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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Harmful Algae Blooms Put Water Supplies at Risk

Posted by NYPIRG on July 9, 2018 at 9:20 am
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Summers are getting hotter as the planet heats up.  The combination of hotter summers and strong storms are not only inconvenient; they also can cause serious health problems too.

One example is the growing presence of harmful algae blooms in lake water.  Harmful algae blooms are more frequent and occurring earlier across New York and the nation.  They can pose a threat to recreation and can taint drinking water supplies.

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 to stay out of the water should there be evidence of one.

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 different side 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.

When the blooms are found in drinking water supplies, it can result in that system being unusable for human consumption.  Last year, for example, Onondaga County’s Skaneateles Lake had multiple toxic blooms during the summer months.  The toxins threatened the drinking water of not only local town and village residents, but also those in the city of Syracuse and surrounding areas.

The blooms are a blue-green slimy substance.  They often crop up in late summer and early fall, (although they have started to show up in New York’s surface waters) when waters are warm and calm. They also need nutrients to bloom, so often they’ll be observed after heavy storms.

The nutrients they primarily rely on are phosphorus and nitrogen and 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 river banks, river beds, land clearing (deforestation), and sewage effluent.  All of these are the major sources of phosphorus and nitrogen entering water ways.  These nutrients coupled with warm, calm water is the recipe for an algal bloom.

The state is charged with monitoring the types of runoff that can lead to algal blooms.  In the past year, the Cuomo Administration has offered financial support to a limited number of sites, but the spread of these blooms far exceeds currently available resources.

Unfortunately, the recent heat wave helped trigger some algae blooms that showed up in lakes and reservoirs across New York State.

According to the Department of Conservation, as of last week some 39 surface water areas had some evidence of algal blooms.  In Albany, for example, Washington Park Pond has some confirmed algae blooms.  Areas in which the New York City reservoir system is located (most notably in Putnam and Westchester counties) have had reports of algae blooms.

If you want to check out the lakes in which algae blooms are a concern, you can go to the DEC website, which has a harmful algal bloom notifications webpage that it updates weekly.  (Go to www.dec.ny.gov to see information on algal blooms.)

In August 2017, there were 66 lakes identified as being at risk of algae blooms, including the drinking water supplies for some towns in upstate.  For example, Auburn had to have its drinking water treated for contamination from algae blooms.

While we all must do everything possible to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and aggressively embrace energy efficiency programs and alternative energy sources, due to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, the planet will continue to heat up.  There is not much that New York can do to reduce the damage that has already been done and is fueling the current rising heat of the planet.  But when it comes to protecting surface waters and drinking water supplies, the state has to do a lot more to reduce the runoff from agriculture, landscaping and wastewater sources.  We must be proactive about protecting our drinking water supplies and recreational waters.

Failing to do so will drastically compound the looming catastrophe of what global warming is doing to the atmosphere.

A Democratic Party Political Earthquake in Queens

Posted by NYPIRG on July 2, 2018 at 11:26 am
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Congressional primaries occurred across New York State last week and the big news – national news – was the defeat of Congressman Joseph Crowley, the long-time incumbent, Queens Democratic leader, and fourth-highest ranking member of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives.  Crowley was considered a strong contender to lead the House Democrats if current-leader Nancy Pelosi retired.

But in a stunning upset, Crowley decisively lost to never-having-run-for-office-candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a political organizer who was tending bar until little over a year ago.

To call this a seismic political event is not hyperbole.

Why and how did this happen?

A look at the district’s changing demographics is one good indicator.  Crowley became a member of Congress in 1998 after the then-incumbent – and Queens Democratic Party boss – Thomas Manton filed for and circulated petitions for re-election, then withdrew on the last day it was legally possible to do so.  Manton had secretly arranged for his chosen successor, then-state Assemblyman Joseph Crowley, to replace him on the ballot.  It was so secret that reportedly Crowley wasn’t aware of this until Manton phoned him to tell him his name would be on the general election ballot.

That’s how a political party machine works.  It rewards those who have been good party members.  In this case, then-party boss Manton rigged the process so that Crowley would succeed him — cutting voters out by doing an end run around a primary.  And in New York City, outside of the borough of Staten Island, being on the Democratic line is a virtual guarantee that one will win.

And Crowley won the 1998 general election and has moved up the rungs of the House since then.

While he remained the Representative, party boss, and became increasingly powerful in the Congress, his district was changing.  The political boundaries changed twice and the demographic makeup of his constituents changed dramatically.  For example, when Crowley first became a member of Congress, his district was over 80 percent White, with about 8.5 percent Hispanic.  In 2002 after his first redistricting, his district was nearly 30 percent White and nearly 40 percent Hispanic.  In the latest redistricting, his district was 25 percent White and almost 50 percent Hispanic.

Crowley, a man of Irish descent, had less and less in common with his constituents given the changing racial and ethnic makeup of his district.  Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign hammered away that the district needed to be represented by “one of us” and her ads focused on the fact that Crowley’s family really lived in Washington and his children went to D.C. schools.  She also tapped into the “party boss” discomfort that many felt about the way political power was wielded in the borough.

Her message worked.  In many ways a classic case of a Representative losing touch with his constituents.

But it’s also a story of how few voters participate in consequential elections.  Democrats dominate the enrollment of the district, with nearly 236,000 members, compared to Republicans’ 36,000.  But Ocasio-Cortez won by garnering only 15,000 votes, roughly 6.5 percent of the eligible voters.  And her win in the primary makes it very likely that she will win in November.

Those observations shouldn’t diminish her victory – she won fair and square against great odds and was outspent 10-1.  But it does underscore just how poorly New York’s voting system works, or doesn’t.

New York State is considered one of the worst when it comes to voter participation.  The state’s poorly administered elections, registration obstacles, and rigged district lines undermine voter interest.  Usually, those barriers to participation coupled with the huge advantages of holding office keep incumbents in power.  In this case, it came back to bite them.

Here’s hoping that this result is a wake-up call to both political parties and their incumbents.  Voting is a right, not a process in which citizens have to prove themselves worthy by surmounting obstacles.  Using voting rules as an incumbent’s political weapon was never acceptable.  It’s long past time for New York to follow the best systems successfully being used in other states and allow early voting, election day voter registration, automatic registration when one becomes 18, more robust funding of polling places, and an elimination of the political parties’ control over elections.

 

The 2018 Legislative Session: More Fizzle Than Sizzle

Posted by NYPIRG on June 26, 2018 at 9:10 am
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Now that the 2018 legislative session is in the rear view mirror, what should New Yorkers think?

Back in March, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature were able to hammer out a budget agreement on time and which addressed a state deficit of billions of dollars. That agreement more or less kept the status quo in place.  For example, proposals by the governor to cut financial aid programs for low-income college students were rejected.  The most notable achievement was the governor’s success in establishing an alternative tax system that would offset some of the negative consequences of the federal tax law changes—though questions about whether it will pass muster with the IRS and be accepted by businesses in New York are still unanswered.

Close on the heels of finalizing the budget, the governor also forced a reunification of the two Democratic factions in the state Senate.

Yet once the budget was complete, the governor set the legislative bar low by announcing that he expected little to get accomplished during the remainder of the session.  And his prophecy was right.

When lawmakers wrapped up the session last week, the finale ended with a fizzle, not a sizzle.  Typically, at the end of the session hundreds of bills are approved and that was once again the case.  But there is usually an agreement put together by legislative leaders and the governor that includes some big ticket initiatives – particularly in election years like 2018 – but this year there was no such agreement.

Largely that was the result of gridlock in the Senate.  The razor thin one seat Republican majority evaporated when one Senate Republican reported for military duty and was unavailable for the last weeks of the session.

And while some may cheer when little is accomplished in Albany, most New Yorkers expect our representatives to go to the state Capitol to solve problems – to the greatest extent possible.  When the session fizzles that work doesn’t get done.

As a result, some localities may see tax revenues drop off and the City of New York’s program to have cameras identify car speeders near schools will be unplugged.  In short, unless lawmakers return – and there are noises that they may do that – important work will be left undone.

One of the most obvious failures is that nothing was accomplished to reduce the risk of political corruption in New York.  Ironically, during the last week of session, two high profile corruption trials began: one the retrial of the former Senate Majority Leader and the second around the governor’s signature economic development project, the so-called “Buffalo Billion.”

But if you were walking the halls of the Capitol in the waning days of the session, you wouldn’t have known it.  There were no high-level negotiations.  Governor Cuomo, who organized a bus tour to push his gun control plan, was silent on what should be done to combat the incredible corruption crime wave that has gripped New York.

Each house of the Legislature passed reform bills, but ones that did not match the other house’s bills, thus ensuring the flawed status quo.

The inaction in Albany is in stunning contrast to the revelations coming out of the corruption trials.  The Buffalo Billion case, and a trial from earlier this year, shows the myriad ways Cuomo administration officials have circumvented laws requiring that records be preserved, and communications handed over for public scrutiny. The trials have documented that, outside of federal prosecutors issuing subpoenas for those records, there’s almost no recourse when state officials destroy or refuse to release records to the citizens who pay their salaries.

As one defense attorney stated this week, “You will learn that there is a New York state law called FOIL, Freedom of Information Law.”  Evading it, he said, “was almost sport in New York state government.”

“Sport” in state government is ignoring New York laws that ensure public accountability!  This “sport” contributes to the secrecy that shrouds too much of governmental decision-making.  It is this secrecy that has raised the risk of corruption.  And corruption is what New Yorkers have seen.

Unfortunately, what New Yorkers have not seen is action to address the too frequent scandals and corruption in their state government.  If lawmakers return, responding to the corruption crisis must be at the top of the “must do” list.  Otherwise, voters will get their chance to react on Election Day this November.

The President Wants to Put More Americans’ Health at Risk

Posted by NYPIRG on June 18, 2018 at 10:01 am
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Not satisfied with taking away health insurance coverage for over 3 million Americans, last week the Trump Administration said it wanted to take away coverage from more.  While Americans have been distracted by the scandals, investigations, and policy flip flops, the Administration and its allies in the Congress have never been deterred from one deadly mission – to strip away health insurance coverage from millions of Americans.

Most recently, the Administration announced that it will not defend the Affordable Care Act against the latest legal challenge to its constitutionality.  As a result, new challenges to the law may succeed before the courts in a way they had not in past.

It’s clear that the Administration will do all it can to further strip away health insurance coverage from more millions of Americans.

Health insurance is the protection that most of us have from debilitating disease and financial ruin.  For example, cancer.  For cancer patients and their families, the cost of fighting cancer may mean choices that could lead to huge debts under the best of circumstances.  While some individuals diagnosed with cancer have meaningful and adequate health insurance to cover most of the cost of treatment, the uninsured and an increasing number of privately insured individuals face the prospect of crippling out-of-pocket costs. Financial barriers that delay treatment for cancer can mean the difference between life and death.

More generally, even those with coverage face uncertainties; roughly 20 percent of people under age 65 with health insurance nonetheless reported having problems paying their medical bills over the last year. By comparison, more than half of people without insurance said the same.

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 ten 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.

Former President Obama and the Congress agreed to legislation than attempted 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 their solution – one which essentially expanded the number of Medicaid-eligible Americans and offered subsidies to help others who were required 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.

It is also now clear that President Trump, who as a candidate consistently said that he would fix the health insurance system and make it better, wasn’t telling the truth.  In a stunningly callous series of decisions, the President did all he could to deny health insurance for 3 million primarily low and moderate income Americans.   And now he is trying to do that to more.

To strip away people’s health insurance coverage with no alternative is indefensible and will cost many more 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.

Another New York Corruption Trial Starts Up

Posted by NYPIRG on June 11, 2018 at 10:51 am
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It started three and a half years ago with a news report from the Investigative Post, a Buffalo-based media outlet.  In its review of the so-called “Buffalo Billion” economic development programs, the Investigative Post identified an incredible clause in one of the state’s bid offerings that would allow spending on construction projects.

The Investigative Post found that in the state’s request for proposals to develop facilities to build a solar manufacturing plant there was a requirement that limited the pool of respondents to those based in Buffalo who have been in business for at least 50 years.  That’s correct; the company had to be in business in Buffalo for 50 years.

More Investigative Post research revealed that only one company could meet the criteria – LP Ciminelli, whose president, Louis Ciminelli, is one of Governor Cuomo’s biggest campaign contributors, having donated nearly $100,000 to the governor’s campaigns during his two races for governor.  While a big donor, the company was considered a legitimate contender given its work in the area for many years.

Once exposed, the state argued that the proposal’s 50 year requirement was just a typo, which should have said 15 years.  The state revised the bid request, yet the company – LP Ciminelli – won the contract anyway.  But the state’s decision-making process triggered interest by federal prosecutors examining corruption in New York State government.  LP Ciminelli earned more than $20 million in fees to manage the project, which involved the state spending $750 million to build and equip the solar plant.

Two years ago, federal prosecutors – headed by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara – brought charges against the company and key New York State economic development officials.  In addition to the Buffalo case, the feds also charged that corrupt activities occurred in state economic development decisions in Syracuse and the mid-Hudson Valley.

The trial addressing the Syracuse and mid-Hudson Valley cases came earlier this year and led to the convictions of a former top aide to Governor Cuomo, a close ally of the governor’s, and some business executives.  The Buffalo case starts up this week.

Prosecutors contend that the then-head of the State University of New York’s Polytechnic Institute, with the help of the governor’s close associate Todd Howe, favored the Buffalo developers in a corrupt scam to award them hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts for the solar plant.  Howe has pleaded guilty and admitted to accepting payments from the businessmen in exchange for influence over the awarding of the contracts.

The upcoming “Buffalo Billion” trial will focus on the allegations that the state’s contracts were rigged to benefit certain companies, those which happened to donate big bucks to the governor’s elections campaigns.  Of course, those charged – except for Howe the lobbyist and an executive at LP Ciminelli, who have pled guilty – are presumed innocent and there have been no allegations that the governor was involved in the wrongdoing.

Yet, the crimes identified in the first case and the ones alleged in the upcoming case, shine a light on what can only be described as serious ethical and financial oversight weaknesses in how the state awards billions of taxpayer dollars.

These glaring weaknesses cry out for a legislative response.  Thus, in the seven remaining days of the state legislative session, the governor and the legislature must act to restore public confidence in how the state doles out the public’s money, to protect taxpayers and ensure economic development spending is based on the merits, not rewarding connected insiders.

The first step is to enhance the power of the separately-elected state Comptroller to review state contracting decisions.  In the early days of the Cuomo Administration, the governor successfully advanced initiatives that cut back on the Comptroller’s oversight role in this area.  It is clear that his powers should be restored and strengthened.

Second, the governor and lawmakers should agree on legislation to create a “database of deals” to identify the recipient of every taxpayer subsidy for economic development and describe the details of contracts and job creation goals.  Third, they should agree to ban “pay to play” by sharply limiting campaign contributions from businesses that get state contracts.  And lastly, there should be an agreement to close the “LLC loophole” that allows contributors to pour an unlimited amount of money into political campaigns.

Neither Governor Cuomo nor legislative leaders seem to hoping for anything of consequence to get done in the seven days left in the legislative session, despite a long list of unfinished business.  Acting to prevent government corruption should be something that must get done.