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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Three Questions for Election Day

Posted by NYPIRG on November 6, 2017 at 11:23 am
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This year’s Election Day offers voters a range of candidates for local office.  In addition, New Yorkers will have three questions on the ballot that could impact the state’s constitution.

Since New York does not have a process for citizens to directly change the constitution, the only way 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 appear on the back side of this year’s paper ballot.  The questions each have a number, one, two or three.  Here are the questions being put to voters.

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 approve the creation of a convention, then delegates would be elected the following year.  Those delegates could propose revisions to the constitution in any way they 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.

Proponents argue that Albany’s a mess – corrupt, operating in secret, costing too much and that only a convention can fix it. In addition, they argue that the State’s basic document is old, anachronistic, and contains provisions that are now considered unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution.  A convention could modernize the state constitution.

Opponents argue that the current State Constitution includes provisions that protect the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, require a sound, basic education for children, require that the poor are protected, and enshrines protections for workers in the state. And, they contend, those protections should not be put at risk.

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 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 and Catskill forest preserves.  If approved, the land bank would allow local governments to request the use of the land in the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserve for projects in exchange for the state acquiring 250 acres to be designated for the Parks.

The reason that this question is on the ballot is that the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves are protected under the “Forever Wild” clause of the New York State Constitution.  As a result, the Parks are 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.

If you’re not sure if you are registered, or where you should vote, or who the candidates are, you can find out by going to the state Board of elections website at https://www.elections.ny.gov/.

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.  Let your voice be heard, vote.

Superstorm Sandy’s Fifth Anniversary

Posted by NYPIRG on October 30, 2017 at 9:37 am
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Climate change is not something that will impact in the future – it’s happening now.  An unrelenting heat wave in California and on the west coast has helped fuel forest fires, there has been massive flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal that have devastated that region, hurricanes Irma and Maria have decimated the Caribbean, hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in Texas.

Yet, these aren’t the first catastrophes; 5 years ago this week Superstorm Sandy hammered New York and New Jersey.

Sandy spawned incredible storm surge flooding, claimed 159 lives in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern regions of the country and left behind more than $70 billion in damage, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

Sandy hammered New York and New Jersey, leaving much of New York City powerless and in some areas under feet of water.

Like the catastrophes left in Sandy’s wake, the islands of the Caribbean, Texas, and the other nations have suffered unprecedented damage from this year’s hurricanes.

What do these storms have to do with climate change?

Here is what we know: Global warming heats the atmosphere which leads to heat waves; higher temperatures lead to increased rates of evaporation, leading to rapid drying of soils, which not only contributes to droughts, it can also lead to forest fires.  Global warming also leads to higher sea levels, which in turn increases the risk of storm surge, contributing to the damage brought by hurricanes.

But you wouldn’t know it from what we hear from Washington.  There, climate deniers continue to argue that the science isn’t settled, that programs to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases are useless, and, in fact, that the federal government should bail out the coal industry – a leading contributor to the world’s warming crisis.

Yeah, you read that correctly, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has advanced a plan to bail out the coal industry.  Under the proposal, the federal government would require anyone who receives an electric bill to pay owners of coal and nuclear power plants their operating costs, plus a guaranteed profit – regardless of whether their plants are selling electricity at a competitive price.

Bailing out those responsible for global warming is exactly the wrong approach.  Instead, policymakers should be making the fossil fuel industry pay to help us all deal with the responses.  That’s what happening right now in California.  Five cities have filed lawsuits against five of the biggest oil companies to offset the costs from local flooding in low-lying areas, eroding shores, and salt water impacts on water treatment systems, just a few of the impacts linked to sea level rise.

Of course, more needs to be done –stopping the industry from creating new infrastructure is another important step.  After all, new pipelines and other facilities need to be used for decades in order to pay off the cost of building them in the first place.

When it comes to climate change, there is no time left.

As downstate residents found out when facing Superstorm Sandy, the time for rhetoric is over.  The time for action is now.

America’s Food Waste Crisis Moves to the Front Burner

Posted by NYPIRG on October 23, 2017 at 11:23 am
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In an era of growing poverty, homelessness and hunger, it’s amazing how little attention the problem of food waste gets by policymakers.  According to a 2016 report (in the Guardian), roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away—some 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually, an amount constituting “one third of all foodstuffs.”

Wasted food is also the single biggest occupant in American landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

What causes this? A major reason is that food is cheap in the U.S.  In addition, the concern over the appearance of food also drives waste.   Fruits and vegetables, for example, have a tendency to more easily bruise or discolor and that is a big “no no” for American shoppers.  Thus, aesthetically unappealing foods are yanked off supermarket shelves and sent to landfills.  The cost is of this food loss is included in the cost of food that is sold and it is estimated that it costs an average American family an additional $1,600 annually.

Food experts say there is growing awareness that governments cannot effectively fight hunger, or climate change, without reducing food waste. Food waste accounts for about 8% of global climate pollution, more than India or Russia.

Within the US, discarded food is the biggest single component of landfill and incinerators, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Food dumps are a rising source of methane, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Policymakers admit that they are only beginning to come to grips with the scale of the problem.

But that growing problem may start to change.

A recent documentary (“WASTED! The Story of Food Waste”) was released by well-known chefs Anthony Bourdain and Danny Bowien and presents statistics about America’s food waste crisis, examples of policy changes around the world, opportunities in systems from schools to grocery stores, and stories from other notable chefs such as Dan Barber and Mario Batali.

The film examines the growing attention the issue of food waste is having on policymakers in other countries.  For example, recently France became the first nation in the world to ban supermarkets from wasting food.

In that country, large grocery stores must now donate unsold food to charities, a move that will result in millions more meals for France’s needy.  The law came on the heels of a grassroots movement by shoppers that aims to expand versions of France’s law to all of the European Union.

Previously, French supermarkets could trash still-edible food before it even reached its best-before or sell-by dates. (Such dates don’t indicate when a product will spoil, but rather when it reaches peak quality.)

Supermarkets will also be banned from intentionally destroying discarded food; there had been reports that some French supermarkets had dumped bleach onto throw-away food to prevent others from eating it.  The reason, the stores reportedly said, was to prevent food poisoning.

Other stores secured trash bins to prevent people from taking edible food from them, an increasingly popular practice among France’s unemployed, homeless and poor.  Now all supermarkets over 4,300 square feet in size must hold contracts with nonprofits or food banks.

In turn, those charities must collect, stock and properly redistribute the would-be wasted food, added responsibilities that will require more volunteers and more storage space.

Beyond France, the nation of Italy passed a law to reduce food waste as well, Japan has adopted aggressive measures to curb the wasting of food and South Korea charges residents fees by volume for their food waste, which is separated like recyclables.

New York (both the state and the city), which prides itself on environmental sensitivities and which is home to some of the greatest restaurants in the world, has taken steps toward attacking this problem.  A comprehensive embrace of the growing global movement to curb food waste could dramatically strengthen those efforts.  Done correctly, it could help feed the hungry, curb greenhouse gas emissions, and save consumers some money.

A win-win-win.

Thanks to President Trump, One Million Americans Will Lose Their Health Insurance

Posted by NYPIRG on October 16, 2017 at 11:34 am
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We live in a representative democracy.  We elect our representatives to go to national, state or local office to represent our interests and solve problems.  Of course, not all problems can be solved and the policy triage of what gets attention and what doesn’t is the decision of the representative based on what his or her constituents want or need.

For years, a huge problem in America was the rapid increase in the numbers of people without health care coverage.  In the 1960s, the nation developed Medicare, health insurance for those over the age of 65 and Medicaid, health insurance for the poor.

In the 1990s, the President and the Congress expanded coverage to help cover all those under the age of 18.  Yet, despite the fact that near-universal coverage existed for those under the age of 18, those over the age of 65, and the poor, the number of Americans without coverage continued to swell, peaking at about 50 million eight years ago.

For the rest of the advanced nations of the world, it was inconceivable that such a situation existed.  Western Europe, Canada, Japan and others have health care coverage for all of their citizens.  As a result, despite spending far more on health care than any other nation on Earth, the United States had more uninsured, incredibly uneven health care quality, and a mediocre life expectancy compared with other developed, wealthy nations.

It was a problem.

Former President Obama and the Congress agreed to legislation to attempt to address that problem.  The solution that they came up with had a modest impact on the spiraling cost of health care, but did cut in half the number of Americans that lacked health insurance.

You could argue with their solution – one which essentially expanded the number of Medicaid-eligible Americans and offered subsidies to help others purchase health insurance – was inadequate to the task, but no one could argue that they did not try.

For years, Republicans argued that they could do it better.  They argued that if they were granted control of the White House and the Congress, they would repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something better.  We now know that their pledge was pure fiction.  They had no plan to replace the ACA with anything.  All they wanted to do was repeal.

While the majority of the House of Representatives was quite willing to take away coverage from tens of millions of Americans, leaving millions without coverage was something that some Republicans in the Senate could not agree to.  Combined with unanimous Democratic opposition, the effort to repeal the law and take away health insurance coverage from over 20 million Americans ground to a halt.

President Trump, who as a candidate consistently said that he would fix the health insurance system and make it better, has now decided to just make it all worse.  In a stunningly callous series of decisions, the President to doing all he can to deny health insurance for primarily low and moderate income Americans – individuals who currently have coverage will now lose it.

Last week, the President acted to eliminate subsidies to health insurance companies that help pay out-of-pocket costs of low-income people.  His decision came on the heels of his plans to make sweeping changes in the nation’s insurance system, including sales of cheaper policies with fewer benefits and fewer protections for consumers.

Without the subsidies, insurance markets could quickly unravel. Insurers have said they will need much higher premiums, probably 20 percent higher, if the subsidies were ended.

Part of the President’s rationale was that he believed that such payments were illegal, but he has offered no alternative to cover those who will soon be desperately in need of coverage.

And that’s not what elected officials are supposed to do.  They are supposed to make a good effort to solve problems.  They should allocate the nation’s limited resources where needed and apply the best evidence to develop policy solutions.

To strip away people’s health insurance coverage with no alternative is indefensible and will cost an estimated one million Americans dearly.  Without coverage, sick people delay care, which can lead to even more devastating health consequences.  And those serious illnesses can cost those individuals and their families their financial security as well.

Many people will suffer unnecessarily due to the President’s decisions and from the actions of those in Congress who are doing all they can to take away people’s health insurance.   Our elected representatives should care about people, not use them as fodder in the nation’s political wars.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court Takes Up Gerrymandering

Posted by NYPIRG on October 9, 2017 at 10:29 am
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Last week the U.S. Supreme Court began its look into the widespread practice of gerrymandering.  Gerrymandering is the manipulation of political boundaries (for the state legislature, for example) to favor one party.

The practice is now widespread and is designed to pack as many supportive voters together in one district, while diluting the political power of voters who are enrolled in a different political party.  In this way, political party map makers choose their voters, instead of voters choosing their elected officials.

New district lines are drawn at least every ten years in response to population changes identified in the U.S. Census.  The changes in the population require a reapportionment of members of the U.S. House of Representatives.  The House has 435 members and they must be redistributed in districts of exactly the same populations.

In addition, state lawmakers must redesign political boundaries within the state for their legislative bodies to reflect population changes, known as redistricting.

The next Census is scheduled for 2020 and new district lines in New York must be in place for the 2022 elections.

The case before the Court is one related to the district maps of the Wisconsin Assembly.  Republicans took full control of Wisconsin’s government in the 2010 elections and used their power to draw maps that greatly favor them.  The plaintiffs argue that the districts were drawn to be so heavily Republican that they violated the constitutional rights of Democratic voters.  A three-judge appellate federal court panel agreed with the plaintiffs and now the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the lower court got the ruling right.

Wisconsin is a state in which support for the major political parties are often close.  In 2012 — a year when Democratic President Barack Obama easily won Wisconsin — Democrats received nearly 52% of the vote in Assembly races, yet took just 39 of the chamber’s 99 seats (40%).

In last year’s election, Republican Donald Trump squeaked out a win over Democrat Hillary Clinton, but the Republicans expanded their control of the Wisconsin Assembly by taking 64 of the 99 seats.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case and the schism among the judges was clear.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned “If you can stack a legislature in this way, what incentive is there for a voter to exercise his vote?  Whether it’s a Democratic district or a Republican district, the result — using this map, the result is preordained in most of the districts.”

Chief Justice John Roberts argued that it is a state responsibility and that most legislatures have been the ones to determine how legislative lines are drawn. The Court’s involvement would dramatically change things, he said.

“The whole point is you’re taking these issues away from democracy and you’re throwing them into the courts.” If the plaintiffs succeed, the Supreme Court will have to decide whether to redraw maps that favored one political party over the other. It’s likely, Roberts warned, that the public will view the court’s rulings as partisan.

Perhaps the most incisive question came from Justice Sonia Sotomayor who asked the Wisconsin state attorneys “Could you tell me what the value is to democracy from political gerrymandering?  How does that help our system of government?”

How the Court rules could also have a broad national impact.  If Wisconsin’s maps are thrown out, states will have to follow new rules when they draw congressional and legislative districts, limiting their abilities to give edges to either party.

Plaintiffs proposed a new test to determine whether maps were unfairly one-sided.  It counts “wasted votes” — that is, any votes beyond those needed to elect a candidate — to determine the “efficiency gap” of a map.  Their plan essentially argues that districts should have closer party enrollments to make them more reflective of the population and more competitive.

New York’s legislative maps were incredibly rigged after the last redistricting – in ways to help Republicans keep control of the Senate despite shrinking party enrollment and further solidify Democratic control of the Assembly.  The Court’s decision could change all of that.

Of course, there is no way to know now how the Court will rule.  All eyes are on Justice Kennedy who may well be the deciding vote.  But if changes occur, it could drastically impact elections across America and may finally end New York’s system of rigged elections.