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An Environmental Year in Review

Posted by NYPIRG on December 31, 2018 at 11:15 am
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In a year of unrelenting drama out of Washington, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the big changes being advanced by the Trump Administration, most notably its determined push to eviscerate programs that combat global warming.

There is no dispute that the Earth is heating up and the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the warming is due primarily to human activities. In fact, scientists are now arguing that unless significant steps are taken now, the planet is nearing the point of no return; a point at which it will be nearly impossible to avert a worldwide environmental catastrophe.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is hell-bent on ignoring science and pushing the planet over the cliff toward a world in which hundreds of millions – if not billions – of people will suffer the consequences.

During 2018, the Trump Administration has:

  • Lifted restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from coal power plants., the dirtiest of fossil fuels
  • Discontinued a scientific review panel that advised the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about safe levels of air pollution.
  • Proposed changes to freeze fuel efficiency standards at 37 miles per gallon, instead of the Obama-era policy that would have boosted efficiency over time to 54 mpg.
  • Rolled back regulations on oil and gas companies to monitor and mitigate releases of methane from wells and other operations. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas.
  • Ended NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, which was intended to improve the monitoring of global carbon emissions.

Beyond direct attacks on programs designed to curb global warming, the Trump Administration this year advanced other plans to weaken environmental and public health regulations,

  • Easing restrictions on oil and gas drilling across millions of acres of protected environmental habitats in 11 western states.
  • Allowing five oil and gas companies to search for lucrative oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean floor from New Jersey to Florida.
  • Approving the oil and gas development of U.S. Arctic.
  • Advancing a plan to significantly weaken clean water regulations. And more.

Which brings us to New York State.

New York alone cannot reverse the disastrous policies of the Trump Administration and its allies in Congress. But states like New York must advance science-based policies in order to show that government can make a positive difference, advance plans that protect the public’s health without harming the economy, and that it can be done in an open manner.

Here are a few steps:

  1. Commit to moving the state to 100% clean energy. Governor Cuomo has pledged to move New York to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040. The pledge is the easy part, making it happen is much harder. A critical component will be ensuring that the intermediate steps to achieve that goal are met and independently verified. Transparency and accountability must be critical components of any clean energy plan.
  2. Commit resources to clean up New York’s drinking water. New York’s abundant water resources are a precious natural treasure. Although the state’s water systems predominantly deliver safe water to residents, they are vulnerable to threats of contamination from a number of different sources that have grown in recent years, including: an aging and crumbling infrastructure; an industrial legacy of toxic sites; newer, unregulated toxic chemical threats; industrial and fossil fuel transportation and development; and the impacts of climate change.
  3. Develop a solid waste strategy that focuses on reducing the waste that is generated, like plastic bags and other containers, prioritizes reusing products, such as electronic devices, and boosts investments in recycling programs.

The Governor and the Legislature are due to begin a new session next week. It’s their best opportunity to make sure that New York shows the nation the way toward a greener and more sustainable future.

Reforming Albany Stays in the Spotlight

Posted by NYPIRG on December 24, 2018 at 8:55 am
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New York considers itself “progressive,” which in many ways is true.  The state’s Constitution preserves vast swaths of the Adirondack and Catskill mountain regions, protect workers, mandates help for the needy, guarantees free public education, among other measures.  However, in one area New York is anything but progressive: its democracy.

Low voter participation rates, difficulties in registering to vote, inadequate enforcement of ethics laws, and a “disgraceful” system of campaign finance have deprived New Yorkers of the best elements of a functioning democracy found elsewhere in America.

Over the many years of complaints about New York’s democracy, few reforms have been enacted due to partisan differences; Republicans and Democrats simply could not agree how to fix what ails Albany.

That all could change in 2019 with one party control of the executive and legislative branches.  Last week, Governor Cuomo laid out early on what he was hoping to get out of the 2019 legislative session.  In a speech on his goals for the first 100 days, the governor called for across-the-board actions to tackle climate change, ensure continued health insurance coverage, broader reproductive rights protections for women, and to take on the democracy challenges that face the state.

In his speech, the governor called for new voting reforms, such as enacting automatic voter registration and early voting, and to make it easier to vote by mail.   He also called for campaign finance changes, such as closing the notorious loophole that allows businesses organized as Limited Liability Companies – known as “LLCs” – to have much higher campaign finance limits than other businesses and to ban corporate donations altogether.

The governor also called for a campaign financing change that would be most impactful: the establishment of a voluntary system of public financing.  In this area, the governor did not have to look far for a model.  The City of New York has had a system for three decades that is viewed by reformers as the best in the nation at allowing candidates to run for office without having to rely on powerful special interests.  New York City’s system is praised because it encourages candidates to engage with rank-and-file voters instead of dialing for dollars from the wealthy and powerful.

Essentially, the City’s system allows candidates to choose to participate in the program that allows for $6 in clean public resources for every $1 raised in small private contributions, no more than $175.  (Those limits will increase during upcoming elections.)  Thus, candidates are required to search out small donors and rely far less on big ones.  A system that relies on a large number of small donors instead of a small number of large donors (those usually with business before the government) is a system that is far less prone to corruption,

Coincidentally, a report on this very topic came out last week from a non-partisan national think-tank.  The Campaign Finance Institute – which studies the nation’s best practices in campaign finance – released a report on the projected impacts if New York State embraced the City’s system. 

The Institute found that lowering the contribution limits, closing the LLC loophole, and instituting a system of matching funds, would in fact substantially increase the importance of small donors to candidates across the board while decreasing their dependence on large donors.  

It also found that the cost of the proposed system would be modest – less than one penny per day for each New Yorker over the course of four years.                                                             

Will that package solve the crisis of corruption in Albany?  Sadly, no.  The benefits of a voluntary system of public financing would be limited due to the Citizens United case, which allows unlimited spending by mega-donors to influence elections.  But the New York City system offers clear choices since it allows candidates the option of making a run for office without owing fealty to real estate developers, bankers, and other well-organized interests.  Instead, those candidates have be appeal to average voters to obtain small contributions that get turbo-charged through its public financing matching system.

Of course, more needs to be done, such as independent oversight of how the state awards government contracts and independent oversight of ethics.  After all, even the best laws fall short if they are not adequately enforced.

Whether New York acts could not only have an impact in the state, but nationally as well.  Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s now-infamous Citizens United decision in 2010, only localities have embraced campaign finance reforms similar to those found in New York City.  No state has adopted and successfully implemented a public financing system for gubernatorial and legislative elections since Connecticut in 2006.

If New York acts, it would dramatically improve our campaign finance system and send a powerful signal to the nation that despite court cases that have increased the risk of corruption, state governments can act to establish better ways to run for office.  That’s an investment in democracy New York should make.

Pay Raise Deal Rages in Albany

Posted by NYPIRG on December 17, 2018 at 6:11 am

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A week ago, a panel decided to give New York’s lawmakers, the governor, the attorney general, the comptroller and state agency heads big salary increases.  They did so under authority granted to them by the governor and the legislature and their decision tied pay hikes to limits for these state government leaders on outside income for lawmakers as well as a dramatic reduction in the number of additional stipends available to legislators.

Since then, there has been a chorus of complaints from many lawmakers that the panel exceeded its authority.  Let’s review the facts.

For two decades, state lawmakers, statewide elected officials and state agency heads have not had a pay raise.  I think everyone would agree that 20 years without a pay hike is a very long time.

Despite that, the governor is the third highest paid governor in the nation and the pay for state legislators is third highest as well – even with the 20 year pay hike gap.

And even that doesn’t tell the whole story.  State lawmakers’ base salary is $79,500 annually, well above minimum wage, but nowhere near extravagant.  However, the overwhelming majority of lawmakers get additional stipends for their work.

According to a recent analysis by NYPIRG, every one of the 63 state Senators is eligible for an additional stipend worth as little as $9,000 and as much as $41,500 – on top of the $79,500 base pay.  In the Assembly, every Assembly Republican is eligible for a stipend and two-thirds of the Assembly Democrats are eligible too.

Thus, the vast majority of legislators receive these additional stipends, if averaged out over all of them, they receive over $90,000.  Not too shabby, but not living the high life, either.

And lastly, under New York State law, lawmakers are allowed outside income for non-legislative jobs.  About a third of them have that.  The loudest complaints about the pay raise deal comes this group.  The reason is that under the plan advanced by the pay raise panel, the hike in salary is tied to two new changes – a dramatic limit on the amount of income a lawmaker can have outside of their legislative role and a drastic reduction in the number of available legislative stipends – from nearly everyone to no more than 15.

The complaints against the plan imply that this came as a surprise, as if something underhanded occurred.  This is hard to believe.

You see the panel was created as part of this year’s budget agreement.  It was on page 156 of the last budget bill to be approved.  And while last minute budget deals often catch lawmakers – and the public – by surprise, it’s hard to believe that this provision was a shock.

It is far more likely that a provision to hike lawmakers’ salaries was of keen interest to every single elected official.

And given that they knew the public would hate paying more for state elected officials while corruption is on the rise and little was being done to fix that problem, the pay raise provision was put together to offer maximum protection from a voter revolt.

Further, in addition to choosing current and former Comptrollers to figure out the raise, the bill said that if there are any increases in compensation, it must be linked to approval of a “timely” state budget and improvements in the “performance of the executive and legislature.”

The legislation gave the panel no guidance by what those two provisions meant.  The governor and the state legislative leaders clearly wanted to give the power to determine what those provisions meant to the panel itself.

And what could a state lawmaker have thought when she or he read that section?  A “timely” state budget means one that is on time.  And what does “performance of the executive and legislature” mean?  The panel decided that gigantic salary increases should be coupled with a reduction in the number of additional stipends and limits on outside income.

One could argue that by leaving out any restrictions on the members of the executive branch that the deal was unfair, but you can’t argue that lawmakers couldn’t see this coming.

Of course, whether the governor and the legislature created a pay raise mechanism that is wrong will be left up to the courts to decide, but for lawmakers to make it seem like the panel went beyond its scope is to ignore the process that they read, approved of, and voted for.

They have nothing to complain about.

Fixing State Support for Public Colleges

Posted by NYPIRG on December 10, 2018 at 7:40 am

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In the first year of the Cuomo Administration a deal was struck:  every year, for five years, the cost of attending a public college or university would go up no more than $300 and the state would ensure that the tuition hikes would be used to enhance the State University of New York and the City University of New York systems.

As part of the bargain, the state pledged not to use the tuition hikes to fill budget holes resulting from cuts.  The tuition hikes, called “rational tuition,” were rational enough – costs did go up every year for the next five years at the maximum allowed — $300 per year.

Recently, the plan was renewed and the tuition hikes lowered, but the impacts of New York’s policy has become clearer.

On top of mounting textbook and housing expenses, the state’s tuition policy jacked-up the cost of tuition at public colleges by over 38% since 2011.

Moreover, the promise of no state budget cuts evaporated due to loopholes written in the law.  For example, the promise ignored the costs due to rising inflation, or energy costs, or the result of agreements to raise faculty salaries.

Flat funding from the state has left CUNY and SUNY on the hook for mandatory cost increases like electricity needs, and staff contracts.  New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer testified that there is a $700 million budget shortfall across CUNY.

This July, the Baruch College President released a statement that they expect a $5 million budget shortfall and are implementing across the board department budget cuts.  The announcement also made clear that the increased tuition revenue from the latest tuition hike would cover mandatory collective-bargaining costs.

According to SUNY New Paltz Vice President for Administration and Finance, revenues are simply not keeping pace with necessary increases in expenditure. One factor among others cited was no increases in direct state support since 2012.

The increased tuition costs borne by students and their families at CUNY and SUNY has not resulted in rising quality as promised.  As mentioned earlier, the promise was that the tuition hikes would be earmarked for an expansion of support services, course offerings and infrastructural improvements, not to fill in budget gaps as the state pulled back its resources.

Binghamton University is experiencing a 4% budget cut at their libraries in addition to a hiring freeze on all staff positions aside from Adjuncts and Teaching Assistants.  As a result, the university is not replacing two retiring faculty members in the Department of Art and Design and are putting a temporary suspension on the graphic design minor.

Stony Brook University has enacted a hiring freeze as well, citing an $18.5 million budget shortfall.  To save money, this year they eliminated their undergraduate pharmacology program.

SUNY Plattsburgh has seen a 3 percent budget cut this year, resulting in the suspension of the Center for Community Engagement, a program that brought community members onto the campus for cultural events, despite a petition campaign led by students to save the program.

Without improvements in student services, graduating on-time has become more difficult.

Since the state’s main method of offering assistance, the Tuition Assistance Program, is only available for eight semesters, a delay in graduation can cost low- and middle-income students thousands of dollars. According to a CUNY survey, over a third of CUNY students reported not being able to register for a course they needed for their major.  Of those students, half couldn’t register because there were not enough seats available.

Why does it matter?  Investing New York’s tax dollars into public higher education is a win for individual New Yorkers and a win for the state’s economy, even amid a climate of budget-tightening.  A study on the value of SUNY found that for every $1 spent on education, the economy reaps $5 in benefits.  College-educated workers earn more than their high-school educated peers – by an average of $17,500 per year for millennials, as found by the Pew Research Center.   As wages increase, so do tax revenues which support any number of public services.

Both houses of the Legislature know that the state has been inadequately funding SUNY and CUNY.  They have unanimously approved legislation to close the loopholes in state law and enhance funding of SUNY and CUNY.  That legislation goes to the governor’s desk this month.  With its overwhelming support – college administrators, faculty, students and unanimous approval by both houses of the Legislature – all eyes turn to the governor to fix the state’s funding of public colleges.

Pay Raises for State Officials

Posted by NYPIRG on December 3, 2018 at 8:00 am

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Last week, a panel charged with making decisions on the compensation levels for state legislators and top agency officials held two public hearings.  The idea of jacking up public officials’ salaries is as popular as a skunk at an outdoor party.

What makes the conversation worse, however, is the staggering number of controversies and scandals that have plagued the Capitol in recent years and the refusal by the state’s political leadership to address it.

Currently, New York pays its state elected officials well in comparison to other states:  New York’s governor is the third highest paid state executive and lawmakers get the third highest base salary of any legislature.  In addition, the vast majority of lawmakers are allowed to receive stipends on top of their base pay.  Thus, the “salary” of most lawmakers is considerably higher than the base salary of $79,500.

A simple Consumer Price Index (CPI) adjustment going back to the 1999 pay raise would boost legislative salaries to over $122,364.  However, CPI alone does not adequately capture how well the average New Yorker has fared.

An earlier pay raise panel in New York City noted that a “deeper analysis uncovered that New Yorkers’ median household income in the same time period rose only 14.02 percent,” less than the amount it would have increased if it kept up with the consumer index.

In addition to most current legislators being paid far more than the base salary, elected officials can accept outside income.  The scandals that toppled the previous legislative leaders have highlighted the problems with allowing lawmakers to serve two masters.

Over the past eighteen years, over 30 New York State elected officials have been sanctioned for some misconduct.

So, what’s the argument for an increase in compensation?

The argument stems from the fact that state elected officials haven’t had a pay increase in nearly 20 years.  And when that decision was made, then-Governor Pataki linked his approval of pay increases to non-related policy changes—that is, horse trading in exchange for lawmakers’ pay.

This time around, the governor and the legislature agreed to create a compensation panel to independently review compensation levels.  The panel has the power to set appropriate compensation rates without additional legislative approval.

The panel idea makes sense – lawmakers shouldn’t have to face linkages between appropriate pay and policies advanced by the governor and vice versa.  But given Albany’s unending series of political scandals, how will a pay raise sit with the public who must pay for it?  How will the public feel about a pay raise for Albany when the governor and the legislature are not tackling the biggest scandals in New York’s modern political history?  New Yorkers will not be happy.

Of course, that does not argue that public officials don’t deserve a pay raise; that’s up to the panel to independently and publicly discuss.  However, if the governor and the legislature can’t agree on cleaning out Albany’s political stables, then the public has every right to be angry.

Recognizing this, the enacting legislation connects any phased-in increase in compensation to approval of a “timely” legislative budget and “performance.”  “Timely” is not defined but understood to be tied to the state’s fiscal year, which starts April 1st; “performance” on the other hand is not defined and is subject to interpretation.

Thus, if there are any increases in compensation, it must be linked to improvements in the “performance of the executive and legislature” by tying any such changes to measures to reduce the risk of corruption in state government.

Real corruption-busting measures should include: (1) independent oversight of agency contracting and better disclosures, (2) independent oversight of ethics administration and enforcement, (3) restricting outside income for lawmakers and members of the executive branch, (4) restricting campaign contributions from those seeking or receiving contracts, (5) more disclosures for those who “bundle” campaign contributions, as well as (6) new changes to the state’s campaign financing system – such as limits on LLCs and a voluntary system of public financing.

Fixing what ails Albany – namely appropriate responses to the incredible number of controversies, scandals, and convictions – is an important goal, the type of “performance” that New Yorkers deserve.