Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Lawmakers Review Governor Hochuls’ Environmental Proposals

Posted by NYPIRG on January 31, 2022 at 8:51 am

A rapidly heating planet, rising sea levels, oceans choked with plastic pollution, landfills overflowing with solid wastes, an increasingly decrepit drinking water infrastructure, and industrial chemical hazards menacing drinking water – these threats and others are the backdrop for lawmakers’ review of Governor Hochul’s proposed environmental budget this week.

As New York lawmakers continue to review the governor’s $216 billion proposed budget, this week they will focus on her plans to respond to growing environmental threats.  Broadly speaking, her plans are contained in three major categories: responding to climate changes resulting from global warming, protecting New York’s drinking water (and freshwater) supplies, and addressing the growing solid waste disposal crisis.

Climate change.  There is no greater challenge facing the world.  As a result of human activities, most notably from the burning of fossil fuels, the planet is heating up and doing so at an accelerating pace.  Earth’s global average surface temperature in 2021 tied with 2018 as the sixth warmest on record.  Collectively, the past eight years are the warmest years since modern recordkeeping began in 1880.  This annual temperature data makes up the global temperature record – which tells scientists the planet is warming.  According to NASA’s temperature record, Earth in 2021 was about 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the late 19th century average, the start of the industrial revolution.

New York State has among the nation’s most aggressive goals promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  In her budget plan, the governor adds to that effort with proposals to boost reliance on electricity to power transportation and to heat new buildings.  As the state’s grid gets “greener” due to a growing reliance on solar, wind, and other non-fossil-fuel forms of power, using electric cars, buses and trucks will drastically reduce the burning of fossil fuels.  Demanding that new building construction rely on electricity instead of natural gas for heating and power will also help reduce emissions.  The governor deserves support for those initiatives, although her timetable for action on the shift from fossil fuels to electricity for new building construction needs to be moved up to start by the end of 2023.  The state needs to be in step with the recently passed gas free law for New York City – the building capital of the state.

Of course, devoting resources to the mitigation and adaptation efforts to respond to global warming will take money.  Unfortunately, the governor does little to require that the oil and gas industries – who are responsible for our current predicament – pick up the financial tab for these costs.  That’s one place where lawmakers should fill the gap, by making the fossil fuel industry pay – and certainly eliminating any indefensible state financial supports for climate polluters.

And New York needs a comprehensive, easy-to-use, and easy-to-find climate ‘report card” so that policymakers and the public can monitor the state’s progress toward its climate goals.

Drinking water protection.  Across New York this winter, there is regular media coverage of water pipes bursting due to the age of the infrastructure as well as the pressures from changes in temperatures.  As the planet heats up, drinking water supplies will become increasingly more important to society and New York can ill afford to waste its supplies – or allow pollution threats to harm drinking water quality.

The governor does propose to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on upgrading water infrastructures.  Given the state’s surplus and the enormous sums of federal support, the final budget should double the governor’s plan and spend $1 billion to fix New York’s aging system. 

In addition, the governor’s plan to protect wetlands – which can often act as a filter for underground drinking water aquifers – is a good first step but leaves too many wetlands threatened by development.  Her plan only protects wetlands that exceed 12 acres; the final budget must do better than that.

Solid waste reduction.  The governor has advanced an innovative plan to reduce packaging waste.  She proposes the establishment of an “Extended Producer Responsibility” program that would require “producers, not taxpayers” to be responsible for reducing and recycling packaging wastes.  The plan is seriously flawed with a business-dominated Advisory Committee which could end up being the “foxes guarding the chicken coop.”  Lawmakers should substantially improve this proposal to ensure that any advice be developed by independent experts working in the public’s – not the industry’s – best interests. 

The governor’s solid waste reduction plan has one big flaw – it shifts away from the state’s best recycling program, the Bottle Deposit Law.  That 40-year-old law has led to huge reductions in litter and does a far superior job at making “producers, not taxpayers” pick up the costs of beverage container wastes.  Lawmakers should demand the inclusion and expansion of this successful Extended Producer Responsibility program.

These are just some of the environmental and public health issues facing the state.  It’s the job of state lawmakers to dig deep into the governor’s proposals and reject those that do not work, demand accountability for performance toward environmental goals, and make sure that taxpayers are protected from the costs of irresponsible corporate behavior.

The Legislature Takes up Governor Hochul’s Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on January 24, 2022 at 10:04 am

It’s political science 101: The executive proposes and the legislative branch disposes.  Last week, Governor Hochul proposed her $216 billion state budget.  Her plans include not only spending proposals, but policy changes as well.

This week the Legislature begins its review of the governor’s plans.  In its first hearing, lawmakers will examine the governor’s proposed spending on public protection and general government.  Among the hundreds of pages of bill language, lawmakers will examine the governor’s plans to reform New York.

The proposal that is likely to draw the most attention is the governor’s proposal to replace the state’s ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).  The Joint Commission has been plagued by allegations of its failures to enforce the law, being too secretive, and for too often bending to the will of the state’s political leaders. 

Why?  The agency was not created to be independent.  Albany’s political elite wanted an agency that would be accountable to them, not free to enforce the ethics laws without political fear or favor.  And that’s what they got and that’s why it failed.

Now Governor Hochul wants to strengthen ethics.  She’s reported to have remarked that she wants to “blow up JCOPE.”  And in her reform proposal, she’s done that, sort of.

While leaving much of the existing law in place, the governor’s plan focuses on eliminating the existing Commission’s membership and replacing them.  She changes the name to the “Independent Commission on Ethics and Lobbying” and requires it to operate more openly.

How does she make the new entity “independent”?  Here’s where the governor’s plan starts to go astray.  The key problem has always been about who chooses the leadership of the ethics agency.  In the previous incarnations, the governor and the other political leaders of the state chose the ethics agency leadership.  In effect, the regulated were choosing their regulators.

Governor Hochul has come up with a different approach.  Instead of the new commissioners being chosen by Albany’s political leadership, her plan empowers New York’s law school deans to do it. 

Relying on “trusted outside” decisionmakers is one way to solve the independence problem.  Yet law school deans are not – as a group – free of political pressure.  All report to institutions, either larger universities or boards, which can be pressured.  Moreover, these institutions and boards are not – first and foremost – accountable to the public. 

Furthermore, all law schools are involved in lobbying of state and local governments and the new ethics agency will be regulating state and local lobbying.  Thus, reliance on a “trusted source” model must have its own protections from political influences if it is to be viewed – and actually be – politically independent.

Here the governor’s plan falls short.  Simply by dint of being a law school dean, these individuals are selecting the new ethics commission membership.  There are no conflict-of-interest provisions, no swearing of an oath to ensure that their decisions are for the public’s best interests, no restriction on their conversations with political players.  Even law school deans need ethics guardrails.

Whether lawmakers are interested in strengthening the governor’s plan or using its weaknesses to simply keep the status quo remains to be seen.  Given the scandals that have plagued the state, New Yorkers deserve action.  The governor attempts to solve the ethics oversight problem by creating an ethics commission selection committee of the state’s law school deans.  These deans would make the decisions on who would serve on the new ethics commission.  It is clear that the governor is correct to replace the current Commission.

Yet, the plan is flawed and should be strengthened by the Legislature.  What the Legislature should not do is use criticism of the governor plan’s flaw as an excuse for inaction.  Inaction or tinkering around the edges is simply unacceptable. 

New Yorkers should applaud the first step taken by the governor, but demand that her plan be improved upon.  Failure to strengthen New York’s democracy should be unacceptable.  Lawmakers are elected to solve problems, to the greatest extent possible, and New York’s democracy is in desperate need of reform.

New York’s democracy has been badly damaged by a steady drumbeat of scandals and corruption.  The governor and lawmakers must act to restore integrity and public trust in government.

Governor Hochul Unveils Her Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on January 17, 2022 at 2:51 pm

It’s a political truism that budgets are about priorities.  This week, Governor Hochul will show New Yorkers hers.  The debate over the governor’s budget plans will be the most critical action of the current legislative session. 

The state’s finances had been fragile going into the pandemic and were made much, much worse during the COVID lockdown in 2020.  Going into last year’s budget, the state was facing a $15 billion deficit.

Yet tone yearlater, Albany is breathing easier thanks to tough state budget decisions as well as massive financial assistance from the federal government.  The federal aid (over $12 billion) fueled a dramatic increase in the size of the state’s budget.  Last year, the state’s budget grew to $212 billion, a ten percent increase from the previous year.

In addition, state lawmakers agreed to a budget that added two tax brackets which increased taxes on rich New Yorkers making over $5 million.

The impact of federal assistance and state budget decisions – coupled with a booming stock market – have resulted in an enormous financial turnaround.  Instead of a state teetering on the financial brink, Albany is now sitting on a big surplus that looks like it will last through 2025.

Last week, state Comptroller DiNapoli released an update on New York’s budget.  According to the Comptroller, state tax revenue exceeded its forecasts by nearly $13 billion.  New York’s personal income tax receipts for the first three quarters totaled $49 billion and continue to exceed the most recent projections by $1.9 billion.  Income tax revenue has been boosted by a strong stock market and higher taxes on millionaires. 

Wall Street profits for the first half of 2021 surged to $31 billion before taxes from a year earlier, a gain of 13%.  Those strong profits boost income taxes paid by Wall Street traders.

Despite the glowing report, the Comptroller urged budgetary caution.  A substantial portion of those strong number may have more to do with the timing of when those taxes were paid.  Thus, those big surpluses may be smaller once the final numbers are in. 

In addition, the Comptroller stated, “Tax collections performed well in December, and the state’s economy and finances continue their recovery.  But there is continuing uncertainty about the impact of the ongoing Covid-19 surge, economic risks, and the need for continuing financial support for those still struggling to find their footing.” 

There is no denying, however, that the report is overall positive news for the governor.  Budgets with surpluses still force tough decisions.  There are unlimited budget demands, but there are only limited resources.  However, negotiating a budget with a surplus is less tense than negotiating one with a deficit.

The Comptroller’s report must have eased some of the Hochul Administration’s anxiety as it approaches release of its first budget.  The new governor will have to tackle real budget problems, but she will be doing so from a position of financial strength.

The governor gave the public an inkling of her budget plans when she released her State of the State message two weeks ago.  Expect big spending on health care and education – the two largest sectors of the state budget in any year.  Given the challenges facing health care providers, the cost of dealing with COVID in K-12 schools, and higher education institutions facing the financial abyss, an infusion of additional state support can make all of the difference.

But the needs exceed the state’s financial grasp even though its coffers are flush.  A big question will be what does the governor propose to ensure financial accountability?  Does she develop ways to measure the state agencies’ performance?  Does she propose a climate scorecard to measure the state’s progress toward its environmental goals?  While no one challenges the need for additional support for health care, going into the pandemic, New York’s hospitals performed near the bottom of the nation in terms of federal quality of care data.  Will the Hochul health plan include measures to strengthen medical care?

These questions and more will soon be answered.  Once the governor shows us her priorities, it will be up to the rest of us to embrace those that are shared by the public. And it will be up to the rest of us to make sure that budgetary priorities are matched with improved performance.

An Electric Idea in Governor Hochul’s State of the State

Posted by NYPIRG on January 10, 2022 at 9:16 am

As with all State of the State addresses, Governor Hochul’s covered a wide range of issues, large and small, having both regional as well as statewide appeal.  Her speech understandably focused on the pandemic and health care, followed by her plans to curb gun violence, help stimulate economic development, increase the state’s housing stock, and tackle the threat posed by a rapidly heating planet.

Her plans offered new ideas in each of those areas, but one was particularly innovative.  Among the governor’s plans was a proposal to ensure that within a few years all new buildings in New York would be powered by electricity, not rely on fossil fuels.  If enacted, it would result in a first-of-its-kind statewide ban on natural gas hookups in all new buildings.  In effect, the plan means that new buildings could have not oil or gas burners for heat or hot water, nor could they have gas stoves.

Why focus on buildings?

Emissions associated with electricity, heating, and cooling for residential and commercial buildings account for a large portion of climate emissions.  According to a UN study, the building sector was responsible for 38% of carbon emissions globally in 2019 – by comparison, the transportation sector accounted for 24% of global emissions.

This trend can also be seen in the United States and in New York.  According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, fossil fuel combustion attributed to residential and commercial buildings accounts for nearly 30% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.  The number is even more stark in New York:  According to the state’s energy research agency (NYSERDA), 60% of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions are from heating, cooling, and electricity for buildings; in New York City buildings account for a whopping 71% of emissions.

As part of her climate proposals, the governor pointed out that only about 20,000 New York homes install modern electric heat pumps for heating and cooling each year.  Instead, she committed the state to a minimum one million electrified homes and up to another one million electrification-ready homes by 2030.

The governor’s proposal comes on the heels of New York City becoming the largest locality in the United States to ban gas hookups in new buildings.

Of course, the fossil fuel industry opposes anything that limits the use of oil and gas.  Their arguments are self-serving and forestall action to combat climate change.  That’s to be expected and rejected.  But another argument that has been used is one of cost.

Yet, the evidence undermines that concern.  Installing heat pumps in new buildings now costs about the same as new gas infrastructure.  A wide variety of fossil free buildings are already built or under construction in New York.  Everything from deeply affordable housing to skyscrapers are being built to operate fossil free.  As reported in The Wall Street Journal, “New all-electric homes are cost-competitive with those that use gas in many parts of the country.”

Thus, building clean currently costs effectively the same as building dirty.  And it is that persuasive argument that led New York City, San Jose, Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco, and Sacramento to enact bans on new gas hook ups.

Although the governor’s proposal would be trailblazing at the state level, it wouldn’t take effect for five years, in 2027.  New York City also set 2027 as the deadline for large buildings, but buildings shorter than seven stories will have to stop being built with gas burners and stoves by 2024.

As the governor’s plan works its way through the legislative process, ensuring that the program kicks in as soon as possible will be critical.  When it comes to climate changes driven by global warming, there is no time to waste.

Governor Hochul’s 2022 “To Do” List

Posted by NYPIRG on January 3, 2022 at 1:06 pm

This week, Governor Hochul delivers her first “State of the State” address.  This speech is delivered annually and is modeled on the more well-known “State of the Union” address that the President delivers to Congress later this month.

The state Constitution requires that the governor “shall communicate by message to the legislature at every session the condition of the state and recommend such matters to it as he or she shall judge expedient.”  In modern times, governors have issued their recommendations in a speech, usually delivered on the first day of the legislative session.  That’s January 5th this year.

Governors use the State of the State address to help frame what they believe to be the most important issues facing the state and their proposed solutions.  The speech itself rarely gets into too much detail on how those solutions will work or be paid for (that’s left for the budget presentation), but the address does offer the governor the “bully pulpit” to focus legislators’ – and the public’s – attention on her agenda.

It’s a given that the governor will discuss the ongoing COVID pandemic and how she proposes to respond to it.  Of course, that is appropriate, but there are other urgent issues about which the public needs to hear the governor’s plans.

Even though this year’s state budget looks flush – thanks to the various federal stimulus programs – the state’s finances were shaky going into the pandemic and without additional federal help the governor will need to put in place revenue measures to combat projected out-year deficits.  It’s unlikely that this issue will come up in the address – revenues are usually discussed in the context of the governor’s proposed budget – but there are programs that are teetering on the financial brink right now and need her attention. 

The most obvious is higher education.  While the big public and independent universities are in reasonably good financial shape, the same cannot be said for four-year colleges and community colleges.  Many of these campuses are on the ropes.  Community colleges, in particular, have seen staggering loses in student enrollment and thus face serious financial problems. 

The issue goes beyond educating the next generation – as important as that is.  In many of the most hard-hit communities, local colleges are a significant employer and economic engine.  Unlike many of the recent, highly touted, economic development schemes, public investments in higher education pay off in a big way.  Letting the higher education system wither makes no sense.

New Yorkers need to hear how the governor will tackle the hemorrhaging budgets of New York’s four- and two-year colleges.

The governor ascended to the position due to scandals that forced her predecessor to resign.  The prior Administration’s unprofessional and unethical behaviors were allowed to go on unabated due to failures of ethical oversight.  The governor has pledged to get rid of the state’s current ethics watchdog – the Joint Commission on Public Ethics – and replace it with something new and effective.  Other watchdog offices, like the Inspector General need to be overhauled, as well.

New Yorkers can’t wait to hear the plans.

While COVID forces us to face the immediate dangers of a raging pandemic, climate change poses a far greater threat in the long run.  For decades, the oil, gas, and coal companies knew of the dangers of global warming from the burning of fossil fuels but did nothing to restrain their activities or alert the world to the danger.  Now a rapidly-heating planet threatens the world as we know it.  It’s clear that money will have to be spent to mitigate and adapt to these threats.  Let’s hope that the governor advances a plan that makes the climate polluters pay for the damages that they have caused.

China now refuses to accept wastes from the United States.  The nation needs to enhance recycling programs to reduce the amount of waste it generates.  Here in New York, the state will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its best recycling and anti-litter program — the Bottle Deposit Law.  Will the governor propose initiatives to modernize the law, including expanding the types of containers covered?

Recent elections have fully exposed New York’s flawed system of elections administration.  Relying on the two major political parties to run elections in New York has resulted in cronyism, scandals, and an erosion of the public’s trust.  Will the governor offer plans to move the system away from two-party control and to a system that relies on independent, non-partisan one?

COVID is not the only health threat.  There’s another: The slow-moving pandemic caused by antibiotic-resistant infections.  By mid-Century deaths caused by antibiotic-resistant infections may surpass those caused by cancer.  The COVID pandemic has underscored the need for forward thinking public health programs.  We’ve learned we can’t play catch up on public health.  Will the governor offer a plan to reorganize the state’s system of monitoring public health threats – most notably by focusing on the growing threat posed by antibiotic resistant microbes?

Lastly, New York’s sputtering, Byzantine court system more reflects partisan dealing making than a rational system.  Will the governor advance a plan to reorganize the court system?

Those issues and more load up the governor’s plate.  In a few days New Yorkers will finally know what this governor views as priority issues and how she plans to tackle them on behalf of all New Yorkers.