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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Whither Ethics Reform?

Posted by NYPIRG on May 20, 2019 at 7:34 am
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By now it’s been drummed into New Yorkers – after scores of controversies, scandals and prison sentences handed out from the actions of top public officials – the state is considered one of the most corrupt in the nation.

And for decades, Albany’s leaders have advanced numerous measures, typically touted as the “best in the nation,” to combat corruption. But the scandals continued unabated.

Despite these boasts, it has been the failure to establish an independent ethics watchdog that is at the heart of the problem. Why?

It ultimately stems from fear – fear that establishing an independent ethics watchdog could be co-opted by political or partisan opponents and used as a weapon against them. And so, since the 1980s, various ethics commissions, each with different names and structures, were created to monitor state laws, but not set up to bite the politically powerful.

This critique is not about the people involved in these agencies, per se, but the fact that the ethics commissions were run by individuals who were the direct appointees of those officials subject to the jurisdiction of the ethics watchdog agencies. In essence, the regulated were picking their own regulators.

The latest incarnation added a new wrinkle: the appointees of a particular branch of government had veto power over the possible investigations. As a result, gubernatorial appointees could veto an investigation even if the majority of the ethics commission thought an inquiry was warranted. The same applied for the legislative branch appointees.

How poorly these entities have been structured was the focus of a report released by reform groups last week. According to their 50-state review of ethics commissions, New York’s ethics laws “fail to follow best practices in ethics oversight due to the inadequate structure of those organizations.”

The analysis was consistent with a review conducted by a national organization, Center for Public Integrity. CPI did its own 50-state survey and recently concluded, “Few, if any, other states have ethics watchdogs so completely compromised by lack of independence, partisanship, lack of transparency and the other failings described” and then gave New York a grade of “F” for its oversight practices.

The civic groups’ review noted that “In many states all three branches, legislative, executive and judicial, make ethics commission appointments. This is the case in New York only for the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which is a well-regarded enforcer of judicial ethics created in the State Constitution.”

The idea that there needs to be more independence in ethics oversight was echoed by Governor Cuomo during his reelection campaign. In a debate with his Republican opponent, the governor said “we need more independence on JCOPE — I believe we need totally independent appointees and not necessarily representatives of both houses. I’d be open to a number of configurations, but they’d have to be independent. I’d have the attorney general involved; I’d have the chief judge involved in appointing the members.”

The proposal the governor outlined in his campaign to lead the state is like what civic groups have been pushing, but the governor has not made it a priority during the legislative session. While the governor did pledge earlier this year that he wouldn’t agree to a budget without an ethics agreement, the proposal to overhaul ethics oversight never had a real chance.

History shows that without meaningful oversight, even the best ethics laws in the world won’t work. The state’s decisions to create newer ethics watchdogs, while structuring them to fail, has contributed significantly to Albany’s rising corruption risks. Had it not been for federal prosecutors – primarily former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara – the scandals brought to light likely would have avoided investigation and prosecution, despite happening right under the noses of those state watchdogs empowered to enforce ethics laws.

Ethics watchdogs must be independent of all public officials subject to its jurisdiction, or else its actions will always be suspect, undermining the very purpose of the ethics law to promote the reality and perception of integrity in government. Having a majority of the commission chosen, in this case by the judiciary, would enhance public confidence in ethics enforcement that is independent of those public officials whom it regulates.

Lawmakers have six weeks until the end of session. Strengthening ethics oversight must be a top end-of-session item.

Changing Albany’s “Pay-to-Play” Culture? Maybe

Posted by NYPIRG on May 13, 2019 at 7:36 am
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In 1966, then-Speaker of the California Assembly Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh aptly observed “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” If so, in Albany, our elected officials are extremely well-nourished. New York law makes it easy to pull in donations from those with deep pockets; the state has the largest campaign contribution limits (of any state that has limits) in the nation. Under state law, one can make a legal campaign contribution of over $115,000 to a political party and can donate nearly $70,000 to candidates for governor.

Who writes those checks? The wealthy and those who have business before the government.

Thus, elected officials are doing all they can to legally raise big bucks. They know that the bigger the campaign warchest, the less likely they will face a formidable electoral opponent.

And it’s easy to do. One way is by holding campaign fundraisers for lobbyists while legislation is under consideration. For example, through the end of March, New York’s elected officials had held 125 campaign fundraisers during the legislative session, with a peak frenzy during the time the state’s $175 billion budget was in negotiations.

It’s a pretty brazen practice: elected officials hitting up lobbyists for campaign contributions while they decide how to spend $175 billion in public monies. Yet, the money is so easy to get, it’s worth the embarrassment – and it’s legal under New York law.

And getting that money works. A review of campaign filings for the 2018 election shows that of the 213 legislative winners, at least 130 of them outfundraised their opponents by at least 10-to-1.

Statewide officeholders also vastly outspent their challengers. And the fundraising rush for more campaign dollars has not stopped.

As mentioned, lawmakers are holding campaign fundraisers at a breakneck pace and the governor is too. According to his most recent campaign filing in January, the governor had over $4 million in the bank for a possible run for a fourth term and he is holding more fundraisers.

Just before the budget was done, the governor held a fundraiser in Manhattan with donations at $25,000 per couple.

He is reportedly holding more over the next couple of months. This week his campaign will host donors at a Yankees game, charging $10,000 for the game. Earlier this month he held a fundraiser at another Yankees game. The governor will hold a small dollar donor event in New York City on May 21, then a fundraiser in June on Long Island, with a donation request of $5,000 per head, and one more at Lincoln Center, where he will be joined by actor Robert DeNiro.

Clearly, a huge warchest will make any electoral challenger think twice before taking on the governor, or any elected official sitting on a stack of campaign cash.

But the benefits of aggressive campaign fundraising do not stop with preparing for a reelection bid – raising money for others has its own benefits.

Governor Cuomo has reportedly decided to push his donors to not only build his own campaign coffers, but to help finance the Presidential effort of former Vice President Joe Biden.

If he does so, the governor would be following in the path set by former New York Governor George Pataki who helped raise $9.5 million for former President George W. Bush’s reelection. Under federal law, bundling campaign contributions to Presidential candidates is legal and being the governor of a state that is home to incredibly rich people gives them a powerful tool to ingratiate themselves to possible future Presidents.

Legal is not necessarily good. Yet, under various U.S. Supreme Court decisions, there isn’t too much that can be done to reduce the influence of the wealthy and powerful, as well as reduce the risk of the corruption that stems from some of those relationships.

There are two approaches, however, that can reduce the risks. First, the state can dramatically restrict the ability to make campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts or lobbyists seeking favors. Roughly half of the nation has some form of this limitation, New York should too.

Second, the state should do all it can to remake its campaign finance system from one that relies on a small number of large donors – and the higher risks of corruption – to one that relies on a large number of small donors. New York should drastically reduce the size of its legal campaign contributions and establish a voluntary system of public financing. A public financing system typically allows for a public match for small contributions, in New York City, for example, every $1 raised in small contributions is matched with an $8 donation in public resources.

Until then, state public policies will reflect the wishes of a wealthy elite, while the rest of us live with the consequences.

The Dangers of Indoor Tanning

Posted by NYPIRG on May 6, 2019 at 7:42 am
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The weather is warming up and many think of lying in the sun to get some relaxation and a tan. Others look to a short-cut: Indoor tanning. That decision could change their lives.

Indoor tanning raises the risks of skin cancer as well as immune suppression, eye damage, and premature aging of the skin. The World Health Organization and the United State Department of Health and Human Services have elevated tanning beds to the highest cancer risk category – group 1 – “carcinogenic to humans.”

Subsequent research by the nation’s top medical facilities, including Harvard Medical School and the Yale School of Public Health, has reinforced that finding. In New York, according to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 5,150 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year. Researchers estimate that indoor tanning may cause upwards of 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year.

UV radiation exposure, particularly from indoor tanning, is a leading risk factor for the development of skin cancers. While excessive exposure to the sun permanently increases one’s cancer risk through cumulative damage, indoor tanning compounds the risks by delivering concentrated bursts. This results in faster mutations in the body, as the UV rays alter the configuration of human DNA. This explains why individuals who have used tanning beds have a much greater risk of developing skin cancers as compared to those who have never used tanning devices.

The risk is significant to all users, but there has been increasing data showing the impact it can have on younger people, particularly those under the age of 18. Currently, a substantial number of young teens are using tanning beds, with use increasing with age. Among those teens, the rates were highest among female 17-year-old high school students.

Peer-reviewed scientific studies strengthen the indoor tanning-cancer connection. A review of 27 European studies concluded: Sunbed use is associated with a significant increase in risk of melanoma. This risk increases with number of sunbed sessions and with initial usage at a young age (<35 years). The cancerous damage associated with sunbed use is substantial and could be avoided by strict regulations.

When the World Health Organization determined that the UV rays found in indoor tanning booths were a human carcinogen, they also stated that individuals who used indoor tanning devices before the age of 30 increase their risk for melanoma by 75 percent.

People who use indoor tanning equipment face a 59 percent higher risk of melanoma than those who do not, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Facts like those have driven states like New York to ban the use of indoor tanning facilities for those under the age of 18.

Those over the age of 18 also need to know the facts. Under New York health regulations, in order to use an indoor tanning bed, adult users must sign a form alerting them to the dangers inherent in its use – the first line says “Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a human carcinogen and can cause skin cancer.” Users are also required to acknowledge that they received a “tanning information sheet” which also provides more details about the hazards of indoor tanning including that use increases the risk of skin cancer.

The warning label required by the federal government has information on it that states the skin cancer risk, but is buried in the text.

None of these forms and labels are stark. More can be done.

One does not have to look far to see an alternative. 300 miles north of Albany. N.Y. is Canada. That nation has also recognized the dangers of indoor tanning and banned its use by minors. It’s warning label for adults, however, is compelling.

In the upper portion of the Canadian warning label, on a white background, the word “Danger” is written in red with the hazard symbol to its right. Underneath, the Canadian label warns “Tanning Equipment Can Cause Cancer” in yellow on a black background,

The label goes on to warn that “Ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure can be hazardous to your health” and “UV effects are cumulative and may be carcinogenic — greater risks are associated with early and repeated exposure.”

And at least two nations have gone one step further: Brazil and Australia now ban indoor tanning salons altogether. The American Academy of Dermatology supports a ban.

New York should follow the best science out there to be more protective. Indoor tanning poses a significant health risk. New Yorkers should know of the danger.

Making Climate Change Rhetoric the Reality

Posted by NYPIRG on April 29, 2019 at 10:11 am
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Governor Cuomo made a startling prediction last week.  In an interview on WAMC, the governor said he did not “see anything specific for the rest of the session” related to legislation to fight climate change.

Why the governor would say that can only be answered by one person.  It may well be that he feels like enough has been done by the state on climate, which it hasn’t.  Or that there was no need for specific legislation since the Administration is advancing policies on various fronts that would achieve a similar goal.  Or perhaps it’s something else.

This is a striking reversal for the governor.  Just a few months earlier, the governor – as part of his proposed budget – called for the creation of a “Green New Deal” that would have mandated that New York’s electricity be powered by 100 percent carbon-free sources by the year 2040.  Under the governor’s proposal – issued with great fanfare – the state would mandate a significant increase in the amount of electricity powered by renewable sources: moving from the current goal of 50 percent to 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030.

But when the budget deal-making dust had settled, the governor’s Green New Deal was left out.  So, now that the ink is dry on the budget is the governor throwing in the towel?

Thankfully, the Legislature seems committed to taking comprehensive action. For several years, the New York State Assembly has passed a bill known as the Climate and Community Protection Act, which would put into law a goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. With the new majority in the State Senate, this legislation has potential to pass.

While we wait to see if New York will act, in the face of the Trump administration’s hostility to acting on the climate crisis the rest of the nation is moving ahead.

Last month, New Mexico targeted to have its electricity production 100 percent non-fossil fuel by 2045.  The Maryland legislature recently passed a bill targeting 50 percent renewable power by 2030 and looking into the viability of 100 percent by 2040.  The state of Washington is acting.  Illinois might pass a 100 percent target soon.

The state of California and Hawaii already have acted, adding to the more than 100 U.S. cities that have acted.

Not all of these plans are perfect, but they show a real commitment to moving from the rhetoric of promising action to combat the looming climate catastrophe to actual, legally-binding, actions that do so.

Compared to the inaction – or the awful actions – of the national government, promises are better.  But unless the world acts, the devastation resulting from global warming will ruin the lives of billions.

If New York State acted alone to aggressively move away from reliance on fossil fuels, it would be impactful.  If New York State were an independent nation, it would rank as the 12th or 13th largest economy in the world.

But combined with the actions already taken – or soon to be taken – by states (including California) across the nation, action by New York would send a powerful signal: that the nation is moving away from fossil fuel power despite the inactions of the Trump Administration.

New York State’s action would be consequential.

According to the world’s climate science experts, actions are needed.  In the Fall of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – an organization that includes the world’s climate experts – sounded the alarm bell that governments around the world must take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to avoid disastrous levels of global warming.  There needs to be a worldwide mobilization to reverse greenhouse gas emissions in order avoid this global catastrophe. 

That is why the governor’s comments last week were so puzzling.  The Cuomo Administration has taken bold actions in the past, most notably when it decided to follow the recommendations of the world’s climate experts and keep the fossil fuel available through hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) in the ground.  That was an important decision, and the Administration has taken additional steps to expand state supports for solar and wind power.

Instead, we’re left with the governor’s perplexing prediction.  If the governor doesn’t lead, the Legislature must.  There is no time to waste.

Earth Day, 2019

Posted by NYPIRG on April 22, 2019 at 8:47 am
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This week we celebrate Earth Day. Earth Day is an annual event that started in 1970 and is an important opportunity for us to review our stewardship of the planet’s natural resources.

There is no other way to describe it, we are failing.

Just reviewing the record on climate change underscores that failure. The planet continues to heat up and that warming trend is accelerating. The amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere is causing environmental crises happening today and that are only going to get worse.

The results are devastating: the oceans are becoming more acidic; sea levels are rising and threatening coastal regions; deserts expand and with them famines; food shortages and extreme heat waves trigger violence; populations are displaced; and species across the planet are becoming extinct.

How should we respond? Scientists’ recommendations are quite clear – reduce reliance on existing fossil fuel powered energy sources and keep oil, coal and gas reserves in the ground.

Yet, the opposite polices are being followed. The Trump Administration ignores science and appoints political allies to dismantle environmental programs.

Why do elected leaders act in such a reckless and irrational way? Because there is a political constituency that has been created by the oil, gas and coal industries to block science-based solutions.

Those industries wield tremendous clout and can use their political muscle to protect their corporate interests – even if that results in tremendous harm to the public interest and threatens the lives of millions – perhaps billions – of people worldwide.

But the industry is not all powerful. In the early years of the Cuomo Administration, oil giant Exxon-Mobil put its considerable political clout behind an effort to get New York to allow fracking; a controversial type of drilling that allowed for the extraction of natural gas. At that time, it had the support of the governor. It was on a roll.

Yet today a ban is in place. The reason for the change? An unprecedented statewide citizen mobilization in opposition to the plan. New Yorkers from Buffalo to Long Island decided that allowing the oil and gas industries the rights to large scale mining of natural gas reserves was simply too much of a public health and environmental threat.

That shift in public opinion is spreading nationwide as the impacts of global warming are becoming more apparent.

Earlier this year, polling was released showing a sizable shift in the view of Americans about the growing dangers caused by a planet that is heating up. According to a poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, nearly three quarters of Americans polled said that global warming was happening, a jump of 10 percentage points from 2015 and three points since March 2018.

The rise in the number of Americans who say global warming is personally important to them was even sharper, jumping nine percentage points since March 2018 to 72 percent, another record over the past decade.

Like so many public health and environmental fights, ultimately the outcome will hinge more on public action than scientific analyses. Just as was the case when public health experts identified smoking as the primary cause of lung cancer, decades of corporate deception and the cowardice of politicians delayed action to curb tobacco use. But once public opinion swung dramatically in favor of action, public policies changed.

The optimistic view today is that something similar is happening. Despite the public relations, lobbying and campaign contribution efforts of the oil, coal and gas companies, elected officials are finding it harder and harder to take their orders from the fossil fuel lobby.

Whether the appropriate actions will be taken, and taken quickly enough, only time will tell. But given how little time there is left, action is needed now. The nation must act quickly to embrace energy efficiency programs and to heavily invest in solar, wind and geothermal forms of power. Each year of inaction further damages the environment and puts more lives at risk.