs onto the public.  Great idea: protect ratepayers and taxpayers and place the financial burden on those responsible for the mess and those benefiting from record profits.

Yet in the secret budget negotiations, it appears that opposition from the governor’s office has stopped the plan to hold the oil industry, not ratepayers and taxpayers, accountable.

If true, that’s a big mistake.  Weakening the state climate law isn’t the solution to the cost problem, charging Big Oil is.  Hopefully the final budget protects New Yorkers and with no special interest giveaways on big policy issues.

Another Late Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on April 3, 2023 at 8:46 am

April 1st, the first day of New York State’s fiscal year, came and went this weekend with no state budget agreement.  It has been a few years since the state budget was approved on-time, with all recent ones enacted in the first half of April.

Getting the budget done by April 1st is what Governor Hochul and state lawmakers are supposed to do.  Failure to do so just feeds an increasingly cynical electorate’s assessment that Albany can’t get its work done like it’s supposed to.  In the real world, however, the impacts of a late budget – as long as it’s done within a week or so – are not significant.

In a sense, the real deadlines are tied to when public employees are supposed to be paid.  If the budget is not signed into law this Monday, the state is prohibited from distributing paychecks to state workers, other than those agencies with different fiscal years or for those public employees who are not scheduled to be paid until later in the month.

There can be other impacts.  For example, late budgets can delay payments to those vendors who have contracts with the state.  In addition, legislators will have their paychecks withheld too.

New York’s history of getting budgets done on time has been lousy.  From 1984 up until 2004, the governors and state lawmakers blew through budget deadlines.  Some of those budgets were approved very late – sometimes months late. 

Since then, things have improved.  Due to court decisions that strengthened the hand of the governor, since around 2010, budgets have been approved on time or within a week or so of the April 1st deadline.  

Ironically, late budgets are often the result of legislative fights over issues that have little to do with the budget.  This year’s budget fight is no exception, with a key sticking point the governor’s demand for changes to the state’s recently enacted bail reforms as part of any budget agreement.  The governor wants to give judges more discretion in setting bail for certain offenses.  If lawmakers agreed to the governor’s plan, judges would be explicitly allowed to assess the threat they believe a defendant poses to the community and set bail on those grounds.

Whether that’s a good or bad idea, the governor’s proposal is not central to the finances of the state budget.  Yet this year, like many, the entire budget is being held up over what is essentially a non-budget policy dispute.

And there are big budget items that are festering while this debate plays out.  For example, how will state leaders pull together enough money to plug the M.T.A.’s expected budget gap of nearly $3 billion by 2025?  Lawmakers have so far rejected the governor’s plan to raise transit costs for suburban areas and the New York City Mayor is opposing the governor’s proposal to take $500 million out of the city’s budget to support the M.T.A. 

Another is the Legislature’s rejection of hiking tuition at the State University and City University of New York, as well as her proposed cuts to financial aid for college students. 

Neither of these plans have been able to get resolved as long as the bail measure is still undecided.  As the Albany saying goes, nothing gets done until everything gets done.

But when it comes to state budgets, things can change very, very quickly.  When a budget plan may seem stalled, an hour later it accelerates toward conclusion. 

Unless things change quickly, when a budget is late the governor and state lawmakers typically approve a short-term budget in order to keep government open; pass stopgap legislation to ensure that state employees are paid since the budget was not approved in time.

Meanwhile, all sorts of schemes can be hatched and deals can be cut.  Governor Hochul, for example, reportedly is advancing a plan to weaken the state’s climate law.  Individual lawmakers will be angling for more benefits to their communities. 

And all of those deals will be cut in secret.  By the time the public finds out what the final product is, votes will have been taken and the new budget will be in the books.

No April Fool’s Joke:  It shouldn’t be this way. After all, it’s your money.  Until Albany changes its ways, New Yorkers should be on guard.

The Climate Culture War Comes to New York

Posted by NYPIRG on March 27, 2023 at 9:14 am

The fight over how New York should address the worsening climate crisis has hit a fevered pitch at the state Capitol as lawmakers debate the state budget.  Embedded in the state Senate’s “one house” budget is a series of initiatives to match New York’s climate goals with policies to achieve them.  Most notably, a plan to mandate that new buildings constructed later this decade would have to be powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels, like gas, was advanced by the Senate, the Assembly, and the governor.    

Opponents have launched a well-financed counter-offensive to stall these measures as part of a national strategy to protect the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry and their utility allies.

The industry’s counter strategy hinges on a few talking points that get repeated over and over, the cornerstone of any effective propaganda campaign.

First, opponents always state that they do believe that the climate is changing so they can neuter criticism that they don’t believe in science.  It is, after all, well-documented that the planet is heating up and in a way that poses an existential threat to civilization as we know it.

Second, opponents use culture war language to attack the policies that are being advanced as well as attack the supporters of those policies.  Front groups funded by the fossil fuel industry, and their ideological allies, will repeat that climate protection policies are “radical” and that supporters are “zealots.”  The head-in-the-sand crowd instead repeatedly raises the specter of huge costs to be borne by utility ratepayers and the public at large in an effort to shift the conversation away from climate to one of costs. 

The opponents’ campaign is comprehensive and well-funded.  It seeks to stoke fear and build anger among the public.  Their goal is to bamboozle the public enough that they ignore the looming threat posed by a rapidly heating planet. 

In order to respond, let’s first start with the science.

First, there is no scientific doubt that the planet is heating up to a level that poses a threat to human civilization and the health of all species.  Moreover, the world’s climate science experts agree that human activity is driving this heating.  Primarily the burning of fossil fuels, oil, gas, and coal, plus the methane emissions from the extraction and transportation of gas supplies, are at the heart of those human activities fueling global climate changes.

Second, the world’s climate science experts have issued dire warnings, most recently last week, that unless we shift to powering the world through non-fossil fuels, the climate may reach a tipping point of no return.

Third, there is broad agreement about what should be done.  The world agreed to a target of keeping the global heat increase at no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above what it was before 1900.  While that doesn’t sound like much, the increase to date has triggered sea level rise, more intense storms, unprecedented wildfires, famine, and violence across the planet.  Exceeding the 2.7-degree limit will undoubtedly result in far more damage.  Beyond that point, scientists say, the impacts of catastrophic heat waves, flooding, drought, crop failures and species extinction become significantly harder for humanity to handle.

The world’s experts have stated that public policies will need to make an immediate and drastic shift away from fossil fuels to prevent the planet from overheating dangerously beyond that level.  Specifically, in order to avert climate disaster is the need for immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors of the economy.  According to the scientists, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 43% by 2030.  And the world must meet a goal of “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Those goals track New York’s 2019 climate law; hardly a “radical” idea if state public policies are following the best science.

Last year tied with 2015 as the fifth hottest year on record with human-driven greenhouse gas emissions rebounding after a short dip in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an analysis from NASA.  Additionally, NASA researchers reported that the past nine years have been the warmest years since modern record-keeping began in 1880.  It is virtually certain that the trend will continue.

There can be no doubt that we will all have to sacrifice in order to avert the worst of climate changes.  But we cannot follow the people who lied about the dangers of the burning of oil, coal, and gas to again bamboozle us about the direction of public policy.  In fact, those industries should be on the financial hook since they have, and continue to do, all they can to undermine climate policies designed to save lives and the planet.

The Senate package considers that too and puts the world’s largest oil companies on the hook for some of the state’s future climate costs.

As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  Let’s make sure that the fossil fuel industry and their mouthpieces are not able to block science-based climate policy in New York.

New York’s Budget Negotiations and Climate Change

Posted by NYPIRG on March 20, 2023 at 8:46 am

New York State’s fiscal year begins on April 1st – one of the earliest deadlines in the nation.  Governor Hochul kicked off the budget process by unveiling her plan on February 1st.  The state Legislature then convened public hearings to examine the governor’s plans.  In response, last week the Senate and Assembly released their respective budget plans.

Now that each house has its own plan, the public process of the budget unfolds with joint conference committee meetings starting this week and – perhaps – rolling through the end of the month.  The real negotiations will play out behind closed doors with the goal of coming to a budget agreement by April 1st – or soon thereafter.

In a state budget that is likely to end up with record spending somewhere between $227 and $233 billion, there are still policy and spending disagreements between the governor, the state Senate, and the state Assembly that must be resolved.

For example, both houses of the Legislature rejected the governor’s plan to mandate new housing, instead advancing their own plans to spend millions of dollars in incentives for such housing.  Both houses rejected the governor’s plan to hike tuition at New York’s public colleges and universities.  Both houses agreed with the governor’s proposed mandate that new building construction must rely on electricity – not oil or gas – for power.  Yet within that general agreement is disagreement on approach to electrification of new housing construction.

In some areas, the differences among the leaders can be substantial.  One such area is climate change. 

Governor Hochul has advanced a “cap and invest” program to reduce the release of greenhouse gas emissions.  The cap-and-invest program sets a limit, or cap, on overall carbon emissions in the state and requires businesses to obtain allowances equal to their covered greenhouse gas emissions.  The cap will be tightened over time to ensure New York achieves its emissions-reduction commitments, which means the state will issue fewer emissions allowances each year.

Cap-and-invest is a market-based program – as allowances become more scarce, they become more valuable due to the powers of supply and demand.  Businesses that do not sufficiently reduce their emissions will be faced with increasing compliance costs, so investing in cleaner operations is good for the planet and their bottom line.  Governor Hochul’s plan also includes a legislative proposal to create a universal Climate Action Rebate to send more than $1 billion in future cap-and-invest proceeds to New Yorkers every year.

But there is opposition.  The program relies on the regulatory power of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and opponents complain that, so far, the Administration has provided too little information on how the program will be run – and how much businesses will have to pay.

The Senate advanced their own cap and invest plan that would make climate program spending subject to legislative oversight in appropriating funds, not leaving it up to the Administration.  The Assembly simply dropped a greenhouse gas emissions cap out of its plan altogether.

And there is opposition to the whole idea.  Some opponents are arguing that plans to fund climate initiatives will raise the prices of travel, electricity, and heating.  Thus, New York utility ratepayers and taxpayers will end up bearing the costs of climate-fighting initiatives.

Of course, there can be no doubt that dealing with the worsening climate catastrophe will cost – and cost big.  Yet, it doesn’t have to be ratepayers and taxpayers alone who shoulder the burden.

Included in the state Senate’s budget plan was a measure to force the world’s largest oil companies to pick up a large portion of the tab for climate damages.  Under the Senate plan, oil companies would be on the hook for $3 billion per year for each of the next 25 years to pay for climate costs.  The Senate’s plan is also designed to make sure that oil company investors – not the public – are the ones who pay the assessment.

Neither the governor nor the state Assembly have included anything like it in their budget proposals.

Which, of course, plays into the hands of opponents – ideologues, partisans, and oil companies – who want nothing to happen.  Scoring political points over costs to the public is an obvious move to stall climate progress.

The state Senate’s plan, on the other hand, offers a real alternative.  A plan that not only generates large amounts of money but does so in a manner that protects the public. 

The Senate is posing a pointed question to the governor and the state Assembly:  When it comes to paying for climate costs, where do you stand – protecting the public or the oil companies?

New Yorkers will know that answer by the end of the month.