Environmentalists urge NY House members to oppose “Smoggy Skies Act”

A slew of environmental groups have urged New York’s 27 members of the House of Representatives to reject a bill they say would worsen air pollution by forcing the federal government to consider at the outset how much it would cost businesses to comply with new emission standards.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the Ozone Standards Implementation Act of 2017 in a 29-24 vote on June 28, clearing the way for a potential vote by the full House once it returns from its July 4 recess on Monday. Environmental groups have dubbed it the “Smoggy Skies Act.”

“We believe this bill represents a sweeping attack on the public health underpinnings of the Clean Air Act, and we request you speak out against and vote ‘No’ on this bill,” read a June 14 letter to New York’s House members, signed by representatives of the Sierra Club and 32 other organizations.

The Energy and Commerce Committee has said the bill would delay implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 ozone emission standards until 2025 and let states “pursue cost-effective and practical implementation” of them. Manufacturers, who had sued over the new standards, have praised the bill.

New York has 18 Democrats – including Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of Cold Spring – and nine Republicans – including Rep. John Faso of Kinderhook – in its delegation. Maloney opposed the same legislation last year when the House approved it in a largely party-line vote. Faso was not in Congress then, and is not among its 22 current co-sponsors or on the committee that approved the bill last month. His predecessor, Chris Gibson, also a Republican, voted against the bill last year.

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Cook Political Report: Race for 19th district now a toss up

The Cook Political Report, an online political newsletter, is calling the race for New York’s 19th Congressional District against incumbent GOP Rep. John Faso a toss up, even with 16 months to go before the general election.

In a post on Friday, Cook said danger signs are everywhere for the GOP, citing President Donald Trump’s approval ratings in the high 30s, low support for the GOP’s healthcare legislation and Democrats over-performing, despite failing in special elections. They also said polling shows House Republicans tying or trailing real and hypothetical opponents.

But even as clouds seem to darken for some House Republicans races, the report warned that such early dissatisfaction means Republicans have plenty of time to prepare.

“Taken as a whole, the evidence would seem to point to a wave election that would justify moving a slew of races into the Toss Up column and threaten GOP control of the House,” the report says. “Except, the election isn’t this November; it’s still 16 months away. The fact these warning lights are flashing now means Republicans won’t be caught off guard like many incumbents were in 2006 and 2010—they will have time to raise millions, conduct opposition research and define their opponents early. And Democrats aren’t rushing to topple Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has proven an effective foil for GOP House candidates.”

Faso’s district is one of 10 House districts nationwide Cook has changed to favor Democrats. The 19th district includes all or part of 11 counties, including all of Ulster and Sullivan. Cook changed the 19th district from “leans Republican” to “toss up.”

Faso, who is serving his first term in the House, hails from Kinderhook in Columbia County. He’s an attorney and a former state assemblyman. Eight Democrats have so far emerged to take on Faso.

Here’s Cook’s assessment of Faso’s chances:

Toss Up. Despite his long tenure in Upstate politics, Faso was one of just 15 Republicans to win by single digits in 2016 – and he did so against a very liberal, carpetbagging Democrat. Now he’s facing a deluge of opponents. Democrats are perhaps most high on West Point graduate and Iraq veteran Pat Ryan, but the dynamic could change if 2016 nominee Zephyr Teachout or Ulster County Executive Mike Hein get in.

Hein has said that he plans to make a decision on whether he’ll run or not by the end of this month. When he explored a run for the district in late 2015, his team had polls that put him 4-5 points ahead of Faso, Hein said. You can read my story on this hot race here.

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Senate supports full-day kindergarten funding

It looks as though all sides support budgeting state money next year to help Washingtonville School District and five other districts convert their part-time kindergarten classes to full-time ones.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, whose chamber unanimously approved a bill last month to authorize such aid, announced on Wednesday that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has agreed to put funding for that purpose into next year’s state budget. Cuomo’s spokesman confirmed afterward that he had indeed made such a commitment. And before the day was out, the Senate Republicans’ spokesman had emailed a statement indicating that their conference – which controls the Senate – also supports the idea.

“We have always supported full day Kindergarten for every child because it improves student outcomes,” spokesman Scott Reif said. “Working with Senator Larkin, Senator Funke and others, we look forward to its inclusion in next year’s budget.”

Washingtonville is one of only six school districts out of 726 in New York that hold only half-day kindergarten. Assemblyman James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, and Sen. Bill Larkin, R-Cornwall-on-Hudson, both represent Washingtonville and were co-sponsors of the bills that would authorize aid for the six districts to convert to a full-time programs. Skoufis said this week that Washingtonville has estimated the additional staffing and materials would cost almost $700,000.


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Five Mid-Hudson legislators attended every session day in Albany

Five of 11 state lawmakers representing Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties attended all 60 days in this year’s legislative session, according to Senate and Assembly attendance records provided under the state Freedom of Information Law.

The lawmakers with perfect attendance were: Sen. James Seward, R-Milford; Assemblyman Karl Brabenec, R-Deerpark; Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston; Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie; and Assemblyman Brian Miller, R-New Hartford.

Assemblyman James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, missed four session days in June after his mother died in Florida, the first time he has been absent in his five years in Albany. Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh didn’t attend three session days; Sens. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, Bill Larkin, R-Cornwall-on-Hudson, and George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, each missed two days; and Assemblyman Frank Skartados, D-Milton had a single absence.

This year’s session was spread over 25 weeks from Jan. 4 to June 21. Lawmakers had no session days on four of those weeks, and only one week had five session days. Voting was particularly sparse in February, which had only five session days, and April, which had six session days.

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Brabenec had the most Albany expenses in region (updated)

Assemblyman Karl Brabenec has requested more than $14,000 in reimbursement from the state for gas, meals and lodging for his travels to Albany for this year’s legislative session, the highest total in per diems and travel costs among the 11 Assembly members and senators representing parts of Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties.

Expense totals posted online by the state Comptroller’s Office on Thursday reflect reimbursements state legislators had sought through June 30 for the 60-day legislative session that ended June 21, and perhaps for the two days they reported for duty last week to tend to unfinished business.

Brabenec, a Deerpark Republican who lives farther from the capital than other lawmakers from this region, led the list at this time last year as well, although Sen. John Bonacic wound up with the highest expense total for 2016 after subsequent claims were filed. Bonacic and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther also have long drives, and they followed Brabenec in this week’s totals with more than $13,000 and $11,000 in expense reimbursements, respectively.

Lawmakers are paid a fixed amount for meals and lodging in Albany for the days they work there, regardless of how much they actually spend. The amount last year were $59 per day for meals and $115 for each night in a hotel; it’s unclear if those amounts changed this year. (Update: per the U.S. General Services Administration, the meal amount stayed the same, and the hotel rate went up $1 to $116.)

As in the past, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill and Sen. James Seward both sought reimbursement for air fare to attend conferences. Cahill’s plane travel cost $1,967; Seward’s was $1,037.

The same three lawmakers who charged no expenses in 2016 also put in for no reimbursements this year: Sen. George Amedore, R-Rotterdam; Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie; and Assemblyman Frank Skartados, D-Milton.

Here are the total for the eight legislators who will be repaid for expenses:

Assemblyman Karl Brabenec, R-Deerpark: $14,353

Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope: $13,206

Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh: $11,354

Sen. James Seward, R-Milford: $10,707

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston: $9,707

Assemblyman James Skoufis, D-Woodbury: $9,639

Assemblyman Brian Miller, R-New Hartford: $5,678

Sen. Bill Larkin, R-Cornwall-on-Hudson: $4,696

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Pat Ryan raises $210K towards NY-19 congressional run

Democrat Pat Ryan has raised $210,000 in the three weeks since he threw his hat in the ring for the 19th Congressional District, according to his campaign.

Ryan, 35, is one of eight Democrats who are challenging freshman Republican Rep. John Faso in the district next year. The general election isn’t until Nov. 6, 2018.

Ryan ended the quarter with more than $200,000 in his account, his campaign said.

Those running for Congress have to file three-month quarterly reports of their campaign finances with the Federal Election Commission. The July quarterly report period for 2017 ended on June 30 and has to be filed with the FEC by July 15. Ryan announced his run on June 7.

“Inspired by the tremendous energy and passion of this community, we made a bold decision to enter the race with only three weeks left in the quarter, and it paid off.” Ryan said in a release. “I’ve been blown away by the response to my campaign across the district. I’m running to bring a spirit of selfless service back to Washington and am energized for the race ahead.”

Last quarter, Faso raised a little more than $276,000 while Democrat Antonio Delgado raised about $300,000 and Brian Flynn raised about $180,000. So far, no candidates in the 19th district have posted their full finances with the FEC.

The 19th district includes all or part of 11 counties, including all of Ulster and Sullivan counties.

Ryan, a Kingston native and U.S. Military Academy graduate, served two combat tours in Iraq as an Army intelligence officer then started two technology firms. He currently lives in New York City but said he’s searching with his wife for a home in Ulster County.

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Faso seeks stricter oversight of water contaminant

Rep. John Faso and a Vermont colleague have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten its oversight over a type of chemical that has contaminated drinking water supplies in both of their states, including in Newburgh and Hoosick Falls, N.Y.

Faso, a Kinderhook Republican whose district includes Ulster and Sullivan counties, and Democratic Rep. Peter Welch sent a letter on Tuesday to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that suggests his agency “play a central role in developing the science around perfluorinated compounds and properly regulating them.” More specifically, they want the EPA to set national primary drinking water regulations for those compounds; to list two chemicals known by the acronyms PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances; and to “review and regulate” the compounds “if warranted.”

The City of Newburgh lost the use of its main drinking water source in 2016 after finding high levels of PFOS in Washington Lake, believed to have come from firefighting foam at nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base. The city is temporarily getting its water from New York City’s Catskill Aqueduct while it installs a filtration plant to regain the use of Washington Lake.

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Lawmakers renew Orange, Ulster, Sullivan sales tax rates

State lawmakers have renewed the sales tax rates in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties for another three years, approving so-called extenders for those and 50 other counties as part of a giant mop-up bill the Legislature passed on Thursday after being summoned back to Albany.

Lawmakers had ended their 2017 session on June 21 with unfinished business, most conspicuously the extension of mayoral control of the school system in New York City, which was set to expire on Saturday. The renewal of counties’ sales tax rates, a normally routine step for the Legislature, got snarled in the political sniping over mayoral school control and charter schools and didn’t get done. That left open the possibility that the rates would drop to a default level of 3 percent in December and start costing counties revenue.

The hodgepodge bill passed on Thursday and signed already by Gov. Andrew Cuomo actually extended the rates longer than planned – three years instead of two. Though that spares the counties the chore of returning to Albany for permission again until 2020, it is not the permanent solution the counties had asked for. They wanted to eliminate the need to continue getting state approval for their sales tax rates.

At stake locally was an additional 0.75 percent in sales tax for Orange and a 1 percent bump each for Ulster and Sullivan counties. Though seemingly small, those rate increases generate large sums to help fund the county government and share with municipalities. In Orange County, the added 0.75 percent translates to $39 million for the county and $14 million for its towns, villages and cities in a year.

With the addition of 4 percent charged by the state, the full sales tax rates that shoppers pay are 8 percent in Ulster and Sullivan and 8.125 percent in Orange. Orange’s rate includes a 0.375 percent tax paid to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for Metro-North train service.

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Maloney bills would subject Congress members to “Trumpcare”

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has introduced three bills that would force Congress members with government-subsidized health insurance to accept for themselves and their families what he views as the most harmful changes in coverage standards that Republicans are considering.

The Cold Spring Democrat, an outspoken opponent of the GOP proposals to repeal and replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act, pitched his “Do Unto Others” bill package as a dose of reality for his colleagues, one that would require them to abide by the same proposed changes in guaranteed services, premiums and protections for people with pre-existing health problems.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Maloney said. “Members of Congress who vote for a garbage health care bill shouldn’t get to keep their special access to Obamacare while they stick their constituents with more expensive plans that cover less. Don’t think your state should cover Essential Health Benefits like hospital stays or prescription drugs? Then your family shouldn’t get that coverage either. If you think high risk pools are so great, you can join one. Think older folks should be charged more for their care? You can pay those rates too.”

One bill would require members whose states waive the ACA rules on pre-existing conditions to accept whatever alternatives those states devise for that population, such as high-risk insurance pools. Another would force members whose states waive the “essential health benefits” that all insurers must now carry to enroll in the weakest policies their states offer. The third bill would require members from states that let insurers raise premiums for older customers to take their state’s most expensive plan.

House Republicans narrowly passed their health insurance bill on May 4. Senate Republican leaders wanted to try to pass their version this week but postponed the vote because they didn’t have enough support within their own caucus.

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Lawmakers vote to allow ward system for school boards

State lawmakers passed a bill this week that would enable school districts to create wards for the election of school board members, an idea that supporters in Pine Bush School District and Sullivan County have promoted since 2015 as a way to limit the ability of voting blocs to control boards.

The bill, approved in the last week of the 2017 legislative session, was sponsored by Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh, and Sen. Bill Larkin, R-Cornwall-on-Hudson. It glided through the Assembly in a 140-2 vote on Monday and cleared the Senate in a 62-1 vote the next day.

Adopting a ward system would require a referendum. If approved by voters, a district could be divided into three to nine wards.

The legislation mistakenly required elections for all boards seats in the same year. The sponsors, who say they meant to have staggered elections, plan to introduce an amendment to retroactively change the wording. The bill must be sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign or veto.

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