Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

With Summer’s Fun, Ozone and Gas Price Hikes. And Big Oil Profits

Posted by NYPIRG on May 30, 2022 at 7:48 am

Memorial Day is the traditional beginning of summer for most people.  Despite Memorial Day’s origins – a time for mourning the U.S. military personnel who have died while serving in the armed forces – the three-day weekend at the end of May is also a time when most Americans begin to turn their attention to summer activities.

If weather cooperates, the Memorial Day weekend is the first in the summer’s weekends of relaxation and fun.  Those hotter days and more travel also mean something else: increasing gas prices and more smog.

This year’s gasoline prices are already creating pain at the pump for motorists. 

Usually, the summer driving season means higher gas prices.  The reasons?  First, more people are driving which puts a strain on supply and second “summer gas” tends to be more expensive.  Refineries switch the gasoline formula twice a year typically to a summer blend in mid-April (then back again after Labor Day). 

The blend is really about the level of butane in the gasoline.  Simply put, winter gasoline contains higher levels of butane. That butane is needed to help start a car in cold temperatures.

But in warm temperatures, gasoline with a lot of butane starts to evaporate quickly, producing ground-level ozone that can contribute to smog.  Thus, summer gas has less butane and is replaced with a more expensive substitute. 

This summer is looking to be even more expensive.  Inflation, reduced fossil fuel production, supply chain issues and boycotts on Russian oil after the invasion of Ukraine, have all combined to boost the increase in gas prices.

As a result, prices at gas stations across the US have hit record after record over the past two weeks. 

The average gallon of gas in the US hit $4.59, about 51% higher than a year ago, according to drivers’ group AAA data.  Regular gas prices have never hit this level.  And in California, AAA data showed, prices can be over $6!

A JPMorgan note recently stated that the average US gas price could surpass $6 a gallon this summer as driving season gets fully underway.  Of course, higher prices could cut into driving rates, which could offset those increases, but prices will still rise. 

Here in New York, expected gas price hikes could be somewhat offset by a gas tax holiday that starts on June 1st and goes through the end of the year.  That “holiday” will shave about 16 cents off the price of a gallon of gas.

As mentioned earlier, “summer gas” is an attempt to reduce smog during summer months.  “Smog” is created when sunlight warms gasoline vapors, vehicle exhausts and other chemicals, with the ground-level pollutant ozone being formed. 

The ozone layer found high in the upper atmosphere shields us from much of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.  However, ozone air pollution at ground level where we can breathe it causes serious health problems.  Ozone aggressively attacks lung tissue by reacting chemically with it.  Again a lot of ozone is the result of pollution from the burning of fossil fuels.

While the world suffers from the burning of fossil fuels – through exposure to ozone as well as the existential threat posed by global warming – there is one beneficiary: Big Oil.

The first three months of this year has been staggeringly profitable for the oil and gas industries.  According to recent reports, during those three months the biggest companies racked up profits just short of $100 billion – in three months!

Why should the oil and gas industries rake in cash like that?  Why should they profit while the planet, our lungs, and consumers’ wallets burn?

They shouldn’t and last week legislation was introduced by state Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Jeff Dinowitz to claw back some of Big Oil’s windfall profits.

The legislation ensures that climate polluters pay for the damages that they have caused.  The bill tags the oil companies for their relative share of the greenhouse gas emissions that are heating up the planet.  Thus, the biggest companies would be assessed more than smaller ones.  It is that fact that should make it impossible for the companies to pass any additional costs onto consumers. 

Right now consumers are facing pain at the pump as well as in their gas and electric bills.  At the same time, the oil and gas industry are raking in enormous profits.  The Krueger/Dinowitz legislation will claw back some of the oil and gas industry’s recent windfall profits and use them for adaptation costs that would otherwise be charged to state taxpayers and to do so without harming consumers’ wallets.

Approval of that legislation would be a real cause for a summer celebration.

Albany Gets a New Set of Maps

Posted by NYPIRG on May 23, 2022 at 9:16 am

While lawmakers were seeking to wrap up the legislative session, a big issue has been percolating in the courts – how best to draw the new political boundaries for New York’s Congressional delegation and its state Senate.

For those of you who might have missed this, recently the state’s highest court ruled that the district lines drawn by the Legislature violated state law.  The court then selected an impartial academic from Pennsylvania to draw new lines that were approved last week.

As background:  Every ten years the nation conducts a census to quantify the number of its inhabitants.  That count is then sent to the states for each to adjust political boundaries to account for recent population shifts within the state.  Local governments then do the same.  The idea is to ensure that the nation’s political boundaries allow for more or less equal representation in all levels of government based on recent counts.

Each state has its own way in which it determines how to draw these lines.  For most of the country, the political parties establish the lines to maximize the number of representatives from their party.  The most egregious examples are called “gerrymandering.”  New York has had a long history of allowing the two major political parties to run the redistricting show.

For most of the past 40 years the Republican-controlled state Senate would draw the lines for their House and the Democrat-controlled Assembly would do the same.  When they couldn’t agree on Congressional lines, the courts – like this year – stepped in and drew them.

In 2014, a new system was approved by voters, which was first used this year and has failed miserably.  A new so-called “Independent Redistricting Commission” was supposed to draw the lines.  But with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, their work ended in gridlock.  That gridlock triggered legislative action.  Thus, the Legislature drew its own lines.  With Democrat-supermajorities in both Legislative houses and with a Democrat as governor, the lines favored Democrats.  It were these new legislatively-drawn maps that the courts found unconstitutional.

The new maps unveiled this past week are – certainly to the naked eye – more reasonably drawn.  The academic who drew the lines did so using methods to draw the maps in a way that ignored typical political calculations.  For example, he clearly ignored the residences of incumbent members of Congress and as a result long-time incumbents will likely face each other in primaries to be held in August.  Moreover, there are more districts that are up for grabs, meaning that the districts have reasonably close percentages of Democratic and Republican leaning voters. 

Looking at the new maps from a statewide perspective, the districts seem to make more sense.  Of course, within those districts, changes of a few blocks can have dramatic impacts.  Nevertheless, in some cases big changes have been made and the maps drawn by the courts are now the law of the land.

So unless the state Constitution changes, it seems like the courts will have the ultimate say in redistricting process for New York’s future Congressional and state Legislative political boundaries. 

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.

There are other states that offer a model for how New York could fix its state Constitution so that a real independent redistricting commission could have the final say – instead of deals between the two major political parties or through the intervention of the courts.

The best such model is found in the state of California.  In that state, any person can apply to be on its 14-member redistricting commission.  Applications are reviewed, background checks are conducted, and then 60 qualified individuals are chosen to be part of an applicant pool: 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans, and 20 who do not belong to either of those two parties.  The law requires an independent auditor to conduct a random drawing to select the first eight commissioners (three from the Democratic pool, three from the Republican, and two from the independents) and those first eight commissioners are charged with selecting the final six members from the remaining applicants in the pool (using the same representative criteria).

While this may seem complicated, it is the randomness of the selection process that makes it harder for the political parties to rig the outcome.  Closer to home in New York, lawmakers will have one of two choices as they consider what to do next: leave the system as is and let the courts be the final arbiter or fix the system. 

Despair About Events, or Act To Change Them?

Posted by NYPIRG on May 16, 2022 at 10:10 am

It’s hard not to despair considering the news.  Violence around the world puts millions at risk.  The war in Europe threatens to escalate.  Political and racist violence feels like it could tear the nation apart.  Overheated – and usually false – political rhetoric poisons the nation’s civic life.

And while all of those threats – violence, civil discord and the rise of authoritarianism – are real, none (at least not yet) pose an existential threat to humankind in the same way as the climate changes resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.

The threat posed by global warming is a real existential threat to the future of the planet – and all that inhabit it.  The atmosphere is heating up and with it the temperatures of our air and water.  Last week, it was reported that temperatures in the Indian peninsula are hitting record highs.

In a region of 1.5 billion people, triple digit temperatures are baking India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.  For India, this past April was the hottest in 122 years and followed the hottest March on record. For Pakistan, it was the hottest April in 61 years. Nighttime temperatures are staying in the 90s, granting little relief for the overheated.

The sweltering weather has reportedly killed at least 25 people in India and 65 people in Pakistan, though the true number of casualties is likely much higher.  Even birds are getting heat stroke.  Hundreds of birds have been sent to animal hospitals during deadly heat waves.  One Indian animal hospital said it had treated a record number of birds for conditions such as fever, dehydration and heatstroke as temperatures rose to over 114.8oF this week.

Surging electricity demand and stress on the power grid triggered power outages for two-thirds of Indian households.  Outages in Pakistan have lasted up to 12 hours, cutting off power when people need cooling the most.  Without electricity, many households have lost access to water.  The hot weather has also increased dust and ozone levels, leading to spikes in air pollution in major cities across the region. The heat melted mountain glaciers faster than normal, triggering flash floods in Pakistan.  That heat will impact other nations too, for example the hot temperatures are threatening wheat production, which could push already rising food prices even higher around the world.

It’s just May.  Those Asia subcontinent nations have to be poised to react to the summer months, when the heat could really take off.  

So, it is easy to despair. 

The false and hateful rhetoric that poisons our civic life cannot be allowed to drive policymaking.  As the old adage goes, “denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet it is far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.”

New York State has to do the good works to “light the candle.”  When it comes to strengthening its democracy, the state has to show that elections can be fairly run at the same time as it makes it easier for all those eligible to vote.

New York can take a page from the turn-of-the-20th Century Progressives and expand its independent, professional civil service system to more governmental positions, including the enforcement of elections and ethics.

It must also show how to tackle the existential threat posed by global warming.  Here the state has taken important steps, such as setting scientifically-sound greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.  And banning the sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles by the year 2035.

Yet the false information advanced by the oil and gas industries, echoed by its witting (and unwitting) allies, are seeking to roll back those environmental goals and to block their implementation.  We see it in the fight to keep expanding oil and gas pipelines and the continued reliance on gas to power new buildings, a reliance that runs directly in opposition to the state’s climate goals.

Yet reliance on electricity for powering buildings and transportation, electricity that will rely more and more on solar, wind, and geothermal sources, is the real solution, not the fake options advanced by the fossil fuel industries and their allies.

Will Albany strike the match and light the candle?  Or will our elected leaders do nothing and curse the darkness?  New Yorkers will know by early June.

Policy Traffic Jam in Albany

Posted by NYPIRG on May 9, 2022 at 8:17 am

With only 12 legislative days until the scheduled end of the session, state lawmakers face an increasing “policy traffic jam”:  New issues are being added to an already packed end-of-session agenda.  Here is what the scrambled Albany political landscape looks like as of now:

The courts have tossed the Congressional and state Senate political district maps drawn by the Legislature and will replace them with ones drawn by a court-appointed Special Master by May 20th.  Will the Legislature then have to redo candidate petitioning and other rules that determine who will be on the ballot for the new primary pushed forward two months to August 23rd? Moreover, will legal challenges result in the state Assembly’s newly drawn lines also getting tossed? 

Will Governor Hochul and state lawmakers move all of the primaries – including those for governor – from June to August in order to save taxpayer dollars?  (It costs about $30 million to run a primary.  Obviously two of them are more expensive than one.)  If so, what other changes will be needed to qualify candidates for that new deadline?

And there is the issue of how to replace Congressional Representative Delgado once he is sworn into his new job as Lt. Governor.  Under New York law, the governor has a short window of time to announce a special election.  Will that be part of the current June primary vote?  Will she wait until later in the summer? 

The recent leak of a draft US Supreme Court decision to overturn abortion rights in America has also roiled Albany.  Lawmakers are expected to develop a raft of new legislation to respond to this possible change.  Expect a number of new legislative initiatives to be added to state lawmakers’ end-of-session list.

And those two issue areas are loaded on top of an already-packed list of important bills expected to be taken up in the waning days of session.  For example, lawmakers are debating issues over how to adjust the state’s housing code to reduce global warming greenhouse gas emissions by requiring new buildings to solely rely on electricity for power, whether to place a moratorium on certain cryptocurrency activities that increase those emissions, as well as deciding whether to act to reduce excess packaging to meet Governor Hochul’s promise to put the reduction onus on producers of packaging waste, not taxpayers.

There are other, lower profile, but important issues too.  For example, how should the state combat the growing public health threat caused by the rise of antibiotic resistant infections? 

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 35,000 Americans will die and another 2.8 million be made sick by exposure to antibiotic-resistant “superbug” infections.  Those numbers translate into New York State seeing more than 164,000 serious illnesses and 2,000 to 9,000 deaths in the next year. These infections include MRSA, urinary tract infections, salmonella and others that are increasingly dangerous since antibiotics may no longer work against these illnesses.

Controlling resistance requires both strong antibiotic stewardship measures in medicine and reducing antibiotic use in animals.  In the U.S., approximately 65 percent of medically important antibiotics, i.e., those that are important for human medicine, are also sold for use in food animals – cattle, pigs, turkeys, chickens – typically raised in large-scale industrialized operations, but on smaller farms, too.  Surprisingly, most of the animals getting antibiotics aren’t actually sick.  Instead, antibiotics are routinely administered to the animals at subtherapeutic levels daily, mixed into their food and/or water, so that they can survive often unsanitary, overcrowded living conditions and unnatural diets.

Last week, legislation was introduced to combat the threat of antibiotic-resistant infections.  The legislation, introduced by Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, would be the first in the nation to take the comprehensive “One Health” approach recommended by the CDC.  The legislation was supported by thirty consumer, public health, animal welfare, and environmental groups.

Of course, there are many other important issues that may be addressed as well.  In a “typical” end of session, during the last few weeks lawmakers approve roughly half of the total number of bills that they have acted upon during the entire six-month session – hundreds of bill are likely to get passed in this end of session blitz.

Lawmakers are heading down the final stretch of this legislative session; how they manage the increasingly large number of policy items and whether they take action on issues important to all New Yorkers will determine whether the session was successful.

Albany Suffers Through Another Political Earthquake

Posted by NYPIRG on May 2, 2022 at 9:58 am

New York State politics is maddening and endlessly surprising.  Over the past twenty years, three governors have had serious scandals – with two resigning and one fined for lying under oath.  A state Comptroller went to prison, previous leaders of the state Senate and Assembly were sent to prison for corruption, and scores of state legislators were punished for violating state laws.

Just two weeks ago, the Lt. Governor resigned after being charged by federal prosecutors with corruption.

And this past week, the state’s top court threw out the political boundaries set for New York’s delegation to the House of Representatives and the state Senate.  The Capitol shook from that latest political earthquake.

As background, every ten years the nation counts its residents through the census.  Every ten years, federal, state, and local governments readjust their political boundaries to reflect population changes.  That process – known as redistricting – has long been manipulated by the major political parties to maximize their electoral prospects for success.  

That manipulation is known as “gerrymandering,” named for Elbridge Gerry, a 19th Century Massachusetts politician who pioneered the strategy.

In modern New York State political history, the Democrats who controlled the state Assembly drew the lines for themselves, the Republicans in the Senate did the same for themselves.  The last time around in 2012, the courts drew up the lines for New York’s delegation to the House of Representatives. 

Legal challenges had been filed to challenge these plans, but the courts almost entirely deferred to this arrangement.

Ten years ago, that process was changed.  As part of a deal by then-Governor Cuomo, the governor agreed to astonishing gerrymandered legislative maps in exchange for lawmakers agreeing to approve changes to the state constitution.  Those changes included mandates that future maps could not be gerrymandered and that a new so-called Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) would oversee the development of new maps for the state and Congress.

As with far too many “reforms” during the Cuomo era, there were problems with the plan, most notably one that the IRC would really be run by the two major political parties, who would have equal representation on the Commission.  At that time, critics argued that such an arrangement would lead to gridlock.

And gridlock is exactly what happened.  The IRC could not agree on maps and so the Legislature drew them.  But this time, both state legislative chambers are run by an overwhelming majority of Democrats.  Republicans cried foul and filed legal challenges that argued that the Democrats’ plans were gerrymandered.

Last week, the Republicans won that argument in the state’s top court and now New York’s political scene has suffered an enormous disruption.

The new lines will be drafted by the courts.  Thus, candidates do not know at this time whether they live in relevant districts and won’t know that until later this month. 

Moreover, the primary for Congressional and state Senate seats has been moved from June to August, and it’s possible that Assembly and statewide primaries will move as well in order to consolidate voting and save taxpayers money – one primary date is cheaper than two.

In effect, the court’s decision has forced a political reset; campaigns that were designed around a June primary now are planning for one in August and whether existing candidates even choose to continue may be determined by the new political boundaries set by the courts.

In addition to immediate changes, the court’s decision has long term implications.  The state constitutionally-created IRC will be in place for the next redistricting in ten years and it’s hard to imagine a minority political party ever agreeing to the lines drafted by the Commission.  Thus, it is likely that there will be redistricting gridlock, which will force the courts to act again.  The 2014 state constitutional change has led to the courts being in charge of redistricting.

That change could have enormous implications this year.  The Congress’s House of Representatives currently is run by Democrats with a very small majority.  If the 2022 election leads to another close majority, the switch of a small number of seats could determine which party controls the House – which can have huge implications for the nation and the world.

New York’s current controversy could have been avoided if then-Governor Cuomo had established a truly independent commission.  In addition, the state’s political representation could have been stronger if the Cuomo Administration had pushed its census efforts; its failure to do so cost the state a representative in the House.  Proposed changes to the state constitution, which could have fixed the problem identified by the courts – that the IRC must act in order to avoid intervention by the court – failed at the ballot last November when the Democrats decided to sit out that vote and devote no resources to persuading the public.  And finally, the Democrats could have been less greedy – at least according to the state court – in drawing up the lines. 

This was a decade-long mess that was allowed to fester.  Now the courts will draw the lines, a surprising outcome and one that will be on the books for years to come, with huge shock waves felt inside and outside New York.