Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Lead Poisoning Threat Persists in New York

Posted by NYPIRG on February 20, 2018 at 12:03 pm
Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Almost 50 years after New York banned the sale of lead in paint, each year some 1,800 children are found to be lead poisoned in New York.  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.

Lead creates a host of health, cognitive and behavioral problems, including loss of IQ, attention deficit, impulse control issues, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and, in extreme cases, coma and death.  There is no safe level of lead and it has no beneficial use in the human body.

While children may be exposed to lead through a number of sources—including toys, old water pipes and soil—the primary lead poisoning threat for New York’s children is from paint dust in older, substandard housing.

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—seemingly 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 vanguard of states—almost a decade before the national residential paint ban.  However, in 2018 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.

New York must do more.  Here’s five steps that the state can take immediately to dramatically reduce childhood lead poisoning in New York.  The 2019 state budget—being examined and negotiated now through the end of March—is the vehicle to enact these changes.

  1. Use existing authority to lower the level at which a child is considered lead poisoned and action is undertaken to identify and eliminate the lead hazard. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered its recommended action level five years ago.  It’s past time for New York to follow suit.
  2. Reduce the dust level standard that’s used to determine whether a lead hazard exists and whether a clean-up effort has been effective. The current “dust-clearance standard” is based on rules formulate in the 1990s.  While U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has formulated a significantly stronger standard, under the Trump Administration the agency is dragging its feet.  New York doesn’t have to wait for EPA to act and should adopt the stronger standard immediately.
  3. Despite the scope of the problem, New York spends too little on lead poisoning prevention, citing budget constraints. The state could nearly double its budget—currently proposed at around $14 million—by adopting an idea Mario Cuomo put forward in 1992: Place a twenty-five cent per gallon surcharge on large paint manufacturers based on the amount of paint they sell in the state.  Based on Maine’s successful program, New York could generate another $12 million a year for lead poisoning prevention programs.
  4. Lead poisoned families can face myriad health problems, learning disabilities and behavioral issues. Unfortunately, for many with serious, permanent injuries from lead poisoning due to poorly maintained rental housing, the civil courts provide no recourse.  This is because the state allows insurance companies to exclude lead poisoning coverage from standard liability policies sold to landlords.  The governor should direct the state Department of Financial Services to close the childhood lead poisoning liability loophole so lead poisoned kids can get their day in court.
  5. The governor has proposed that local government housing code agencies enforce strict lead paint maintenance standards in housing located in areas with a track record of high numbers of poisonings. This “primary prevention” approach make enormous sense.  But without a long-term commitment by the state to fund prevention programs, it will never get off the ground.  The governor should commit to fully fund this proposal.

As the state’s chief executive overseeing state agencies and as the former administrator of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Governor Cuomo is uniquely qualified to be a champion in this area.  This is a matter utmost importance to public health, social justice and investment in New York’s future, its children.  2018 should be the year New York gets the lead out.

New York Undermines Its Cancer Fighting Efforts

Posted by NYPIRG on February 12, 2018 at 9:16 am
Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

The governor has done a lot to promote the state’s program to boost breast cancer screening rates.  He spent considerable time advocating for the expanded program and made it a centerpiece of his 2016 State of the State address and earlier this month issued a news release about his Administration spending nearly $38 million on breast screening services.  But cancer is not only a women’s issue, it affects all of us.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in America – a close second to heart disease. According to the American Cancer Society’s estimates, in 2018 over 110,000 New Yorkers will receive a cancer diagnosis and over 35,000 New Yorkers will die from the disease.

Four cancers – female breast, prostate, colon and lung cancers – are responsible for roughly half of the cancers expected in New York State – both in terms of the number of cases and the estimated number of deaths.  Those “big four” drive the state’s cancer experience.

Of course, high rates of cancer occurrence do not necessarily translate to deaths occurring at the same rate.  While female breast cancer is the leading cancer for women, for example, it is not the leading cancer killer.

That “distinction” is reserved for lung cancer.  Lung cancer is far and away the biggest cancer killer in New York State, accounting for roughly one quarter of all cancer deaths.

And that key statistic should drive public policy.  We know that the overwhelming majority of lung cancers result from exposure to tobacco smoke.

There is no news there.

Using the experiences of states like New York, the federal government has offered blueprints on how to design tobacco control programs to have the most beneficial impact.  And here is where New York’s program starts to slide off the rails.

The CDC recommends that New York State spend roughly $200 million on its tobacco control program.  But New York never has.  In terms of spending on tobacco control, the high water mark was in FY2007-08 when the state spent over $85 million.  But tobacco control spending has declined since 2008.

The program has suffered from devastating cuts during the Cuomo Administration and has lost more than half of its funding from ten years ago.  New York State was once considered the fifth best in tobacco control efforts; due to these budget cuts, it has tumbled to 22nd.

What is most inexplicable about this approach is that the state has the money for the program.  It collects over $1 billion in tobacco taxes and other revenues.

In this year’s budget, the Administration is expecting additional revenues from legal settlements with the tobacco companies to total $400 million.

Yet, the governor proposes no new money to fight tobacco use.

In another cancer-fighting area, the state is not improving its efforts.  New York State offers a Cancer Services Program (CSP), which provides breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screenings and diagnostic services at no cost to women and men, typically those that lack health insurance.  If the screening test finds something abnormal, diagnostic (testing) services are available for eligible women and men at no cost.  The CSP will also provide a case manager who will guide someone with cancer through their follow-up diagnostic appointments.

If breast, cervical or colorectal cancer is found, eligible women and men may be able to enroll in the special cancer treatment program to receive full Medicaid health insurance coverage for the entire time they are being treated for cancer.

But that program has never been adequately funded, with experts stating that it only historically offered help to 15 percent of the eligible population.  Even with the expansion of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, the CSP is still not adequately funded to meet the needs of the uninsured.

The governor’s budget ignores that best scientific evidence behind cancer screening and instead has consistently tried to cut spending for this important program.  Last year, CSP took a 20 percent reduction in funding.  This year, the governor is not proposing to increase the program’s spending to meet the state’s needs.

As lawmakers move ahead on developing a final budget, they should make sure that new revenues are added to the state’s tobacco control and cancer screening programs.  Not only is it the right thing to do, those investments will save lives down the road.


New York’s Political Culture Again on Trial

Posted by NYPIRG on February 5, 2018 at 5:34 pm
Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

For the past two weeks, a former top aide to governor Cuomo has been on trial for corruption.  According to federal prosecutors, he was a key figure in a widespread bribery scheme that included shaking down those seeking government contracts for special treatment in exchange for campaign contributions and money for him and his associates.  The trial continues and the individual is presumed innocent.  But this trial – combined with others in recent years – offers unique insights into what ails Albany.  There are four overarching problems that emerge when reviewing the totality of the corruption cases brought in New York.

Problem #1: New York’s Limited Liability Company campaign finance loophole raises the risk of corruption.  The “LLC Loophole,” which treats each Limited Liability Company as an individual person for purposes of how much may be donated, has allowed some donors to give well over a million dollars.  And those donors almost always have business before government.

For example, in the trial against former Senate Majority Leader Skelos, one real estate developer spent more than $10 million in campaign donations since 2005 alone, funneled through 26 different limited liability companies – LLCs he controlled.  In return, that developer received tens of millions of dollars in tax benefits from the state.

What should be done?  LLCs should be treated like any other business entity and be subject to a $5,000 campaign contribution limit.  All business entities should be required to disclose their controlling interests and all subsidiaries’ contributions should be aggregated into one overall limit.

 Problem #2: Allowing outside income for elected officials raises the risk of corruption.  In many of the corruption cases, the opportunity to use one’s public office for private gain – “cashing in” – emerged as a serious problem.  In the case of former Assembly Speaker Silver, it was well-documented that he was able to use his power to amass millions of dollars in outside fees, for little work – other than applying his power as Speaker.

Unfortunately, the former Speaker’s case is not unique.  The recent convictions of elected officials underscore how lucrative it can be for lawmakers to inappropriately use the powers of their public office for private gain.

What should done?  After the Watergate scandal, Congress reformed its system and placed limits on outside income for lawmakers.  In a report, it concluded, “. . . substantial outside income creates at least the appearance of impropriety and thereby undermines public confidence in the integrity of government officials.”  New York State should follow suit.  All public officials, including those in the executive branch, must have strict limits on outside income.

 Problem #3:  There is too great a risk of corruption in how New York awards government contracts.  The investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office into allegations that state contracts were rigged to benefit campaign contributors to the governor underscores the need for action in this area.  For example, it’s been alleged that Buffalo’s largest construction company simultaneously paid a private lobbyist close to the governor $100,000 annually and kicked in $250,000 to Governor Cuomo’s re-election campaign in 2014.  The result, according to the U.S. Attorney, was that a huge Buffalo Billion project was steered to that company.

In addition to that case, Governor Cuomo’s former Executive Deputy Secretary is alleged to have solicited money from “companies with business before the State.”  In return, it is alleged, the former aide took official actions that would benefit these companies.

 What should be done?  The first step would be to limit campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts.  Under New Jersey’s pay-to-play law, businesses that “have or are seeking” government contracts are prohibited from making campaign contributions prior to receiving contracts.

Second, the New York Constitution established a separately-elected State Comptroller who is charged with monitoring the state finances.  Unfortunately, in recent years the governor and the Legislature have approved laws that have cut back the Comptroller’s oversight functions, coinciding with the period in which pay-to-play activities and bid-rigging were allegedly occurring.  Those powers should be restored.

Problem #4: Lack of independent oversight of ethics raises the risk of corruption.  Why is it that public officials think they can get away with these, and other, corrupt actions?  Because they believe that they would not get caught.  And if it weren’t for federal investigators, they would have – in some cases did – get away with it for years.  Ethics watchdogs must be independent – not political creatures.

Yet in New York, the ethics watchdogs are direct political appointees and are not structured to be independent.  In a 2015 comparison of state ethics laws, New York’s ethics enforcement received a grade of “F.”

What should done?  The state’s current ethics agencies should be abolished and replaced with a truly independent one.

Each of the first seven months of this year will see the beginning of trials for new, high profile, corruption cases.  Hopefully, New Yorkers will also see action from the governor and state lawmakers to respond to this corruption crisis.

Climate News Just Keeps Getting Worse

Posted by NYPIRG on January 29, 2018 at 11:28 am
Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Earlier this month, the European Union’s climate change center (the Copernicus Climate Change Service) named 2017 as the second hottest worldwide temperature on record, just behind 2016.  The EU said that the Earth’s surface temperature averaged nearly 58.5 degrees Fahrenheit, which is over 2 degrees warmer than the average in pre-industrial times.

2017 was slightly cooler than the warmest year on record, 2016, yet warmer than the previous second warmest year, 2015.  What made last year’s temperature so striking was that it was the hottest without an El Nino effect on the Pacific Ocean.  El Nino is a weather pattern that results in the release of heat from the Pacific.  Its absence last year should have led to a cooler average worldwide temperature – which it did – yet 2017 still ranked second hottest in recorded history.

And while some may take some solace in the dip in average temperatures, researchers from the University of Arizona last week raised a new alarm about climate change.

According to their research, global surface temperatures surged by a record amount from 2014 to 2016, boosting the total amount of warming since the start of the last century by more than 25 percent in just three years.

You heard that correctly, a full one-quarter of the jump in the average temperature of the Earth occurred in just three years.

One of the authors of the report commented, “As a climate scientist, it was just remarkable to think that the atmosphere of the planet could warm that much that fast.”

The spike in warming from 2014 to 2016 coincided with extreme weather events worldwide, including heat waves, droughts, floods, extensive melting of polar ice and global coral bleaching.  According to the University of Arizona researchers, natural variability in the climate system is not sufficient to explain the 2014-2016 temperature increase.  If fact, they concluded, “Our research shows global warming is accelerating.”

Also, more bad news from the impact of climate change was released by California researchers.

Researchers from the University of California at Davis found that current levels of greenhouse gas emissions are putting nearly half of California’s natural vegetation at risk from climate stress, with transformative implications for the state’s landscape and the people and animals that depend on it.

Their study, published in the journal Ecosphere, examined what would happen to California’s vegetation if the world is incapable of limiting greenhouse gas emissions versus keeping to the limits included in the Paris climate agreement.

They concluded that at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, “about 45-56 percent of all the natural vegetation in the state is at risk.” If the rate of greenhouse gas emissions is reduced to the rate called for in the Paris agreement, those numbers are lowered to between 21 and 28 percent of the lands at climatic risk.”  Of course, even that impact will be devastating, but only half as bad than if the world does nothing.

Yet, it’s very possible that little will be done.  The world looks to the United States for leadership, but in what can only be described as a shockingly ignorant statement, President Trump tweeted during a recent winter cold spell, “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!”

Maybe he thought he was being funny, but he’s not.  It’s not at all funny for the millions of people who are already suffering from the impacts of climate change – impacts like heat waves, famine, flooding, and war.  It’s not funny to places like Bangladesh, a nation in which millions may lose their homes as a result of rising sea levels.  It’s not funny to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people — who contribute almost nothing to warming the planet — but who end up being most harmed by it.

The disgraceful comments by the President aside, the world is long past time for talk and future goals.  The time to act is now; by stopping the expansion of new fossil fuel infrastructure, investing heavily in 21st Century renewable forms of energy (like solar, wind and geothermal), requiring more efficiency in energy use, and a shift from fossil fuel-powered cars to electric ones.

Given the negligent behavior of those running the federal government, states must take the lead.  New York must lead; if not this state, which one?

New York’s “Corruption Palooza” Begins

Posted by NYPIRG on January 22, 2018 at 10:20 am
Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

And so it begins:  Call it the kick off to New York’s “corruption palooza” – the first of the now expected seven corruption cases going to trial in each of the first seven months of the year.

The first, starting this week, is the trial of a former top aide to Governor Cuomo.  Of course, he is presumed innocent. Federal authorities have charged him with schemes that sought to enrich himself and others through bribes, and using his position to help particular companies receive “hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts and other official state benefits.”  These companies were involved in the state’s major economic development projects, including the “Buffalo Billion” initiative of the Cuomo Administration.

The charges also detailed that favored companies donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Governor Cuomo’s re-election campaign in addition to offering bribes to the now-former Cuomo Administration official named in the probe.  One of the alleged co-conspirators has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with federal prosecutors.

When former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara presented his charges, he stated that the governor was not implicated.  “There are no allegations of any wrongdoing or misconduct by the governor, anywhere in this complaint,” Mr. Bharara said.

And the corruption “hits” just keep coming.  Following the beginning of the January trial, there are six more to come:

  • In February, the scheduled trial of a former New York State Senator begins related to charges from an alleged scheme to secretly funnel campaign contributions into pockets of a staffer.
  • In March, the scheduled trial of a former Nassau County Executive begins for an alleged kickback scheme to help a restaurant owner receive over $20 million in grants and loans. In exchange, prosecutors said the county executive received fancy vacations, an expensive watch, and new hardwood flooring for his house.
  • In April, the scheduled retrial begins of the former state Assembly Speaker for allegedly using his legislative power to drive benefits to favored business clients while enriching himself.
  • In May, the scheduled trial begins of the former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President who allegedly was involved in the economic development schemes mentioned before.
  • In June, the scheduled retrial begins of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos who allegedly used his power to strong-arm businesses for pay for no-show jobs for his son.
  • Finally, in case there was any thought the corruption tide has ended, in July a just-charged sitting Assemblywoman will be in federal court to defend herself against charges that she used her public office for personal enrichment.

The defendants in these cases are entitled to the presumption of innocence; however, these trials are the latest installment in a seemingly unending series of investigations, indictments, and convictions involving the corrupt actions of dozens of public officials.  Indeed, New York has been repeatedly dubbed as one of, if not the most, corrupt states in the nation.  At least 33 legislators and a state Comptroller have left office since 2000 due to corruption-related issues.

No matter the outcomes for the individuals involved, the trials will undoubtedly paint an unflattering picture of politics in New York.

In normal times, such looming trials would pressure public officials to act.  But so far, there has been virtual silence on the issue of corruption from New York’s political elite.  Obvious responses should include: strengthening the oversight of the awarding of government contracts, more transparency in budgeting, real campaign financing limits – particularly on those seeking government favors, and meaningful, well-resourced, independent ethics and contracting oversight and enforcement.

In this re-election year, we’ll soon see if the public clamor over corruption will impact Albany’s legislative thinking.  If not, the voters will have an opportunity to express their opinions this coming November.