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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Albany Makes Things Worse

Posted by NYPIRG on June 26, 2017 at 10:09 am
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As the scheduled 2017 legislative session wrapped up, commentators noted that Governor Cuomo and the legislative leadership failed to address the seemingly unending corruption scandals that have plagued both the legislative and executive branches.

And those commentators are correct, nothing happened despite the convictions of the two top legislative leaders, many rank-and-file lawmakers, and top associates of the governor himself.

But it’s worse than it appears.

While true that no significant reform was passed, at the behest of the governor, the public’s accountability of important economic development programs actually was made worse. Yup, worse.

Here’s the backstory: The Start-Up NY program was initiated by Governor Cuomo in 2013 to give tax breaks to new businesses that locate in tax-free areas near college campuses. The governor said the goal was to encourage the next Google or Facebook to launch in New York and to “supercharge” the economy. Specific disclosure requirements on Start-Up’s performance were part of the original law. Those reports showed that the job creating record of the Start-Up program had been underwhelming. That simple fact has led to criticisms of the governor and his economic development strategies.

What should be done? A close reading of the final 2017-18 state budget identified that the law had been changed in the secretive budget process – eliminating the reporting requirements for Start-Up! The solution to bad results is, apparently, to stop reporting them.

When confronted with this change, the Cuomo Administration said it was a mistake. But that claim turned out to be false.

The governor’s proposed budget had eliminated that reporting requirement. The state Assembly added it back in during budget talks, but it was eliminated again in the final budget.

Still, the Administration claimed that it was a mistake.

If true, then the period after the budget passed in early April and the wrap up of the session would have seen that mistake corrected – unless the Administration was deliberately misleading the public.

In an effort to correct that “mistake,” legislation was introduced in both the Assembly and Senate to add back the reporting requirement. But that bill was killed.

As a result, things have gotten worse; the public will get less information on the performance of spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on economic development. Reporting is now weakened in an area that has been identified by federal prosecutors as especially susceptible to corruption: the way in which it doles out economic benefits.

The Start-Up program is relatively small compared to the governor’s other economic development programs—which also are in great need of transparency and oversight.

Reformers had been pushing for corruption-fighting measures during the budget and continued after it was approved. Specifically, they were calling for reforms that would have restored the Comptroller’s independent oversight powers to review contracts before they are finalized, corralled unaccountable, state controlled not-for-profits, and created a “Database of Deals” to post information on spending of billions of dollars in state business subsidies.

None of these reforms were approved, not even the restoration of the Comptroller’s oversight powers. It is, after all, the constitutionally-mandated job of the separately elected Comptroller to monitor the books of state government. Yet the governor has spearheaded the effort to pull back those powers. During the period the governor has been diminishing the Comptroller’s oversight role, the scandals alleged by federal prosecutors occurred. A reasonable response would have been to restore those powers, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, in 2017 the governor – with the approval of the legislative leaders – weakened the public reporting requirements of Start Up. His staff then falsely told the public it was a mistake. And then the legislation to fix that mistake was killed.

New York has been rocked by recent “pay-to-play” scandals tied to the state’s economic development programs. The lack of transparency and accountability has led to federal prosecution of several high-ranking officials and prominent business leaders. Removing the requirements could encourage other unscrupulous officials to incite more scandals.

New Yorkers must demand an end to corruption and broader government transparency, not to allow it to get worse.

The Congress Makes Its Final Moves to Strip Millions of Health Insurance

Posted by NYPIRG on June 19, 2017 at 9:08 am
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New York State government does all it can to operate in secret: $150 billion budget deals are hammered out behind closed doors, multibillion hikes for electric ratepayers are engineered outside of public view, legislative agreements are finalized often minutes before the vote.

The Congress and the federal government have, in the past, operated in a more open fashion.  Not open enough to ensure that the public got all the information it deserves, but generally open – certainly by contrast with Albany.

But that is changing.

The House of Representatives cobbled together legislation to overhaul the nation’s health care system with no hearings or meaningful opportunities for the public to express their views on various proposals.  It was just jammed through.

The Senate is now doing the same thing.  In a departure from practices that go back 100 years, the Senate Republican majority is putting the finishing touches on draft legislation to overhaul the health care industry.  If they succeed in drafting the legislation and passing it, both houses would then have to agree on final legislation to go to the President.  And President Trump seems determined to sign whatever comes out of that process.

Why would Washington act in this fashion?  Why would they want to put together legislation of such magnitude outside of its normal practices?

Because they know that the more the public scrutinizes the plans, the more likely voters will hate what they are coming up with.

What happened in the House of Representatives offers the clearest evidence that the Congressional leadership knows that their plans face a likely public backlash.  As it took up the overhaul plan, the leadership not only sealed off the public process, they also didn’t wait for an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  Normally, the Congress waits for a CBO “scoring” in order to better understand the impacts of their actions.

But the House Republican leadership decided to act prior to that review.  The reason became clear once that review came out, which occurred well after the vote.  According to the CBO, an estimated 23 million Americans would lose their health insurance as a result of the House’s plan.

The House leadership knew this, of course, but they wanted to ram through their plan prior to the public knowing what the legislation meant.

The Senate is now following suit.  It looks like the Senate will have no hearings, no public process, just drafting a health care overhaul behind closed doors.

What could be their reasoning?  Most likely the same as the House’s – people will hate it.

Unlike the House, the Senate is involving the CBO by sending the office various aspects of their plan and then adjusting the plan after the CBO review of that provision.

Of course, all behind closed doors.

In addition, the Senate Majority Leader is invoking a Senate rule which will allow the health care measure to be voted upon by the full house without going through the normal committee reviews.

The secrecy surrounding its deliberations keeps from the public the details of the planned massive overhaul of health care in America.  We don’t have the details yet, but it’s a safe bet that their plan will deny health insurance to millions of Americans, the only question will be how many millions.

To his credit, Governor Cuomo has pledged to protect New Yorkers from the changes, but it is not clear how successful the state can be and at what cost to taxpayers.

It’s a tragedy that one of the major political parties has as its policy goal to strip millions of Americans of their health insurance.  The results will include more untreated illnesses, more avoidable early deaths, more bankruptcies, and more heartache for the families affected.

And Congress knows this; that’s why they put these deals together behind closed doors.  They know that they are putting politics ahead of the well-being of millions of people.  They just don’t want to pay a political price for it.

Let’s hope they do.

The Assembly Pushes Back Against the Governor’s Nuke Bailout

Posted by NYPIRG on June 12, 2017 at 9:05 am
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While the nation was transfixed by former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on the Russian efforts to influence the 2016 Presidential election and the possible involvement of the Trump campaign, Albany was moving legislation which could dramatically lower electric utility rates across the state.

Last year, the Cuomo Administration pushed through an agreement to raise electric utility rates in order to bail out aging nuclear power plants located on Lake Ontario.  The Administration’s final deal was pushed through with virtually no public participation and done so in the middle of the summer.  At that time, the Administration offered no cost estimates for the impact of the 12-year deal, other than to admit that the first two years would hike rates around a billion dollars.

The total cost of the 12-year deal could be as much as $7.6 billion according to an independent analysis.  Those costs would be passed on to all the state’s ratepayers – industrial, commercial and residential.  Thus, local governments and school districts would have to pay more, not-for-profits like hospitals would have to pay more, businesses would have to pay more and they would likely raise prices to pass those costs onto their customers.  As a result, the public – which would have its own residential rates hiked as well – would bear the entire multi-billion-dollar price tag.

The bailout plan covers four upstate nuclear power plants, all located on Lake Ontario.  Three of them are among the oldest on the planet and two were scheduled to be shut down since they were increasingly unprofitable.

Then the Cuomo Administration stepped in and cut its bailout deal largely outside of public view.

The deal has stunned some of the leading members of the Assembly and hearings were held to examine the process and the impact of the agreement.

As a result of that process, the Assembly last week moved legislation that would cap the monthly charge imposed on residential utility consumers by the governor’s deal to bailout the nuclear power plants.  The bill prohibited any utility from charging a residential consumer more than 25 cents per month for costs related to the continued operation of the bailed out nuclear-powered facilities.

The 25 cents per month cap is not a number that comes out of thin air – it is the exact fee charged for costs contained in a similar deal in the state of Illinois.  Illinois’s program was the product of a deliberative legislative process, unlike New York’s process which relied on secret negotiations between the Cuomo Administration and the Chicago-based company Exelon.

Exelon is a Fortune 500 company that owns nuclear power plants in both Illinois and New York and is the sole beneficiary of New York’s decision to bail-out the nuclear power plants.

And while New York’s $2 per month surcharge may not sound like a lot, right now many state residents are having a hard time paying their electric bills.  According to the state, roughly one-in-eight New York residential ratepayers are 60 days or more late in paying their bills.  For them, this deal will make it even harder to catch up.

In order to protect all ratepayers, but certainly those most in need, New York’s legislature needs to drive that same bargain as Illinois and save ratepayers money.

Other than the price, the deal is similar in both states.  New York’s deal covers four reactors for 12 years (those facilities generate 3,351 MW); in Illinois, the deal covers three reactors over 10 years (2,889 MW).  The financial bailout, however, is markedly less expensive in Illinois.  Why should New York cut a worse deal?

Ironically, Exelon crows about the consumer savings for Illinois consumers on its website.  Clearly, the company is satisfied with its deal – even at one-eighth the cost of New York’s.

New York ratepayers need protection.  There is a good case to be made for not bailing out power plants that were built in the 1960s and have far outlived their usefulness.  Instead, the state should be investing that money in clean, renewable, 21st Century technologies.

However, if such a subsidy is to be imposed, it should cover the costs of operating those plants, not gouge New Yorkers to fatten the profits of an out-of-state company.

Whether, and how, the state legislature chooses to react the Administration’s bail out plan is likely to be one of the key issues as lawmakers move into the last two weeks of their session.  What they choose to do could have a real impact on the costs of the electricity in New York.

The American Government Turns Its Back on Science

Posted by NYPIRG on June 2, 2017 at 5:05 pm
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This was a truly dark week in American history.  The President of the United States ignored the advice of the world’s scientific experts and decided to pull the nation out of the global climate agreement hammered out in Paris in 2015.  Among the community of nations, only war-torn Syria and Nicaragua—which believes it does not go far enough to combat climate change—have refused to sign the accord.

While the Paris Agreement was far from perfect, it reflected a worldwide consensus that recognized the science:  Climate change is real and global warming is the result of human activities, primarily the burning of coal, oil and gas.

The Trump Administration’s decision, with the backing of the Republican Congress, ignores that science and instead allows the acceleration of global warming, which will lead to devastating consequences.

Over the past 150 years, the industrialized world has been able to use fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) to grow and power its societies.  Those nations, now joined by China and other emerging nations, are generating too much greenhouse gas emissions for the planet to absorb, thus leading to the greenhouse effect that is trapping the gases and heating up the planet.

While global warming is a threat to all of civilization, the most affluent industrialized nations have the ability to mitigate some of the worst consequences.  Yet the poorest nations, those least responsible for generating greenhouse gases, are the ones who will suffer the most.

For example, experts predict that global sea levels could rise more than three feet by 2100.  Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest nations and much of its land is at or below sea level.  It’s already being impacted by a warming planet:  As a result of last week’s cyclone, Bangladesh was attempting to evacuate a million residents to escape deadly flooding.  By 2050, rising sea levels will inundate some 17 percent of Bangladesh and displace about 18 million people.  But Bangladesh generates only a tiny fraction of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  As major contributors to global warming, affluent, industrialized nations are duty-bound to act.

Climate disasters aren’t just a local problem: They destabilize the globe, which is why the U.S. Department of Defense and the Secretary of State have viewed global heating as a pressing national security issue.

In a rational political system, our nation would act.  Congress would hold hearings, introduce legislation and advance proposals to help curb the impact our nation has on the world’s climate.

But as evidenced by the Trump Administration’s decision, our national political system is anything but rational.  Too many of the nation’s political elite simply don’t believe in the fact that the planet is heating up, and many more ignore the evidence that humans are primarily responsible.

Why?

Because of the political clout and disinformation efforts by the oil, coal and gas lobbies.  The fossil fuel industry has been using its money and political muscle to foster an atmosphere of doubt around the science of climate change.  It is their public relations and political campaigns that have allowed it to have a stranglehold over national policies.  This is a page straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook.

The oil and gas industry campaigns have now impacted the world.  As a result, millions will suffer from disease, starvation, and violence. And those consequences will be accelerated by the decisions of the US Government, our government.

But the states can act.  The Cuomo Administration took a first step by announcing that it was joining with California and the state of Washington to continue to adhere to the Paris Agreement.  Those three states constitute a significant percentage of the American economy.  More states and localities are likely to join that effort.

However, to be successful, the power of the oil, gas and coal industry must be broken.  A key step will be uncovering the deceptions behind their public relations efforts.

In 2015, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced an investigation into ExxonMobil over whether it misled investors and the public about the reality of climate change.  His investigation came shortly after media reports revealed that, as early as the 1970s, top executives at ExxonMobil were well informed—by their own research—about the climate risks resulting from the use of their products.  Yet, instead of issuing warnings, the company reportedly spent decades investing in major disinformation campaigns to sow doubt about those risks and undermine the urgency of policy action.  Schneiderman’s investigation must be accelerated.

The United States has emitted more planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other country.  Thanks to the Trump Administration and the Congress, it is taking the immoral and disastrous step of walking back a promise to lower emissions.  That decision can be reversed, but only when the power of the oil, gas and coal industries is broken.

Washington’s Plan to Take Away Health Care Coverage

Posted by NYPIRG on May 29, 2017 at 7:17 am
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It is now clear: The policy of the President and the House leadership is to take away healthcare insurance coverage for tens of millions of Americans.  Despite all the hype and tactics of political misdirection, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the health care plan advanced by the President and the House leadership will result in the loss of insurance coverage for over 20 million Americans.

That’s right, 20 million Americans will lose their health insurance.

For those Americans, their families and their friends, the consequences will be devastating.

Let’s look at just one category of patients, those suffering from cancer.  Prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act—also known as “Obama Care,” approximately 10 percent of cancer patients were uninsured at the time of diagnosis.  Equally troubling, about one-third of cancer survivors reported a loss of health insurance at some point in time since their diagnosis.

For those individuals and their families, fighting cancer may mean choices that could lead to huge debts under the best of circumstances.  In addition to the physical and emotional toll of battling cancer, families without adequate healthcare coverage can face financial ruin.  According to the federal government, cancer is one of the five most costly medical conditions in the United States, forcing many patients to make decisions about their health based on their personal finances.

While some individuals diagnosed with cancer have meaningful and adequate health insurance to cover most of the costs for treatment, the uninsured and an increasing number of privately insured individuals face the prospect of crippling out-of-pocket costs.  Financial considerations that delay treatment for cancer can mean the difference between life and death.

Of course, the health care plan advanced by the House does not completely turn the clock back to the situation in the United States prior to enactment of the Affordable Care Act, but it will be pretty close.

The Cuomo Administration estimates that the bill approved by the House of Representatives and supported by the President will leave 2.7 million New Yorkers without health care coverage and cost the state $6.9 billion.

This is all the more troubling as the legislation was rammed through without public hearings and even before the well respected non-partisan Congressional Budget Office could issue its report on the impacts of the plan – both in terms of health insurance coverage and the costs.

So far, this approach of cutting out the public accountability process is being followed in the Senate as well.

What’s the rush?  Why are the President and the Congress so hell-bent on moving legislation?  Because they know that the more the public finds out, the more they will be outraged.  The House bill, for example, was opposed by the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Hospital Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, the American Lung Association, the March of Dimes and the AARP.

And those groups are opposed for good reason — the reason identified by the Congressional Budget Office: that tens of millions of Americans will lose their health insurance.

Do the members of Congress who voted for the legislation know what they did?  Of course, they do.  Yet, when challenged as to why they voted the way they did, they will try to change the subject, or focus on some popular aspect of the plan, everything but admit that their vote will lead to the needless suffering and early deaths of many people.

It’s a disgrace.  To put ideology, or partisanship, ahead of the health of people is unconscionable.

Sure, the Affordable Care Act was imperfect, but the rest of the world’s advanced nations have figured out how to ensure that all their people don’t have to worry about paying the bills while being treated for illnesses, injuries, or diseases.

Thanks to the President and the majority in the House, tens of millions of Americans could soon have those worries.  Hopefully, the moral compass of the Congress will kick in and the final plan will offer more Americans the peace of mind that comes from having healthcare.