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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Quality Drinking Water Must Be at the Top of Albany’s Agenda

Posted by NYPIRG on February 18, 2019 at 7:50 am
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Voting reforms, civil justice changes, expansion of reproductive rights, state financial shortfalls, economic development strategies, all have dominated the recent discussions over the coming year’s New York budget. Yet one important issue has received too little attention: protecting New York’s drinking water supplies.

Drinking water is one of New York’s most important resources. But as a result of climate change, outdated water infrastructure, and New York’s toxic chemical legacy, this precious natural resource is in peril. From harmful algal blooms growing worse due to warming waters, to the drinking water contamination crises on parts of Long Island, in Newburgh, Hoosick Falls, and elsewhere, New York must adopt aggressive policies to ensure water is protected for all.

According to a recent analysis of government data, the drinking water of over 2.8 million New Yorkers has levels of 1,4-dioxane that are above the most stringent levels recommended for safety. This is also the case for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) for over 1.4 million New Yorkers. And that’s only for communities that have conducted testing – many haven’t had to test their water yet.

PFOA and PFOS endanger public health at very low levels of exposure, resulting in developmental effects to fetuses, thyroid disorders, ulcerative colitis, high-cholesterol, preeclampsia, and kidney and testicular cancer.  Studies find that exposure to 1,4-dioxane can cause liver cancer and chronic kidney and liver effects.

If PFOA, PFOS and 1,4 dioxane had been regulated years ago, communities may not have had to face the pollution problems they are currently contending with. Unfortunately, too often steps to protect water aren’t taken until after a water contamination crisis has already unfolded.

This is a vicious cycle that the public is counting on New York to break. New Yorkers can’t wait for people to get sick from exposure to dangerous chemicals to take action.

Thankfully, the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council in December of last year recommended Maximum Contaminant Levels (or MCLs) for PFOA, PFOS and 1,4 dioxane. 

MCLs are legally enforceable drinking water standards, and they are essential to prevent exposure to dangerous chemicals found in water supplies. While recommendations were made last December, as yet no regulations to implement those standards have been issued. It is now up to the Department of Health to adopt MCLs regulations that will protect the most sensitive populations and begin statewide testing immediately.

Last week, EPA made clear they aren’t going to set drinking water standards for these chemicals for some time. The longer New York doesn’t have standards for MCLs on the books, the longer, and greater the chances, people get exposed to unsafe levels of these chemicals.

New York lawmakers began the 2019 legislative session in January, but when it comes to drinking water, there’s still a lot left to do. The governor has proposed $2.5 billion in strengthening state drinking water infrastructure, but only allocated $500 million for this year. Water infrastructure needs alone are huge in New York state – it’s been estimated that over the next 20 years, New York will need to invest $80 billion to make all the needed repairs, upgrades, and replacements – and that doesn’t include the costs associated with treating chemicals like PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane. $500 million – while needed – is just a drop in the bucket. More state support will be needed.

In addition, there is much more to do than simply spending money (although that is needed). One key step would be to expand regulation of contaminants already found in drinking water. There are over 80,000 chemicals on the market that are unregulated, which means that even though they may not be safe for public health, they can be in our products or water anyway. PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane are only the start. New York must test for unregulated chemicals, set MCLs and ban the use of chemicals that pose health risks.

The public has the basic right and expectation that the water from their taps will be safe to drink. As the federal government rolls back environmental protections, protecting water and health must be at the top of the policymaking agenda in 2019.

Test of Albany’s Commitment to Reform Looms

Posted by NYPIRG on February 11, 2019 at 7:17 am
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A lot is happening in Albany. Unified Democratic control of the governor’s mansion and both houses of the Legislature, coupled with pent-up demand for action – which had been long stymied due to partisan gridlock – has triggered a frenzy of legislative action.

One resurrected issue is campaign finance reform. After years of inaction, the governor and the Legislature agreed to change the way Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) are treated for the purposes of campaign financing. Under the old system, LLCs were handled differently than other businesses. Under longstanding New York law, corporations are capped at making no more than $5,000 in direct campaign contributions in one year. LLCs, on the other hand, have been considered “humans” for the purposes of donating to campaigns and thus could give much, much more. In fact, one real estate developer skillfully used his stable of LLCs to donate millions of dollars to state candidates and parties in a single election cycle.

That system has now been overhauled and LLCs are now treated like corporations. This is a long overdue and significant change, but alone it doesn’t fundamentally change the campaign financing system in New York State.

New York State relies on private donations to fund its political campaigns. Since New York has the highest campaign contribution limits of any state with limits, candidates focus their fundraising on those who can give the most – and those individuals and entities more likely than not have business before the government.

Political campaigns in the United States are typically financed by a relatively small handful of donors. In a recent New York State election cycle, only 6% of candidates’ money came from donors who gave $250 or less. In contrast, 78% came from non-party-organizations (such as PACs) and individuals who gave $1,000 or more. Thus, average people are marginalized in the current system.

New York law has another wrinkle: Every four years those already generous donation limits go up. Last week, they went up again, and now contributions of nearly $70,000 can be lawfully given to the governor. Over $100,000 can be given to the political parties.

Who gives those contributions? A relatively small number of wealthy individuals and special interests seeking to influence the system.

Due to U.S. Supreme Court decisions, little can be done to limit the spending by the wealthy and powerful. However, a voluntary system of public financing can be made available as an alternative to the current “pay-to-play” system.

New York City has such a system of public financing. Candidates who voluntarily choose to participate see their contributions amplified when they raise donations of $250 or less. In those cases, each $1 raised is matched with $8 in public funds.

The highly regarded NYC system has shifted campaign fundraising strategy from relying on a small number of big bucks donors to a system relying on many small dollar donors. It has given candidates a powerful incentive to turn their attention toward small donors. Studies done by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute project that if New York State established a campaign financing system similar to the one in New York City, candidates would be far more likely to reach out to small donors – thus changing the political calculus for candidates.

And here is the big test for Democrats in Albany. For decades they have run for office while embracing public financing proposals. In the Democratically-controlled Assembly, since the late 1970s, public financing legislation has been approved. Governor Cuomo has repeatedly advanced legislation in his budget plans – including again this year. Senate Democrats, when they were the legislative minority, repeatedly called for creation of a public financing system.

It’s show time. The governor has a public financing proposal modeled on New York City in his budget. So far, however, the Legislature’s reactions have been muted. Indeed, there have been rumors that some lawmakers are not so keen to have a plan enacted that would encourage new voter participation and make the electoral system more competitive. Ultimately, the Democratic majorities in both houses will have to approve – or oppose – the governor’s plan by the time the budget is adopted by the end of March.

When that happens, New Yorkers will know for sure if lawmakers are true to their word and if some sanity will come to New York’s notorious campaign finance system.

The State Shortchanges Tobacco Control

Posted by NYPIRG on February 4, 2019 at 8:42 am
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Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco industry and the nation’s states.  The Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) ended litigation brought by the states against the nation’s major tobacco companies.  In that litigation the states charged that the tobacco companies deliberately misled the general public, and specifically smokers, about the dangers of their products.  As a result, more people smoked, more people got sick, and the states had to pick up additional – and significantly higher – health care costs, particularly through the Medicaid program.  Medicaid offers health insurance for the poor and states’ pick up much of the tab.  Big Tobacco also settled a separate case with the federal government over similar claims.

The MSA was an agreement by the states to drop their litigation if the industry made marketing changes and paid the states hundreds of billions of dollars over the next few decades to compensate them for the health care costs resulting from the misery of sick smokers.

New York was a party to that agreement and at that time heralded the MSA as a way for the state to have new resources for health care and financing to keep kids from starting to smoke and to help smokers to quit.

A report released this week examined the financial impact of the MSA on New York and concluded that the state shortchanges its programs to keep kids from using tobacco products and to help smokers to quit.  According to the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), the state has collected over $39 billion from tobacco taxes and revenues from the MSA.  As part of that agreement, the tobacco industry has paid the state nearly $16 billion over the past twenty years. 

Yet despite promises to use a portion of the revenues for tobacco control programs, the state spends far less than recommended by the federal government and, when accounting for inflation, spends less today than it did 20 years ago on the program.

The report, Dissipated, reviewed the revenues collected by New York State and its spending on tobacco control.  The report found:

  • New York State has received nearly $16 billion in tobacco revenues from the MSA since it went into effect in 1999.
  • New York has collected over $23 billion in tobacco taxes and fees since the MSA went into effect.  Combined with tobacco revenues from the MSA, New York has collected over $39 billion.
  • Despite this windfall, New York spends less today (adjusted for inflation) on its state tobacco control program than ever. New York has spent less than $1 billion on tobacco control since the MSA, despite promises to use the money to combat tobacco addiction.
  • It appears that the state does follow expert guidance on how to implement a tobacco control program, but independent audits have repeatedly identified the state’s lack of resources as a major flaw.
  • Despite impressive reductions in tobacco use statewide, the vast majority of New York counties have smoking rates that exceed the national average.  The counties tend to be upstate, older, and more rural.  Recent studies have shown that children in similar communities are at the greatest risk of exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke, a known human carcinogen.

In the report,NYPIRG recommended:

  • New York should increase its commitment to tobacco control efforts by following the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines; it recommends the state spend at least $140 million annually.
  • New York should target its resources to those areas of the state hardest hit by tobacco use.
  • Given the dramatic increased use of electronic cigarettes, they should be taxed at the equivalence of combustible cigarettes and those revenues earmarked for the state’s underfunded tobacco control efforts.

This week, New York lawmakers examine the governor’s proposed health budget, which does not include any increases in spending on tobacco control programs.  Hopefully, this is the year that the Legislature will demand that New York reverse course and boost its efforts to curb tobacco use.  New York has the money, all it needs is the political will.

The Governor’s Higher Education Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on January 28, 2019 at 8:20 am
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Over a decade ago, then-Governor George Pataki and the Legislature came to an agreement: undocumented immigrants living in New York and accepted to public college would be allowed to pay in-state tuition. But there was a catch: they would not be eligible for financial aid. Since then, advocates have been trying to eliminate that obstacle. Last week, the Legislature acted. It passed legislation to allow financial aid for those students.

In response to that financial shortfall for lower income undocumented students, legislation, dubbed the “DREAM Act,” was introduced. The DREAM Act makes financial aid, such as the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and other programs, available to eligible undocumented students. Passage of the DREAM Act last week, if it’s approved by the governor (who has said he supports it), fixes that financial aid problem.

Action on the legislation was the opening move to address the state’s support for higher education. This week a second move occurs; the Legislature holds hearings on the governor’s overall budget plan for higher education.

When the governor unveiled his proposals earlier this month, he recommended expansion of the state’s Excelsior Scholarship program. Excelsior is a program that offers financial aid for middle income college students as long as they meet certain criteria. These criteria are significant. Students must successfully receive 30 credits in one year; failure to do so could result in the student losing the scholarship and may mean that the student has to repay the scholarship.

Beyond expansion of Excelsior, the governor’s budget offers more pain than gain for college students and their families.

The governor’s budget hikes tuition at the State University of New York and the City University of New York. That increase is the latest installment of the state’s so-called “rational tuition” plan. The tuition plan was put in place as part of a bargain: tuition increases would be used to enhance the universities, not fill budget gaps. Yet, it looks like the pledge is being broken and tuition is being used to plug budget shortfalls.

The Legislature agrees. Both houses have approved an enhanced “maintenance of effort” to supplement state support for SUNY and CUNY to allow greater freedom to use tuition dollars for enhancements. However, the governor has blocked the measure, most recently vetoing it last month.

Limiting state support is not the only way that SUNY and CUNY get starved for funds. In years past, as public college tuition went up, New York would increase the maximum financial aid award so that the impact of a tuition hike would not impact the lowest income students. But that policy has changed. Instead, the local college campus is required to make up the difference between increasing tuition costs and the financial aid maximums which have not gone up. Now, for example, SUNY tuition is $6,870 for an academic year. The maximum TAP award covers $5,165, meaning that the local campus has to make up the $1,700 shortfall. That policy adds to the financial stress felt by public colleges and universities.

The governor’s budget also cuts back state spending for some financial aid programs. In this year’s budget, the governor proposes to cut spending for programs that aid college students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These programs – known as opportunity programs – have been successful in helping students graduate from college with a degree. In particular, the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program was highlighted by the Obama Administration as a model for the nation.

Yet, the governor’s budget zeros out state support for ASAP, a reduction of $2.5 million. And his cuts don’t stop there. For example, the governor’s budget calls for cuts to opportunity programs that total $28 million.

The next move in the budget process starts after the budget hearings and that’s when the Legislature acts. Hopefully, their review will lead to restorations of the governor’s proposed cuts and actions that ensure that these programs are expanded.

The Governor’s Budget Targets Lead Poisoning

Posted by NYPIRG on January 21, 2019 at 1:23 pm
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Lead is a metal found around the world and it is toxic to humans. For years, lead was used in paint, gasoline, plumbing and many other items. Lead can still be found in some products and, due to aging infrastructure, occasionally in drinking water supplies. As products containing lead are used and get worn down, say in paint, lead particles can get into the environment and pose a threat.

And the threat is most acute to children. As their bodies grow, they are looking for nutrients and can soak up lead instead of other, healthier, nutrients. A child can get lead poisoning by swallowing or breathing in lead. Often, lead poisoning is caused by lead you can’t even see. Dust from lead paint is still the number one source of childhood lead poisoning.

Young children spend a lot of time on the floor. They like to put hands, toys, and other things in their mouths. This raises their chances of swallowing lead dust and paint chips. Only a tiny amount of lead is needed to harm a young, growing child.

Lead poisoning can cause problems with a child’s growth, behavior, and ability to learn. Lead can also harm babies before they’re born. A child with lead poisoning usually does not look or feel sick. The only sure way to know is to get a blood lead test.

That’s why New York State enacted legislation to require that all children be screened for lead. Every child in New York must be tested at 1 year and again, at 2 years of age. There are about a half million kids in this age category.

According to the state Health Department, over the most recent three years nearly 500,000 children under the age of six were screened for lead poisoning. For the last year in which the Department has reported (2015), roughly 1,800 kids tested at levels that exceeded 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. This epidemic affects mostly young children of color from low-income communities who live in poorly maintained housing, where windows, doors, walls and ceilings produce invisible lead dust that is ingested by infants and toddlers through hand-to-mouth behavior and inhalation.

Unfortunately, New York’s housing puts children at elevated risk of lead poisoning. New York has both the nation’s greatest number (3.3 million) and the highest percentage (43.1%) of its housing stock built before 1950, the houses most likely to contain lead paint, the leading source of childhood lead poisoning.

Because lead harms children even in tiny concentrations—parts per million levels—small increases in the concentration of lead in a child’s blood level can have substantial cognitive impacts, with comparatively low blood lead levels correlating with significant IQ loss.

In 1970 when it banned lead in paint, New York was among the nation’s leaders in taking action—almost a decade before the national residential paint ban. However, in 2019 New York lags in childhood lead poisoning prevention in several key respects. As a result, thousands of New York’s children ingest dangerous levels of lead and could suffer permanently from this entirely preventable exposure.

Governor Cuomo’s budget proposes to respond to this public health crisis by lowering the acceptable blood lead level from 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dl) to 5 µg/dl. The governor also proposes to spend more on this problem by proposing an additional $9.4 million annually for state and local health departments to implement this plan. In addition, the governor proposes that residential rental properties statewide are maintained in a condition that protects children from the dangers associated with exposure to lead based paint hazards.

Lowering the “acceptable” lead level is a good move, but long overdue. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) took that step in 2012 and has since been enacted in several states, including, namely Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Vermont. All these states cite their decision to move towards the lower CDC guidelines as based on the evidence that supports early intervention as the primary way to prevent the serious health effects suffered by victims of lead poisoning. Even some localities in New York State have acted, including the cities of Buffalo and New York City. If the governor’s plan is approved, New York would join that list.

This is a matter of utmost importance to public health, social justice and investment in New York’s future, its children. 2019 should be the year New York gets the lead out.