Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1483 Tue, 12 Dec 2017 12:13:23 +0000 en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Protecting the Hudson: Federal-State Partnership or Conflict? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6697:protecting-the-hudson-federal-state-partnership-or-conflict http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6697:protecting-the-hudson-federal-state-partnership-or-conflict dec hudson river hudson falls upper hudson

Hudson Falls, upper Hudson River (photo: NY DEC)


Who is responsible for keeping the Hudson River free from pollution? Actually, it is a responsibility shared by Federal and State authorities. Sometimes they agree; other times, they may be at cross purposes. That can make for some interesting political debate and interplay between the federal and state governments.

Two current environmental issues are good examples.

Cleaning up PCBs in the Hudson
GE dumped PCBs, toxic chemicals resulting from its manufacturing facilities in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, into the Hudson for many years. Most of the chemicals settled to the bottom but some drifted downstream. They were ingested by fish, leading to a ban on eating fish caught in the river. After years of controversy and discussion, GE agreed to pay for dredging the river from Fort Edward to Troy, under supervision of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a federal Superfund project. Dredging work began in 2009 and concluded in 2015 with the removal of some 310,000 pounds of PCBs. GE called it a "major environmental success" and declared it had met its cleanup responsibilities.  

EPA monitored the work and expressed satisfaction as it went along. EPA is scheduled to test sediment and fish mostly near the site once more in 2017 and then was expected to certify that GE had met its obligations. When the dredging concluded in 2015, EPA allowed GE to dismantle its PCB processing plant at Fort Edward with the implication that the work was done. The Cuomo administration did not object. Political pundits pointed out that at the time the administration was trying to convince GE to move its headquarters from Connecticut to New York. GE ended up moving to Boston instead.

But the PCB issue is not resolved.

In strongly-worded letters to the EPA in November and December, 2016, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos expressed "significant concerns" and asserted that "EPA's work is not done." The river is still "much more contaminated than EPA originally predicted." He added, "it is clear that the dredging performed will not meet...targeted fish PCB concentrations and EPA will not be able to deliver on the projected benefits to public health and the environment from this cleanup unless additional actions are undertaken." Much more sampling and testing are needed, along the entire length of the river from Fort Edward all the way to New York City.

"It's simple," Seggos explained. "DEC is calling on the EPA to finish the job and hold GE accountable for cleaning up the Hudson River. If EPA won't do the job and protect New Yorkers and the environment, DEC is ready to step in and lead."

The war of words escalated in December. EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck wrote Seggos on December 21 to say, "we strongly disagree" with the "baseless accusation" that EPA has not done its job. She rejected his demand for additional sampling beyond what EPA was already planning, adding that "NYSDEC is free to pursue that sampling itself if it so chooses."

EPA will make its decision early this year on whether GE needs to do more dredging.

Keeping oil off the Hudson
A consortium of maritime and oil companies has proposed construction of 10 "anchorages"  along the shores of the Hudson River, from Kingston to Yonkers, to store large barges carrying crude oil south from Albany. The anchorages would include a total of 40 berths, or parking spaces, for the ships. The proposal resulted from a decision by Congress last year ending a ban on export of oil produced in the lower 48 states.

Proponents say that the action by Congress will increase the amount of oil moving by rail to the Port of Albany and then down the Hudson by boat. Their proposal will produce jobs, help lower energy costs, and boost the economy, they say.

Opponents counter that the anchorages are unnecessary and will cause environmental damage to the river.

The U.S. Coast Guard has legal responsibility for reviewing and deciding on the proposal. It has received more than 10,000 comments from interested citizens, environmental groups, local governments, and others.

New York state government weighed in with two long letters in December.

A joint letter to the Coast Guard from the New York Secretary of State, Department of Environmental Conservation, Public Service Commission, and Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, set forth a long list of concerns about the proposal and called for more study, concluding that the proposal "lacks sufficient justification and detail." The state agencies expressed concern about the number of anchorages, lack of specificity about how many barges would be accommodated or how long they would stay, impact on state parks and other state-owned lands, the risks of accidents and spills, and the impact on fish, particularly two species of endangered sturgeon that inhabit the Hudson. But they couched their reservations not as outright opposition but instead mostly in terms of assertions that there needs to be lots more study and consultation.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who sometimes makes a point of expressing positions on public issues that are independent from those of the Cuomo administration, sent his own letter, not to the Coast Guard but to the head of its parent agency, the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Schneiderman asserted that the Coast Guard should discontinue consideration of the proposal until it is reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which Schneiderman asserts is required by law. But he went on to express more direct opposition than his colleagues in the other New York State agencies. “No one has demonstrated a manifest need for so many new anchorage sites along the river; no one has demonstrated a need for long-term anchorage at any of those specific locations...." The barges "would create significant security and hazard risks" particularly since the anchorages "would essentially allow barges to serve as oil storage facilities on the river,” he wrote.

The Coast Guard will decide on the barge anchorage proposal early in 2017.

The Hudson River and public policy
The Hudson River's extraordinary historical importance magnifies the importance of these issues. "Far more than a short river flowing through New York State, the Hudson is a thread that runs through the fabric of four centuries of American civilization -- its culture, its community, and its consciousness," wrote Tom Lewis in The Hudson: A History. It is "the valley where nature's creation and human creation meet, the river that connects so much of America's past with its present and future, unchangeable in presence yet always changing."

The PCB and oil barge issues illustrate a number of themes. Public opinion recognizes the commercial importance of the Hudson River. But people seem more concerned these days with the river's historical, aesthetic, scenic, and recreational values. Commercial exploitation has been at least partially upstaged by insistence on preservation for public benefit. There is a consensus that public authorities need to enforce policies to keep the river clean and, to the degree practical, that polluters need to clean up their pollution under government supervision.

But major policy decisions turn primarily on scientific evidence, and some imprecision is inevitable. When has there been "enough" dredging of PCBs? How much harm will giant oil barges cause to protected fish habitats? When federal and state perspectives and standards differ, which should prevail? How should economic and commercial benefits be balanced against environmental concerns?

These questions will be debated as the two issues discussed above play out in 2017. They are judgment calls that, inevitably, whether we admit it or not, are tinged with political considerations. But they are the sorts of issues that will continue to reverberate in environmental discussions here in New York, and indeed across the nation, in coming years.

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Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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Protecting the Hudson: Federal-State Partnership or Conflict? Tue, 03 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
New York’s Other Water Crisis http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6525:new-york-s-other-water-crisis http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6525:new-york-s-other-water-crisis Cuomo bridge water

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office on Flickr)


In 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was looking at how to fund the construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge and in such a way that he could promise minimal toll hikes. Construction had actually already begun on the $4 billion project despite no clear funding plan in place and pressure to detail the spending was mounting.

On June 13, 2014 Cuomo announced that the state Environmental Facilities Corp. would loan the state up to $511 million for the multi-billion dollar project from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. The fund, which is actually backed by federal dollars, exists to dole out low-interest loans for projects like local sewer repairs and wastewater treatment plant upgrades. The state also has a similar Drinking Water Revolving Fund that gives out loans for water main repairs and upgrades.

The move was met with immediate backlash from environmental groups that insisted the funds were simply not meant for a transportation project and that the move could set a bad precedent - perhaps undermining the very purpose for the federal funding and killing funding for clean-water infrastructure in New York and elsewhere. Budget watchdogs also attacked the plan as a “gimmick” and “irresponsible.” After much hand-wringing, it did not go forward as the Cuomo administration had sought.

As the Cuomo administration struggles to divert blame for the debacle in Hoosick Falls, where the state resisted calls to notify residents of contaminated drinking water, environmentalists and others point to the Tappan Zee loan episode as evidence that the administration has repeatedly not fully recognized major clean water and water infrastructure issues facing the state, instead concentrating on costly transportation economic development projects that benefit developers while localities grapple with the costs and consequences of decaying water infrastructure. On the other hand, for some legislators and advocates say it represents the administration’s ability to recognize a problem and tackle it head on with an efficient solution.

Asked if the administration could do more to help localities struggling to pay for water-related infrastructure repairs, Cuomo told Gotham Gazette: “I think this is a national crisis when it comes to water quality. I think we are just starting to learn about chemicals in the water and just how dangerous they can be. I think as time goes on you are going to see more and more dangerous chemicals being disclosed in the water we’re drinking.”

Cuomo added that he was advocating for the EPA to update its regulations to force all municipalities to conduct water safety testing (there is currently a 10,000 person population threshold). If the federal government fails to act, Cuomo said he would introduced legislation to force localities of any size to do water quality testing and that the administration would pay for the testing of localities that are strapped for cash.

Environmental groups estimated at the time of the Tappan Zee loan controversy that localities across the state were contending with $36 billion in costs related to clean water infrastructure demands over the next 20 years.

“Clean-water funds have never been used for a transportation project before – and we shouldn’t start now,” said Marcia Bystryn, president of The New York League of Conservation voter, in a 2014 statement. “If approved, this would set a very bad precedent, especially considering the huge backlog of wastewater projects across the state. We urge the Environmental Facilities Corporation Board to reject this proposal.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which provided the state with the billions of dollars for the fund over the last two decades, eventually rejected the proposal. But the state didn’t back down and appealed the decision. In the end a compromise allowed the state to use $1.3 million for oyster bed restoration and the replacement of a falcon box, with none of the money going toward the “New New York Bridge,” the funding of which is still not completely clear.

The ordeal leant new focus to clean water infrastructure demands faced by localities across the state. (As has the recent crisis in Hoosick Falls and questions about water contamination elsewhere in the state.) While Cuomo administration officials noted that millions of dollars were sitting in the revolving fund untouched as proof that they were unneeded, local leaders countered that they simply couldn’t afford to take on anymore debt, regardless of the interest rate, because they would never be able to repay it. Meanwhile, municipalities have grappled with decaying and dilapidated water infrastructure and seen overflowing sewer lines, exploding water mains, and sinkholes.

In 2015 the state Legislature pressed for a new program to help fund water infrastructure projects across the state. Cuomo signed the New York State Water Infrastructure Act to disperse $200 million in grants to localities for water infrastructure repairs and improvements. By December 2015, $75 million in grants had been awarded. This year the state Assembly successfully fought for a $200 million increase to the program.

James Tierney, deputy commissioner for water at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, told Gotham Gazette that the grant program mixes and matches loans from the revolving fund and grants to kickstart projects proposed by municipalities. Tierney said his focus has been on helping “hardship” municipalities in both rural and urban areas. He noted that a lot of communities weren’t in a position to utilize the revolving loan funds. “A lot of communities were making the case after the Great Recession, saying ‘Hey we’ve got nothing here. We can’t afford these loans.’”

Tierney said that the pressure on municipalities and the state to fund water projects has increased as the federal government has altered the strategy behind the Clean Water Act. Early in the 1970s when the program was starting some water infrastructure projects would receive up to 75 percent funding with municipalities covering only 12 percent. “In the olden days it was much more about funding infrastructure and regulations. Then it turned into grants and then loans and then the pot for loans began to sink.” said Tierney.

He noted that the Congressional Budget Office reports that only 4 percent of water infrastructure projects are funded by the federal government.

A number localities, including Syracuse, are focused on advocating for more federal funds. But in the meantime many local officials and state legislators are pleased with the administration’s efforts with the grant program. Advocates have noted a positive trend.

“We have seen a total “180” on water infrastructure funding,” said Liz Moran of Environmental Advocates of New York. Moran said the Tappan Zee raid and the backlash that followed “was a wake up call” for the Cuomo administration about just how necessary water infrastructure funding is.

“After the raid ceased it became clear that the money was needed to go to these problems,” said Moran. “Maybe the governor didn’t know about the need in the first place, but we are very happy he's embraced the programs now.”

The notion that taking on loans from the revolving fund wasn’t the ideal solution to dire infrastructure needs faced by cash-strapped localities across the state wasn’t new in 2014 or 2015.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, a Democrat like Cuomo who has clashed with the governor, has been calling for state and federal assistance in dealing with her city’s water infrastructure needs for years. In 2014 Miner called for the state to create “The Syracuse Billion,” a take off of Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program that invested in major economic development projects. But Miner wasn’t looking for deals to draw high-tech firms to the area. Instead she proposed using $750 million of the cash to replace and repair a 550-mile, 100-year-old water pipeline that is in constant disrepair.

Cuomo responded that Syracuse was going “bankrupt,” adding, "You are unsustainable. You need jobs, an economy, business. Show us how you become economically stronger and create jobs. Then you fix your own pipes." He later added he was saying the city was “metaphorically” bankrupt, according to The Post-Standard.

Miner told Gotham Gazette that she thinks the Tappan Zee Bridge funding battle “brought attention to the fund and the overwhelming need for water infrastructure funding throughout the state. Every municipality has water problems,” Miner said, “from Hoosick Falls to Long Island, Kingston and Buffalo.”

During a 2015 budget hearing Miner pressed the State to use bank settlement funds to help struggling localities across the state. She said municipalities are handicapped by the state’s property tax cap and increasing state mandates, and can’t afford to make major infrastructure repairs without drastic intervention.

Cuomo did not grant Miner’s wish, but the Assembly used discretionary funds to allocate $10 million to repair Syracuse’s water infrastructure through the 2015 budget. Cuomo used settlement funds for transportation projects like the Tappan Zee replacement and for economic development grants.

Assemblymember Steve Otis, a Democrat representing Rye who championed the state’s grant program, is intimately familiar with infrastructure funding challenges faced by localities around the state. Otis served as mayor of Rye for 12 years. “We knew there was a great need. But the loan fund does not receive applications for all the money that is available,” Otis said in an interview. “Why? Because these localities couldn't afford to incur 100 percent debt.”

Otis said the program was so successful and the need so great that the Legislature doubled funding for it in 2016. The first round of the program doled out $75 million in grants; the second $175 million; and the third round will come next year with the distribution of another $175 million.

Otis praised the Cuomo administration for expediting the grants. “These are simple projects that are helping communities maintain water quality and the Cuomo administration has done a fantastic job getting the grants out the door and recognizing the need.”

But Otis, as well as advocates and other government officials and workers charged with dealing with water infrastructure across the state, acknowledge the program can’t help everyone. “One or two municipalities could eat up all the funding in one shot,” Otis said, indicating the scale of the need around the state.

Miner said that in her experience the Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) grant programs have been targeted toward smaller communities and that some of them require extensive pre-design work even to apply. Syracuse was, however, awarded $679,444 for a water infrastructure project in August through the New York State Water Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2015.

Asked about the program, Miner initially responded that Syracuse was ineligible because of its large population, though the program does not have a population restriction. Miner later clarified through a spokesperson that she was talking about other grant programs offered by the EFC and that she believes the EFC needs to offer a wide array of water infrastructure grant programs for communities of all sizes.

Officials from the EFC, the agency tasked with overseeing both the revolving loan programs and the water grant initiative, confirmed that there are no population restraints on the grant program.

Joe Coffey, the water commissioner for the city of Albany, is all too familiar with just how costly it is to maintain an aging water system. Albany’s dates to the 19th century. The city’s water treatment plant was built in the 1930s, as was the transfer line. And as Coffey points out, age is the greatest indicator of the possibility of infrastructure failure.

This summer residents have had to contend with a number of water main breaks and sinkholes that have gnarled traffic on busy roads not far from the Capitol building while the city continues to remedy sewer system overflows into the Hudson River, which functions not only as a source of recreation and food for some locals but as a water source for those down river.

”You can't print enough money to replace our water and sewer system,” said Coffey. “You are looking at asset management and the probability of failure--if it fails what's the consequence of failure?”

Albany recently won an $837,500 grant from the State. Coffey said the cash will allow Albany’s water department to leverage other funds for more projects and to expedite urgent repairs.

“It’s a tough call on how to balance investment in aide for water infrastructure,” said Coffey. “But without water you have nothing. In this state we are were blessed with an abundant supply of safe, reliable drinking water and from that we can leverage economic development and all the things that come after that. If you don’t make repairs you don’t have that base and these issues become real quality-of-life problems.”

Miner, the Syracuse mayor, echoes Coffey’s concerns about infrastructure. “I don’t want to undercut the [grant] program, but nobody wants to cut a ribbon underground--but at least people are talking about it now,” said Miner, hitting on one of the key reasons for a lack of focus on essential, basic infrastructure repairs.

Miner estimates the total cost of replacing the city’s most troublesome water lines would be around $730 million. According to the Syracuse Post-Standard the city hit its 102nd water main break of this year in May--a lower total than the 171 water main breaks it had suffered by the same time last year.

Tierney, of the DEC, acknowledged that a number of cities across the state are facing problems so large that they can’t be addressed as a whole. “The first step is recognizing the problem. Some of this infrastructure is very old and they are dealing with combined problems and it is a lot. Our approach has been to phase things in in a reasonable way, to use grant programs and EFC loans and coach communities how to apply for funds.”

Miner said Syracuse is now focusing on utilizing data analysis to predict and pinpoint where fixes should be made to preempt major problems, rather than pushing for a comprehensive replacement project.

She remains concerned that the state’s economic development spending may be undermined if it does not provide more assistance to localities facing dire infrastructure needs. “You can’t build a high-tech center if people can’t make coffee or flush their toilets,” said Miner.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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New York’s Other Water Crisis Tue, 13 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Will for Water Contamination Hearings Nearly Vanishes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6299:will-for-water-contamination-hearings-nearly-vanishes-after-budget-deal http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6299:will-for-water-contamination-hearings-nearly-vanishes-after-budget-deal cuomo hoosick

Cuomo tours a water filtration area in Hoosick Falls (photo: Governor's Office)


A number of state legislators once eager to hold hearings into drinking water contamination by a cancer-causing chemical in the small town of Hoosick Falls now seem loathe to even discuss the matter. The change in tune by some seeking to hold the Cuomo administration accountable and ensure a public discussion of the issue appears to have accompanied the passage of the new state budget.

The Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, announced in February that hearings would be held into the matter in April. Assemblymember Richard Gottfried of Manhattan, chair of the health committee, and Assemblymember Steve Englebright of Long Island, environment committee chair, were set to oversee them.

Several lawmakers stressed the importance of using the hearings to discuss the state’s decaying water infrastructure and dealing with and preventing the kind of contamination found in Hoosick Falls, a village in Rensselaer County not far from the Vermont border. Others were interested in examining why it took the state a year to warn residents about the safety of their water after being contacted by concerned residents and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The topic of drinking water protection and infrastructure was put forward by some Assembly Democrats and their allies as one of the issues that needed more funding and could be provided for by the millionaire’s tax being proposed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

With the budget resolved at the end of March and April nearing an end, hearings have not been scheduled and lawmakers who were supposed to be involved don’t want to discuss them. The offices of Gottfried and Englebright failed to return inquiries into the status of the hearings. Neither did the offices of Senate health committee Chair Sen. Kamp Hannon of Long Island nor Sen. Kathy Marchione, who represents Hoosick Falls.

A number of legislators and advocates are concerned the hearings were traded away in a budget deal, a concession won by the Cuomo administration. The Hoosick incident has proven embarrassing for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his team - the administration was slow to respond and has sought to downplay criticism of how it handled the matter. The Cuomo administration did not respond when Gotham Gazette asked if the governor supports hearings.

Assemblymember Steve McLaughlin, a Republican who represents Hoosick Falls and surrounding areas, originally pressed for hearings and said he is concerned the hearings and, in turn, his constituents were used during budget negotiations. “I told them in February: ‘Don’t use my constituents as leverage,’ and it looks like that is exactly what happened.” McLaughlin said he wouldn’t be surprised to see federal hearings on the matter before the state takes action because Congressional Rep. Chris Gibson represents the area. Gibson’s office did not return an inquiry into whether he would support federal hearings. (Gibson has indicated he exploring a run for Governor in 2018.)

Concerns were raised in 2014 about the possibility of contaminated drinking water leading to increased cancer rates in Hoosick, a town of about 4,000. Emails obtained by The Times Union and Politico New York show that the state Department of Health resisted pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to warn residents about the safety of their water for nearly a year. It wasn’t until December 2015 that the EPA issued a warning to residents notifying them that their drinking water was testing well above acceptable levels of a chemical known as PFOA. The state declared it a disaster area and has since begun installing filters on local wells. Residents, meanwhile, are still scared that they face an increased risk of cancer.

Cuomo has lashed out at the EPA, criticizing the agency for not establishing the amount of PFOA safe to consume over the long-term. "Just pick it, you have the scientists, EPA," Cuomo said on March 14 during his first visit to Hoosick Falls since the water crisis began. "We want a national standard because this shouldn't be a question for anyone.

Cuomo came under considerable criticism for failing to visit the town for months after declaring its water unsafe to drink. Then, his Sunday morning visit was only announced to the press a few hours ahead and local officials were left in the dark.

“If this happened in Westchester there wouldn’t have been any hesitation to hold hearings,” said McLaughlin, who said he plans to press the Assembly to reschedule hearings immediately. “This is just shameful. I may just hold hearings myself. I don’t know who would show, but it can’t be ignored.” McLaughlin said he hasn’t been told directly the hearings are not happening. Heastie’s office did not respond when Gotham Gazette asked if the speaker still supports holding hearings. In February, Heastie’s spokesperson told Politico New York that the Assembly was planning April hearings.

McLaughlin’s counterpart in the Senate, Marchione, is considerably less troubled by a lack of hearings. She told Susan Arbetter on the Capitol Pressroom radio program in February, “We will discuss that [hearings] because whether the state didn’t move quick enough or whether they thought they moved fast enough, sometimes you have to hear from the other perspective why they moved slowly, when did they actually know?”

Marchione told Politico New York last week that she doesn’t want hearings until the Department of Health completes blood testing of Hoosick Falls residents. Her message echoes that of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who said in February he thought hearings should wait until after the problem is fixed. Fixing the problem is more important than figuring out who to blame,” Flanagan told Politico New York.

Flanagan’s office did not return request for comment on whether the majority leader still supports hearings.

McLaughlin said he is dubious of assertions that hearings should not be held while the problem is being solved. “The people of Hoosick Falls deserve clean water, but they also deserve the truth,” McLaughlin said.

Advocates say New York could lead on what has become a national focus by setting new drinking water standards, and holding hearings to examine the events in Hoosick Falls to determine how to best prevent and respond to contamination in other areas of the state.

“There is no doubt government needs to be held accountable,” said Liz Moran of Environmental Advocates of New York. Senator Marchione publicly called for hearings and now she says we don't need them. This is very high stakes for her constituents and they will hold her accountable.”

In a March op-ed in The Times Union, Moran’s group wrote that ”Public hearings can also address the root causes behind such contamination: America's broken chemical policy of calling things safe until someone gets sick, and the lack of strong regulations and enough cops on the beat to keep people safe.”

While Moran said she is disappointed by the lack of hearings, she noted that the state budget does include some items that deal with the overall issue of ensuring clean, reliable, and safe drinking water across the state.

“Water safety is definitely something that is in the spotlight because of Flint [Michigan]. It is much more on the minds of New Yorkers,” Moran told Gotham Gazette, with an additional nod to Hoosick Falls. “There are lines in the budget to provide funding to detect water quality and a grant program to help repair aging water infrastructure. More can always be done but it's a positive step.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Will for Water Contamination Hearings Nearly Vanishes Mon, 25 Apr 2016 02:03:03 +0000
Cuomo Waves Left with Executive Actions, Is Met with Shrugs http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5822:cuomo-waves-left-with-executive-actions-is-met-with-shrugs http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5822:cuomo-waves-left-with-executive-actions-is-met-with-shrugs Cuomo wage rally

Cuomo at Wednesday's rally (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


On Wednesday, the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo streamed live video of the wage board he convened as its members recommended a multi-year plan to phase in a $15 per hour minimum wage for fast food workers across the state. As the meeting ended the same stream cut to a jubilant rally in New York City. In stark contrast to previous Cuomo administration efforts there was no pretense that the wage board was somehow separate from the governor.

The Cuomo administration attempted to propagate the appearance of independence for previous executive entities such as the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, two tax commissions, and even the Department of Environmental Conservation when it made its decision to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the state. But this time such a separation wasn't useful to the governor.

With his poll numbers at an all-time-low, members of his own party in open revolt and facing an ongoing feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Cuomo appears to be looking to bolster his standing among Democrats across the state by taking executive action on issues he failed to deliver on during the legislative session. Many prominent Democratic electeds and activists have questioned whether Cuomo actually expended any political capital during the legislative session to move progressive issues such as criminal justice reform, the DREAM Act, or a minimum wage increase.

"I don't believe the Assembly had a real working partner in the governor or the Senate in terms of getting things done for the people of this city and, in many cases, the people of this state," Mayor Bill de Blasio told NY1 late last month.

Trust among Democrats was further eroded when Senate Republicans released a memorandum of understanding with Cuomo's office that appeared to state that the governor agreed not to phase in a part of the SAFE Act until Republicans agree to it. Other than that MOU, Cuomo's post-session agenda has been dedicated to taking executive action on issues favored by the left and on which he did not deliver through legislation.

Cuomo has promised to use executive action to remove 16- and 17-year-olds from the state's prison system after failing to enact a sweeping policy to prevent those teens from being tried as adults, much less locked up with them. Failing to reach a deal with the legislature on other criminal justice reforms in the wake of death of Eric Garner, Cuomo signed an executive order earlier this month giving Attorney General Eric Schneiderman the authority to investigate police killings of unarmed individuals, an attempt to reduce the perception that local district attorneys are biased toward the police.

Cuomo was celebrated by Democrats when signing the special prosecutor executive order, and he was applauded at Wednesday's minimum wage rally. City Comptroller Scott Stringer heaped praise on the governor as a man of action when he spoke to those gathered. But, many of Cuomo's fellow Democratic electeds and progressive advocates were not so committed to attaching the governor's name to the wage board decision. Three of the state's most powerful Democratic electeds - Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie - all released statements praising the decision, but without any mention of the governor.

Celebratory statements from New York Communities for Change and the Working Families Party also failed to mention the governor by name.

"I think that's appropriate," said former Cuomo opponent Zephyr Teachout of the lack of support from other Democratic electeds. Teachout is the Fordham Law professor who embarrassed Cuomo with a stronger-than-expected showing during last year's Democratic primary. Teachout tapped into displeasure with the governor from his left.

Cuomo defended his use of executive actions during a Wednesday appearance on The Capitol Pressroom radio program, and chose to eliminate any perception that he was separate from the wage board.

"I am the executive, I have many powers beyond those which the Legislature passes, right?" Cuomo told host Susan Arbetter rhetorically. "The executive, whether it's the president, the mayor, or the governor, you run the government, and you have a whole host of powers that are apart and aside from the Legislature. I often say to people [that] dealing with the Legislature and getting a budget passed, and then new laws, that's a part of my job. But that's only a part. And by the way, I don't even think that's the majority of my job. I run the government."

Teachout doesn't think Cuomo's problem lies exclusively with Democrats. "The governor has broad temperamental issues," Teachout told Gotham Gazette. "It's not like Cuomo has a problem with [only] the left. You are going to have a problem finding any group of voters who believe the governor is actually committed to fighting for them."

Cuomo has branded himself as a doer, as an executive who is about making sure the government is running efficiently and effectively, and who can get deals made by working with members of both parties.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said that Cuomo's use of executive action is fairly typical for governors who have served more than one term. "In terms of putting it into context, governors have historically faced challenges in their second terms. Second terms tend to be harder. [Republican Governor George] Pataki had serious trouble in his second term. It wasn't just with Democrats, but with his own party challenging him."

Horner said that Cuomo is also dealing with "eroded approval ratings and unprecedented indictments" of state legislative leaders that have made getting what he wants from the Legislature that more difficult. And Horner said Cuomo is particularly notorious for "liking to put points on the board."

Many Democrats are happy Cuomo has used his executive powers on the issues he has but feel he acted out of political expediency so that he didn't have to place his Senate Republican allies in a difficult position during the legislative session. These Democrats are therefore reluctant to give him credit.

On the other hand, many business groups and Republican electeds are more than happy to connect Cuomo to his left-leaning executive actions, because they are opposed to them. "From day one Governor Cuomo's wage board has sought to silence the business community and force through an unfair and discriminatory increase on a single sector of one industry," said Melissa Fleischut, President and CEO of the NYS Restaurant Association, in a statement. Fleischut went on to accuse Cuomo of "stacking the board" with supporters of a wage increase, and allowing business owners "to get booed and heckled at public hearings."

Other business groups have attacked Cuomo for bypassing the Legislature on the wage issue, saying he has too much executive power. It may be surprising, but Teachout agrees to some extent. "The governor of New York has too much executive power and the 'three men in a room' have too much power," Teachout told Gotham Gazette. "Having said that, I'm happy he's using it for positive ends. But you know with this governor that if he has to move, he is always going to act in a way that maximizes his own power."

Cuomo is likely to face a lawsuit from the restaurant industry over the wage board's recommendations and subsequent adoption by the Department of Labor.

Regardless of his executive actions, pundits say Cuomo has to do something about his sinking poll numbers in New York City, which has been a reliable base for Cuomo in past elections. A June 15 Siena College poll found Cuomo's favorability rating drop to 39 percent, with his numbers dipping among city-based voters.

Horner said that executive actions are simply part of Cuomo's efforts to enact his agenda and that part of his agenda has to be "keeping the coalition together."

Teachout thinks Cuomo's executive actions indicate that he knows he faces an increasingly hostile electorate. "He is losing that default New York City vote that he could count on last time, and that's a big, big deal. When all you have left is the Buffalo base, that's a real problem. I don't think the wage board does much to help that."

Teachout - who has not ruled out challenging Cuomo again in 2018 (assuming he seeks a third term) - said that she believes voters have developed a view of Cuomo similar to the one that de Blasio expressed: a transactional politician, cynical, power-obsessed, and untrustworthy; and not much is going to change that.

A key question is how much workers, activists, and elected officials associate Cuomo with the action he is taking. Will the special prosecutor move endear Cuomo in communities distrustful of the police and district attorney offices? Will his move on the minimum wage earn him the loyalty of those low-wage and union workers? Are the progressive activists who have been burned by Cuomo willing to live with a governor who they don't feel they can trust but sometimes delivers for their causes?

"I compare this moment to the fracking moment," said Teachout. "I think the administration thought the fracking ban would have an equal impact to the marriage equality moment--that it would be this inspirational moment for people to rally around the governor. But I think most people saw it the same way I did: 'Great! He banned fracking.' But with no change in how they see him."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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Cuomo Waves Left with Executive Actions, Is Met with Shrugs Thu, 23 Jul 2015 03:37:14 +0000