Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

New York’s Bottle Bill Soon to Turn 40

Posted by NYPIRG on November 15, 2021 at 11:25 am

New York State’s bottle deposit law, also known as the Bottle Bill, has been around for so long, it’s hard to imagine it remains controversial.  You buy certain containers, you place a nickel deposit, return it, and get the nickel back.  Less junk for the landfill, more recycling of wastes.

It’s worked that way for nearly four decades, and it’s been extremely successful.  Over its 40-year history, New York’s Bottle Bill has proven highly effective at reducing litter and increasing recycling rates.  In 2020, nearly two-thirds of all covered containers were redeemed by New York consumers.  The Bottle Bill has reduced roadside container litter by 70%, and in 2020, 5.5 billion containers were recycled in the state.

When it first passed in 1982, the Legislature articulated its policy goals stating that “requiring a deposit on all beverage containers, along with certain other facilitating measures, will provide a necessary incentive for the economically efficient and environmentally benign collection and recycling of such containers.”  And those policies have been realized and the law has created thousands of jobs for those collecting and recycling the containers.

What doesn’t make sense is how the state determines which containers are covered by the deposit and which ones are not. 

Despite the addition of wine coolers (remember them?) and water bottles a decade ago, the basic coverage of the law remains in place.  The nickel deposit enacted in 1982 is still a nickel and the containers that are covered is still a short list – with many containers left outside the scope of the law.

Think about America circa 1982.  Global warming was a topic limited to scientists, the Internet was a military application, “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John topped the music charts, disco was still on the dance floors.  Ronald Reagan was halfway into his first term as President.  And Hugh Carey was New York’s Governor.  

Since that time, the world has changed in so many ways, but not the basic architecture of the Bottle Law.  While some new containers have been added to the beer and soda containers that were originally covered in 1982 (most notably water bottles), the deposit is still a nickel, and many popular beverages – some of which that did not exist forty years ago – are not covered.  For example, sports drinks and other plastic containers that clog our parks and streets are not covered.  There are some old products outside the scope of the law too – while wine coolers are in, wine bottles are out.  How does that make sense?

It’s time for the Bottle Law of the late 20th Century to join the 21st.

Last week, over 100 environmental and community organizations sent a letter to Governor Hochul urging her to use next year’s Bottle Bill 40th anniversary to modernize the law.  Other states have improved their laws – Connecticut just made major improvements this year.  Thus, a blueprint for improvements exists.

In their letter to the governor, the groups identified two major changes to the law that should be considered:

  1. Expand the types and number of beverage containers covered by the Bottle Bill.  Other states from Maine to California include a diverse range of non-carbonated beverages, hard cider, wine, and liquor to great success.
  2. Increase the amount of the deposit to a dimeand directa portion of the additional revenues collected by the state to ensure better compliance and enhance access to redemption entities in currently underserved communities.  As you can guess, a nickel in 1982 isn’t worth the same as a nickel in 2021 (more like 15 cents).  States like Michigan and Oregon that have increased their deposit to a dime have seen increases in recycling and container redemption rates.  The groups identified areas of the state that they called “bottle bill deserts” (mainly in low-income urban areas) that need support in order to make it easier for consumers to redeem their deposits.

The groups argued that modernizing the Bottle Bill will reduce litter, increase recycling rates, reduce carbon emissions, and bring thousands of additional jobs to New York. 

40 years is a long time.  Modernizing the Bottle Bill is an important way for Governor Hochul to move the state forward in its efforts to reduce waste and to enhance recycling. 

Voting Reforms Lose on Election Day

Posted by NYPIRG on November 8, 2021 at 8:12 am

Democrats across the nation took it on the chin on Election Day.  Republicans crowed that their successes are an important measure of their gathering political strength.  And Republicans had much to crow about – they took the governor’s race in Virginia and nearly knocked out New Jersey’s incumbent Democratic governor.

Here in New York, Republicans strengthened their hold in Suffolk County, took both Nassau and Suffolk District Attorney offices and appear to have beaten the Democrat Nassau County Executive.  Three of five state constitutional amendments that were on the ballot all went down to defeat – by nearly identical margins – as the Republican and Conservative parties worked hard to block measures that had been overwhelmingly approved by the Democratic Party-dominated state Senate and Assembly.

It wasn’t a statewide sweep – Democrats cruised to victory in New York City, Buffalo, and Westchester, but the election returns in New York clearly showed a stronger Republican Party. 

The Republican victories in New York came at the same time as voting data showed a growing enrollment advantage for Democrats.  According to the New York State Board of Elections report that came out just before the election, half of all voters are enrolled as Democrats and those who chose not to enroll in a political party outnumber Republicans.  Democrats now have a better than 2-1 enrollment advantage in the state.

So, how did a state so dominated by Democrats lose so many races?

One thing’s for sure, the voter turnout was very low – and it looks like New York was part of a national trend in which Democratic voters stayed home.  Democratic turnout was low in New York strongholds like New York City where not quite 20 percent of enrolled voters cast their ballots.  Why?  The race for Mayor looked like a lock (and it was) and NYC Council races also appeared to have little drama (mostly).  Democrats may have believed that simply being the party opposed to Donald Trump would be enough to motivate voters.  But the Trump hangover may have hurt Democrats more than Republicans.

In terms of the ballot questions, a well-organized effort by the Republican and Conservative parties solidly won the day.  In only four of the New York City boroughs, and in Tompkins and Westchester counties, did a majority vote for the three elections ballot questions.  And in every other county the margin of defeat was incredibly similar.

Yet the three questions were vastly dissimilar.  One dealt with changes to redistricting; one eliminated the state constitutional voter registration deadline; and the third made permanent the ability of voters to obtain mail-in absentee ballots.  Currently, New Yorkers can get mail-in absentee ballots upon request, but when the pandemic ends, that will not be the case.  Voters will once again have to have an excuse in order to obtain that mail-in ballot.

Those three questions were obviously different, yet the Republican and Conservative parties know that in a state that is trending bluer all the time, allowing easier registration and voting opportunities, plus changing the state’s bipartisan redistricting process, will likely help Democrats. 

What was most bizarre about the ballot question failures was how little Democrats did to support their own measures.  All three were approved with overwhelming Democratic support, yet when it came to encouraging voter support, the Democratic establishment decided to sit it out.

Of course, they won’t admit to that.  Instead, Democrats are pointing to a national red tide that swept away their candidates.  But that analysis ignores what happened on the three ballot questions.

The “mother’s milk” of political campaigns is money.  You can tell how the political parties view races based on how they spend their money.  On the three ballot questions, Republican Party leaders held dozens of news events urging New Yorkers to vote no.  The Conservative Party spent a reported $3 million on TV ads and other campaign materials to bury the three proposals. 

How much did the state Democratic Party spend on those questions? According to media reports, zero dollars.  And that zero-dollar amount was matched by the Assembly Democrats.  Senate Democrats kicked in about $300,000, but that was clearly inadequate.

Why did the Democratic Party decide to sit out the ballot votes?  Maybe they thought that those questions would pass without much fuss.  Maybe they really didn’t care – after all, they run the state now, how can changing the system they’ve successfully used make it better for them?

But they clearly miscalculated.  Republicans now have the wind to their backs and feel more confident going into the 2022 election cycle.  Of course November 2022 is a long way off, but the Republican triumphs in 2021 have sent a clear signal that their ideas, strategies, and organizing will give the dominant Democratic Party a run for its money next year.

Biden Goes to Glasgow With Promises but Nothing Tangible

Posted by NYPIRG on November 1, 2021 at 10:35 am

The world’s leaders are meeting at a U.N. conference in Glasgow, Scotland to decide how to respond to the worsening environmental emergency caused by global warming.  The burning of fossil fuels has created an existential threat to all living things.

There is no longer a credible debate about whether human activity, primarily the use of fossil fuels to create energy, is dangerously heating the planet.  Even in the pandemic downturn economy, 2020 was the hottest year on record.

This year’s U.N. climate summit renews an urgent question to the international community: Can the world come together to confront the common enemy of global warming before it’s too late?

To limit the growing menace from global warming, the Glasgow conference must, at a minimum, achieve five goals: 

  1. Rich nations need to meet the 2015 Paris Accord goal of transferring $100 billion each year for poor nations to cope with climate change. 
  2. Rules for international carbon trading, which is seen as a key instrument to harness market forces in the fight against global warming, need to be implemented.  So far, those rules have not been realized. 
  3. Transparency measures need to be put in place to prove that the world is making progress toward meeting emission reduction targets. 
  4. Reductions are needed in methane emissions. 
  5. Greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels.  Yet so far emissions are going up, not down.  Cutting emissions in half over the next decade is essential to averting global catastrophe.

For the first time in years, the United States is sending a President with promises to help in the fight, a President who follows the science.  But the U.S. is sending a President who carries promises, but not real programs.

As part of last week’s Build Back Better “framework,” the President and the leaders of the Congress agreed to advance legislation that will meet certain goals.  The “framework” promises to spend $1.75 trillion over the next decade on a wide range of domestic programs. 

In the area of climate change, the “framework” pledges $555 billion for clean energy and climate investments.  Most of the funding, $320 billion, would go toward 10-year expanded tax credits for clean energy, transmission and storage, clean passenger and commercial vehicles and clean energy manufacturing.

Given the magnitude of the existential threat posed by climate change, $555 billion over a decade is simply not enough.  Nevertheless, it would greatly increase America’s odds of keeping its climate pledges.

President Biden’s initial plan was far more ambitious, with $3.5 trillion in spending and a much more robust climate package.  For example, the President had proposed the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would have required all electric utilities to draw 80 percent of their power from non-carbon sources by 2030, or else face steep fines.  That plan dropped out of the “framework” due to opposition from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

The “framework” reflects the tiny margin that the Democrats have in each house of the Congress.  In the House, Democrats hold 220 of 435 seats, meaning they can’t afford to lose more than three votes on any given issue.  To take on the oil industry the House essentially needs a consensus, which is extremely difficult.  Just to illustrate the difficulty, of the 38 house members from oil-industry dominant Texas, 13 of them are Democrats.

In the Senate, the Democrats only have an advantage in a 50-50 Senate thanks to the tie-breaking vote of the Vice President.  Thus, the final “framework” reflects Senator Manchin’s philosophy:  “You can’t use things as a hammer.  You’ve got to give an incentive to do the right thing….”  “Incentivize or penalize.  Penalize doesn’t work, incentivize does work,” Manchin said.  We all know that penalties do work.

Nevertheless, because of Manchin’s demands the “framework” reflects his view with the bulk of climate spending focused on incentives and does essentially nothing to penalize bad behavior.

And when it comes to bad behavior, the oil industry takes the cake.

The public record makes clear that – based on their own research — for the better half of the late 20th Century oil companies knew that burning fossil fuels was warming the planet.  Yet, starting in the 1980s the industry championed climate change denial and opposed regulations to curtail global warming.  To this day, they are still fighting science-based climate legislation in the Congress.

That’s why there is a “framework” but no final legislation.  The hordes of oil and gas lobbyists fighting for a deal that protects the profits of the fossil fuel industry could further weaken an already limited “framework.”  Hopefully, the pressure from the Glasgow conference will stiffen the spines of those who seek to curtail environmental catastrophe, and the nation ends up with a better Build Back Better plan and more than empty promises from Glasgow.

New Yorkers Start Voting

Posted by NYPIRG on October 25, 2021 at 10:10 am

New Yorkers began casting their ballots last Saturday and some of the most important decisions appear on the back of the ballot.  There voters will find five proposals to change the New York State Constitution.  While important ballot proposals may be on your local village, town, city or county ballot, four of these statewide proposals could have profound impacts on New York’s democracy and its environment.

Here’s a look at the statewide proposals:

Proposal #1: This proposal addresses New York State’s redistricting process – the process whereby congressional and state legislative district boundaries are adjusted to account for population shifts.  This amendment updates the state’s Constitution, eliminates unfair or unconstitutional provisions, and adds new measures to strengthen the redistricting process.

The proposal caps the number of senate districts at 63, removes a 1894 rule so cities and towns are on equal footing in senate line drawing and removes “dead wood” provisions long ruled unconstitutional under U.S. Supreme Court decisions.  The proposal also addresses timetable issues – the Constitution was based on state primaries in September, they are now held in June.  Supporters argue that this amendment improves the state’s redistricting process. Opponents argue that the changes to the Redistricting Commission’s voting rules hurt Republicans.

Proposal #2:  This proposal addresses the state’s environment.  There can be no doubt that New York’s natural environment is under siege, threatening the state’s precious ecology and human health.  Recent examples include drinking water contamination uncovered in Hoosick Falls, Newburgh, and on Long Island.  Many other communities across the state suffer from threats posed by multiple pollution sources, particularly in communities of color and/or low-income areas. 

While New York has been a leader in environmental preservation, environmental health, and environmental justice, in key respects the lack of constitutional recognition of this fundamental right is glaring.  Six states—Illinois, Pennsylvania, Montana, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Rhode Island—have environmental protection planks in their constitutions.

Supporters argue that elevating the right to clean air and water and a healthful environment to a constitutional protection will help ensure that New Yorkers have a basis in which to protect themselves, their families, and communities.  Opponents argue that it will lead to an explosion of lawsuits.

Proposal #3: This proposal addresses New York’s voter registration deadlines. The state’s voting rates are lower than the national average.  The state’s antiquated system of voter registration is a relic of a bygone era, perpetuating the re-election of incumbents and limiting voter participation.  This proposal, if approved, would allow—but not require—legislation to give New Yorkers the right to register and vote on the same day.  States that have same-day or no registration systems have among the highest voter participation rates in the nation. 

Supporters argue that often elections capture public interest only when the election is close at hand, past the current registration deadline.  Opponents argue that this proposal will add too much work for elections officials and that fraud may occur.

Proposal #4: This proposal addresses greater use of absentee, mail in, ballots.  The state Constitution places restrictions on New Yorkers applying for an absentee ballot.  New York’s experience with the pandemic-inspired “no-excuse ballot by mail” underscores the benefits of allowing voters to mail in their ballots instead of going to the polls: e.g., safer for voters and poll workers, more convenient for voters with physical limitations, and reduced voter traffic at early voting and election day polling sites.  Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an excuse. 

Supporters argue that allowing voters an easy opportunity to vote through the mail is an important way to make civic participation easier in the modern age.  Opponents argue that this proposal makes it too easy for fraud to occur.

Proposal #5:  This proposal pertains to the New York City civil court system and would increase the court’s monetary jurisdiction from claims up to $25,000 to claims of no more than $50,000.  Supporters argue that this limit was set in 1983 and should be adjusted upwards to account for inflation. 

When it comes to changing the state Constitution, voters get the final say.  Don’t forget to flip over your ballot and make sure your voice is heard. 

Bringing Accountability to New York State Government

Posted by NYPIRG on October 18, 2021 at 11:13 am

Ever since former Governor Cuomo resigned in the wake of bombshell investigations that found that his Administration had misled the public about nursing home deaths and that he had harassed his staff, the calls for reform have been growing.

Governor Hochul has said that she wishes to completely overhaul the state’s ethics oversight, reportedly saying that she wants “blow up” the state’s ethics watchdog.

Bravo!  But the problems of Albany are not solely the result of a failed ethics enforcement system.  The problems go much deeper.

For a decade New York State has plowed billions of dollars into programs that were designed to be “transformational” and to recharge economic development.  But the decisions were largely made behind closed doors and no systems were put in place to monitor whether those programs succeeded or failed.  In fact, when it came to the efforts to revitalize Buffalo and Syracuse, all that resulted was scandal.  The then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s investigation led to the conviction of top Cuomo aides and allies for widespread “pay-to-play” schemes.

The Legislature never followed up to investigate these failures or to comprehensively review the track record of the Cuomo Administration’s multi-billion-dollar initiatives.

They should and they must.  There is still time to learn from those scandals.

But it is also the case that new systems need to be put in place so that the public can better monitor state programmatic initiatives without having to hope that lawmakers will take their oversight responsibilities seriously.

Last week, the state Comptroller took one step in that direction.  Comptroller DiNapoli unveiled a new program to track where federal pandemic relief money is going.  As part of the federal efforts to bolster states’ finances in the wake of the COVID pandemic, New York State has received $21 billion in federal pandemic relief money and has spent $6.1 billion – or one-third –since the end of September.

Having a system in place to monitor what the state is doing with federal aid is, of course, important.  The federal aid was designed to bolster programs that were impacted by the pandemic.  Taxpayers need to be sure that their federal dollars are being spent appropriately and not diverted to spending in other areas.

And the public needs to know if the money is being spent, and how quickly it’s “going out the door.”  Sitting on federal aid only exacerbates the financial pain caused by the pandemic.

The Comptroller’s “tracker” can be expanded to cover all state spending, not just federal pandemic aid.  It’s very hard for the public – and rank-and-file lawmakers – to monitor state agencies’ spending.  It’s impossible to know how to hold government officials accountable if you don’t have the basic facts.

Even better monitoring of state government spending is only half of the picture – New Yorkers need to know how well funded services perform.

Public monitoring of government service delivery is not some pie-in-the-sky notion.  The City of New York has a program, known as the Mayor’s Management Report (MMR), that annually publishes city agencies’ performance.

The report was first produced by the Mayor’s Office in 1977 as a part of the City’s response to the fiscal crisis, to highlight the impacts on performance in that challenging budget environment. The MMR includes both quantitative metrics and qualitative explanations that show how each city agency and related projects are doing and allows for year-over-year comparisons, to show where progress has been made, where more attention is needed, and where there are opportunities for improvement.

There can be no doubt that Governor Hochul’s Administration has its hands full – it needs to hire new staff, deal with the ongoing pandemic, get government up and running, and prepare a budget for next year – all while preparing to run for election.

Yet there also can be no doubt that an overhaul of the state’s ethics oversight is desperately needed.  New Yorkers need to have tools to hold all of government accountable for the work that taxpayers fund.  Unlike ethics reform – which requires the cooperation of the Legislature – developing a program to hold state government spending accountable is something that the governor can do on her own.

Through her executive powers, the governor can mandate a system that tracks the program used in New York City.  She can mandate that and have her agency heads publicly testify to the Administration’s successes or failures in delivering services.  If Governor Hochul builds on the work of the Comptroller and the New York City model, she will have made her mark in the short time that she has left in her term.  A mark that could make a huge difference in holding government accountable and, hopefully, make it harder for political insiders to game the system to enrich themselves.

After all, a more accountable government is a more ethical one.