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New York – and the Nation – Debates a “Green New Deal”

Posted by NYPIRG on February 25, 2019 at 9:12 am
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Elected officials across the nation, are advancing a “Green New Deal” to respond to the terrifying threat posed by global warming. The plan has tremendous national visibility since it was raised by new Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey.

The Congressional version calls for sweeping changes in American society to drive the nation to net zero fossil fuel emissions by 2030.

Governor Cuomo has embraced the term to describe his plan for eliminating fossil fuels as a power source for the state’s electricity grid by the year 2040. State legislators have embraced the term and introduced bills along those lines as well.

The idea of a “Green New Deal” is not new, its origins go back a decade or so and have been advanced in various forms by the Green Party in both national and New York State elections. Its moniker harks back to the New Deal plans advanced by President Roosevelt in the 1930s as an organizing principle to attack the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was not a single proposal, but a set of plans that attacked the nation’s economic situation. The idea was to keep advancing plans to use the power of the national government to stimulate the economy and put people back to work. It was a response to a national emergency, one that the nation could see and was experiencing.

The “Green New Deal” offers a similar mindset: The world is facing an environmental catastrophe and the United States must reorganize itself to rely on non-fossil fuel-generated power.

However, the devastation generated by the planet heating up is sometimes hard to see in the moment. The planet heats up slowly and the impacts – more severe weather, droughts in one area and unprecedented rainfalls in others – are less obvious. Coupled with the deliberate falsehoods uttered by the Trump administration and its ideological and economic allies to sow doubt over the science, Americans are not as prepared to take on the threat as they were in the 1930s.

Yet, the threat is real. According to the world’s experts, the lack of meaningful action to date has accelerated the changes to the world’s climate and is heating the planet to its “boiling point.” A report issued last Fall by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), found that the world is perhaps a decade away from the possibilities of runaway global warming – a tipping point when it would be almost impossible to stop the worst consequences. Keeping the increase in the planet’s average temperature to no more than 1.5°C (or 2.7°F) than it was 150 years ago, is viewed by scientists as the maximum amount the earth can sustain before the impacts move from severe to devastating.

The report, (which included over 6,000 scientific references, and was prepared by 91 authors from 40 countries) was written to give the world “the authoritative, scientific guide for governments” to deal with climate change.” Its key finding was that meeting a 1.5°C (2.7°F) target is possible but would require “deep emissions reductions” and “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Furthermore, the report finds that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared with 2°C (3.6°F) would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being” and that a 2°C temperature increase would expedite and intensify extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, coral bleaching, and loss of ecosystems, among other impacts. The report also found that “Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.”

The United States has generated more of the world’s greenhouse gases – which cause global warming – than any other nation. Our nation has a moral responsibility to lead the world on how to attack this problem. In order for the world to hit the new zero fossil fuel goal by mid-Century, the United States would have to meet it far sooner. And in order for the United States to lead, given that national policy is stonewalled, states like New York must be even more aggressive in taking on the challenge to point the country in the right direction.

Hence the calls for a “Green New Deal.”

Despite the science and the compelling need for action, the phrase has become a political weapon used by opponents to attack environmentalists, and by incrementalists to defend milder, less controversial positions. Opponents run the gamut from those who flat out deny the science, to those who cite technological challenges, costs, economic impacts and political resistance to urge a gradual approach.

Opposition dooms billions to lives of misery over the rest of the 21st Century and denies young people their owed inheritance of a habitable planet. Most fundamentally, incrementalism fails the test for the actions needed to solve the climate crisis. The inexorable climate devastation that modern society set in motion are not subject to negotiation and compromise.

New York State must lead the way with ambitious goals, ones that: dramatically improve the energy efficiency of the state, eliminate the use of fossil fuels in generating electricity by the year 2030, prohibit the sale of fossil fuel-powered new cars and invest in electric vehicles and charging stations to meet that demand, and invest in mass transit systems. The technology is available, the urgency is clear. What is missing is the political will.

Whatever one wants to call it, a “Green New Deal” is needed.

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.