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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Albany Gets Ready to Wrap up the 2019 Legislative Session

Posted by NYPIRG on June 17, 2019 at 7:43 am
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ALBANY GETS READY TO WRAP UP THE 2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

This week is the scheduled last week of the 2019 legislative session.  The session can be viewed as historic: Complete Democratic Party control of the state government has resulted in a slew of legislation passing, many of which had festered due to partisan gridlock – like narrowing the Limited Liability Company loophole that allowed real estate developers to make much bigger campaign contributions than other businesses – and others that could dramatically alter state policies – like permanent extension of rent control.

As lawmakers head for their scheduled exit, there are a number of issues that are still outstanding.  Issues like legalizing the use of marijuana, authorizing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in the United States, reducing the use of fossil fuels, authorizing an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution, and legalizing online sports betting, among other issues.

Historically, such a smorgasbord of issues can get wrapped up into one giant piece of legislation, known in the halls of the state Capitol as the “big ugly.”  Like the horse trading that is part of the grand finale of budget negotiations, lumping seemingly unrelated bills together into one giant bill is a frequent way in which Albany finalizes legislative deals.

Why?

The “big ugly” strategy works well in a capital in which the governor and the legislative leaders control the flow of legislation.  It is far more efficient to aggregate legislation and negotiate it all simultaneously, than to do each piece discreetly.  That approach also helps legislators to take “tough” votes – lawmakers can say that they had concerns about a particular issue, say marijuana legalization – but had to vote for a final agreement because of other, more popular, issues.

From the public’s perspective, it’s ugly.  Often issues get thrown into the mix that have not been publicly discussed – even among legislators.  As Newsday reported, former Gov. David Paterson said that horse trading sometimes resulted in passing bills that conflicted with established laws “but it’s so late in the session nobody knows.”

As of now, we do not know how – or when – the session will actually end, but if history is any guide, this week will be busy.  Looking at previous session, lawmakers usually pass more bills in the month of June than they do the previous five months.

While the package of end-of-session bills is unknown, what is known is that – like in all previous sessions – lawmakers and the governor have used the legislative session to rake in campaign contributions from lobbyists and their clients.  It appears that during this legislative session, the governor and state lawmakers held about 180 campaign fundraisers, usually within walking distance of the Capitol.

If an elected official is holding a campaign fundraiser in the capital, do you think they are expecting constituents to be there?  These events are designed to hit up Albany’s lobbying corps for campaign contributions.  And lobbyists are the same people asking for legislative favors.

In Albany, it’s perfectly legal to consider legislative favors during the day and then accept campaign contributions from those same people at night.

It’s legal here, but it doesn’t have to be.

Six states (Alaska, California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Tennessee) place unique campaign financing restrictions on lobbyists as a group, twelve other states (Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Wisconsin) limit lobbyists’ campaign giving during the legislative session.

The courts have weighed in on these types of restrictions.  In a case dealing with Tennessee’s restriction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit stated, “Any payment made by a lobbyist to a public official, whether a campaign contribution or simply a gift, calls into question the propriety of the relationship.”

When the governor and state lawmakers wrap up this session, ultimately the public will have to decide if it was productive.  But from elected officials’ perspective, the campaign contributions haul from lobbyists and their clients made it successful.

It is long past time for a change – one that limits this brazen practice and one that offers an alternative, a voluntary system of public financing.

A New Fight to Protect the Public’s Health

Posted by NYPIRG on June 10, 2019 at 9:05 am
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Last week, a blockbuster story ran in the New York Times: “Warning of ‘Pig Zero’: One Drugmaker’s Push to Sell More Antibiotics.”  The investigative report examined how the pharmaceutical industry is pushing the overuse and misuse of antibiotics on farm animals – in the case of the Times story, pigs.

Why should humans care?  Many of the antibiotics used on farm animals are ones that humans rely on too.  And the overuse of these antibiotics is fueling the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs.”

Farm animals get doused with antibiotics due to the dirty and stressful conditions in which they live. Those conditions help breed disease and raise the risk of infections.

Most people who hear that antibiotics are losing effectiveness think about doctors wrongly prescribing the drugs to humans.  Many physicians can and should make better decisions about antibiotic use in human health care.  However, in the United States, about two-thirds of the antibiotics that are considered important to human health actually are sold for food animal production.

Sick animals should be treated with antibiotics.  But often, as the Times reported, meat producers give the drugs to large numbers of animals that are not sick to prevent diseases commonly spurred by unsanitary, overcrowded, and stressful living conditions.  Compensating for industrial farming conditions is not an appropriate use of life-saving medicines.

Overusing antibiotics in any setting fuels the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. It’s no different on farms.  When animals receive regular doses of antibiotics it breeds resistant bacteria that can travel off farms via the meat itself, direct contact with animals, or through water and soil.  Those bacteria may find their way to people and infect them with illnesses that may not respond to available antibiotics.

The overuse of antibiotics has become such a worldwide problem that experts estimate that, unless something changes, deaths from antibiotics-resistant superbugs will exceed the number of cancer deaths.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20 percent of antibiotic-resistant infections originate on farms.  They get into the world’s food supply and put humans at risk.

The harm is becoming more and more apparent. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that currently at least 23,000 Americans die from drug-resistant infections each year, but researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine think it could be seven times as many—up to 162,000 deaths annually.

In November 2017, the World Health Organization called on meat producers to stop using medically important antibiotics for routine disease prevention and to reserve these medicines for sick animals.

The movement is getting help from some unlikely heroes not noted for responding to health concerns – major fast food chains.  After hearing from consumers, McDonald’s, Subway, KFC and more have committed to reduce antibiotic use throughout their meat supply chains.  Health advocates are now calling on Wendy’s, the third largest burger chain in the U.S., to phase routine antibiotic use out of its beef supply chain.

State lawmakers in California and Maryland have placed restrictions on antibiotic use in food-producing animals. Now it’s time for New York’s elected officials to heed the warnings from medical experts.

New York state lawmakers can help address this health crisis by supporting legislation to limit antibiotic use.  State Sen. Kavanagh (Manhattan) and Assemblywoman Romeo (Rochester) recently introduced legislation that would place appropriate limits on the use of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals at farms across New York State. 

Their legislation will prohibit the routine use of medically important antibiotics to prevent disease and reserve the drugs solely to treat sick animals or to control a verified disease outbreak.

The way meat is produced should not undermine modern medicine.  As lawmakers head toward the end of the legislative session, they should act to protect both New York’s rich agricultural tradition and the public’s health.

What’s in New York’s Drinking Water?

Posted by NYPIRG on June 3, 2019 at 7:21 am
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States in the northeast, including New York, are lucky to have access to an abundance of fresh water supplies. New York’s fresh water supplies were critical to the state’s earliest economic development – for example, access to the Great Lakes, the Hudson River, and the building of the Erie Canal. Since colonial times, those clean drinking water supplies helped make possible the rapid growth in the state’s population.

But due to emerging threats – primarily in the form of a rapidly heating planet and contamination resulting from an industrial legacy – that natural bounty is endangered.

For example, global warming has made the planet hotter. A hotter planet triggers the growth of algal blooms that can make freshwater toxic. In recent years, as temperatures soar, algal blooms are developing like never before and threaten the drinking water supplies of upstate communities that rely on surface water.

In addition, the careless handling and disposal of industrial chemicals has resulted in some drinking water supplies becoming unsafe for human consumption. For example, communities in and around the village of Hoosick Falls, Newburgh, and Long Island, have had to respond to drinking water contamination from the improper use and disposal of PFOA and PFOS.

What can New Yorkers do?

A new report from the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) answered that question when it documented the prevalence of emerging chemical contaminants detected in the state’s public drinking water supplies that serve some 16 million New Yorkers.

The most notable recent industrial threats have been the result of the unsafe handling of three specific emerging contaminants – PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane. But there are over 20 additional emerging contaminants that were reviewed in the report. Those additional contaminants are currently tested in local drinking water supplies under a mandate by the federal government. Communities with populations of 10,000 or more are required to conduct this testing. Smaller communities, unless otherwise required to test by federal regulators, (and those residents utilizing private wells) are exempt from testing for contamination in their drinking water supplies.

Those testing results are publicly available, but difficult to find. The report reviewed the federal information and analyzed the detection levels for the chemicals that were found in in the state’s public drinking water supplies.

The report found that 176 water systems detected one or more emerging contaminants, affecting nearly 16 million New Yorkers. (If you want to find more information on your community’s drinking water, NYPIRG provides a nifty tool on its website, nypirg.org/whatsinmywater.)

Specifically, the report found:

  1. 176 water systems detected one or more federally listed emerging contaminants, affecting nearly 16 million New Yorkers.
  2. The Long Island region has, by far, the most systems that detected emerging contaminants.
  3. Seven of the contaminants were detected at levels above EPA’s health guidance levels.
  4. 6.4 million New York State residents served by smaller public systems or private wells
    are consuming water that has not been tested for emerging contaminants.

In addition to identifying emerging contaminant detections in New York, the report offered a
roadmap to prevent drinking water contamination. New York State already has many tools at its
disposal to test statewide for emerging contaminants, regulate chemicals in drinking water, and
prevent contamination to begin with before it pollutes drinking water.

The report recommends:

  1. The New York State Department of Health immediately begin statewide testing of emerging contaminants that have already shown up in New York water systems for every public water system, regardless of size.
  2. That the state establish stringent drinking water standards for chemicals that may be unsafe for public health and that it require testing for private household wells.
  3. That the state create a single user-friendly statewide public database for drinking water information.
  4. And finally, that state and federal regulators adopt precautionary approaches to source water protection and chemicals by prohibiting use of chemicals until they can be proven safe.

The planet is heating up and an industrial legacy continues to threaten New York’s drinking water. It’s time to act to preserve the state’s water supplies for generations to come.

Whither Ethics Reform?

Posted by NYPIRG on May 20, 2019 at 7:34 am
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By now it’s been drummed into New Yorkers – after scores of controversies, scandals and prison sentences handed out from the actions of top public officials – the state is considered one of the most corrupt in the nation.

And for decades, Albany’s leaders have advanced numerous measures, typically touted as the “best in the nation,” to combat corruption. But the scandals continued unabated.

Despite these boasts, it has been the failure to establish an independent ethics watchdog that is at the heart of the problem. Why?

It ultimately stems from fear – fear that establishing an independent ethics watchdog could be co-opted by political or partisan opponents and used as a weapon against them. And so, since the 1980s, various ethics commissions, each with different names and structures, were created to monitor state laws, but not set up to bite the politically powerful.

This critique is not about the people involved in these agencies, per se, but the fact that the ethics commissions were run by individuals who were the direct appointees of those officials subject to the jurisdiction of the ethics watchdog agencies. In essence, the regulated were picking their own regulators.

The latest incarnation added a new wrinkle: the appointees of a particular branch of government had veto power over the possible investigations. As a result, gubernatorial appointees could veto an investigation even if the majority of the ethics commission thought an inquiry was warranted. The same applied for the legislative branch appointees.

How poorly these entities have been structured was the focus of a report released by reform groups last week. According to their 50-state review of ethics commissions, New York’s ethics laws “fail to follow best practices in ethics oversight due to the inadequate structure of those organizations.”

The analysis was consistent with a review conducted by a national organization, Center for Public Integrity. CPI did its own 50-state survey and recently concluded, “Few, if any, other states have ethics watchdogs so completely compromised by lack of independence, partisanship, lack of transparency and the other failings described” and then gave New York a grade of “F” for its oversight practices.

The civic groups’ review noted that “In many states all three branches, legislative, executive and judicial, make ethics commission appointments. This is the case in New York only for the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which is a well-regarded enforcer of judicial ethics created in the State Constitution.”

The idea that there needs to be more independence in ethics oversight was echoed by Governor Cuomo during his reelection campaign. In a debate with his Republican opponent, the governor said “we need more independence on JCOPE — I believe we need totally independent appointees and not necessarily representatives of both houses. I’d be open to a number of configurations, but they’d have to be independent. I’d have the attorney general involved; I’d have the chief judge involved in appointing the members.”

The proposal the governor outlined in his campaign to lead the state is like what civic groups have been pushing, but the governor has not made it a priority during the legislative session. While the governor did pledge earlier this year that he wouldn’t agree to a budget without an ethics agreement, the proposal to overhaul ethics oversight never had a real chance.

History shows that without meaningful oversight, even the best ethics laws in the world won’t work. The state’s decisions to create newer ethics watchdogs, while structuring them to fail, has contributed significantly to Albany’s rising corruption risks. Had it not been for federal prosecutors – primarily former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara – the scandals brought to light likely would have avoided investigation and prosecution, despite happening right under the noses of those state watchdogs empowered to enforce ethics laws.

Ethics watchdogs must be independent of all public officials subject to its jurisdiction, or else its actions will always be suspect, undermining the very purpose of the ethics law to promote the reality and perception of integrity in government. Having a majority of the commission chosen, in this case by the judiciary, would enhance public confidence in ethics enforcement that is independent of those public officials whom it regulates.

Lawmakers have six weeks until the end of session. Strengthening ethics oversight must be a top end-of-session item.

Changing Albany’s “Pay-to-Play” Culture? Maybe

Posted by NYPIRG on May 13, 2019 at 7:36 am
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In 1966, then-Speaker of the California Assembly Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh aptly observed “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” If so, in Albany, our elected officials are extremely well-nourished. New York law makes it easy to pull in donations from those with deep pockets; the state has the largest campaign contribution limits (of any state that has limits) in the nation. Under state law, one can make a legal campaign contribution of over $115,000 to a political party and can donate nearly $70,000 to candidates for governor.

Who writes those checks? The wealthy and those who have business before the government.

Thus, elected officials are doing all they can to legally raise big bucks. They know that the bigger the campaign warchest, the less likely they will face a formidable electoral opponent.

And it’s easy to do. One way is by holding campaign fundraisers for lobbyists while legislation is under consideration. For example, through the end of March, New York’s elected officials had held 125 campaign fundraisers during the legislative session, with a peak frenzy during the time the state’s $175 billion budget was in negotiations.

It’s a pretty brazen practice: elected officials hitting up lobbyists for campaign contributions while they decide how to spend $175 billion in public monies. Yet, the money is so easy to get, it’s worth the embarrassment – and it’s legal under New York law.

And getting that money works. A review of campaign filings for the 2018 election shows that of the 213 legislative winners, at least 130 of them outfundraised their opponents by at least 10-to-1.

Statewide officeholders also vastly outspent their challengers. And the fundraising rush for more campaign dollars has not stopped.

As mentioned, lawmakers are holding campaign fundraisers at a breakneck pace and the governor is too. According to his most recent campaign filing in January, the governor had over $4 million in the bank for a possible run for a fourth term and he is holding more fundraisers.

Just before the budget was done, the governor held a fundraiser in Manhattan with donations at $25,000 per couple.

He is reportedly holding more over the next couple of months. This week his campaign will host donors at a Yankees game, charging $10,000 for the game. Earlier this month he held a fundraiser at another Yankees game. The governor will hold a small dollar donor event in New York City on May 21, then a fundraiser in June on Long Island, with a donation request of $5,000 per head, and one more at Lincoln Center, where he will be joined by actor Robert DeNiro.

Clearly, a huge warchest will make any electoral challenger think twice before taking on the governor, or any elected official sitting on a stack of campaign cash.

But the benefits of aggressive campaign fundraising do not stop with preparing for a reelection bid – raising money for others has its own benefits.

Governor Cuomo has reportedly decided to push his donors to not only build his own campaign coffers, but to help finance the Presidential effort of former Vice President Joe Biden.

If he does so, the governor would be following in the path set by former New York Governor George Pataki who helped raise $9.5 million for former President George W. Bush’s reelection. Under federal law, bundling campaign contributions to Presidential candidates is legal and being the governor of a state that is home to incredibly rich people gives them a powerful tool to ingratiate themselves to possible future Presidents.

Legal is not necessarily good. Yet, under various U.S. Supreme Court decisions, there isn’t too much that can be done to reduce the influence of the wealthy and powerful, as well as reduce the risk of the corruption that stems from some of those relationships.

There are two approaches, however, that can reduce the risks. First, the state can dramatically restrict the ability to make campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts or lobbyists seeking favors. Roughly half of the nation has some form of this limitation, New York should too.

Second, the state should do all it can to remake its campaign finance system from one that relies on a small number of large donors – and the higher risks of corruption – to one that relies on a large number of small donors. New York should drastically reduce the size of its legal campaign contributions and establish a voluntary system of public financing. A public financing system typically allows for a public match for small contributions, in New York City, for example, every $1 raised in small contributions is matched with an $8 donation in public resources.

Until then, state public policies will reflect the wishes of a wealthy elite, while the rest of us live with the consequences.