Friday, August 30, 2019

Unfunded mandates: New York’s license to tax

As someone who regularly touts the importance of civic engagement I admire the social media and letter-writing campaigns of the incredible number of New Yorkers upset with Governor Cuomo’s plan to have our license plates replaced with new ones for a fee of $25. There’s enough pressure from the citizens that maybe it can be turned back. You never know.

While I dig the angry and active efforts of the citizenry I’m not too fond of the same by elected officials of Republican bent who are capitalizing on it from a political standpoint. They are fomenting and using the aggression as a weapon against Cuomo more than against the license plate plan. They don’t care that you’ll be out $25, they care about making their adversary look like a buffoon.

My suggestion to those officials and their constituents following them lock-step is the same as it has always been: Attack the policies, not the man.  And, while you’re at it, attack the policies of that man and countless more before him, regardless of party, who instituted far more egregious plans than that of a once-in-a-blue-moon license plate charge.

All of the action, all of this desire to make things right is better spent – and is never spent -- addressing the real issues. Specifically, I’m talking about New York’s long-standing habit of creating and maintaining unfunded mandates.

Why get mad about $25 that you might not have to throw away again for another decade when those repeating mandates cost you as a homeowner literally hundreds if not thousands of dollars each and every year?

I really can’t remember ever hearing an angry mob upset over them. Yet, they should be!

The state will too often introduce grandiose ideas and not have funding available and/or not pursue statewide initiatives to make it available (that is, spreading and sharing the pain with a higher state sales and income taxes). They claim to show leadership yet wipe their hands of the mess they’ve created and pass it on to others. Implementation and/or financing is imposed upon the counties and school districts, something that does not happen in most states. The counties then have to acquire the revenues from sales taxes and property taxes while the schools drive up their property tax levies.

That is why New Yorkers pay so much more to keep their homes than do people elsewhere. I often cite this example: One of my coworkers pays nearly $7,000 a year in property and school taxes on his home in Niagara County while, in comparison, one of our clients has a nearly-identical home in Tennessee where his bill is around $700 a year.

That sort of differential happens when there are more than 40 state defined and controlled programs funded by the counties that include Medicaid, public assistance for adults and families, child welfare, indigent criminal defense legal service, preschool special education and early-2000s pension sweeteners.

Nearly 80% of county budgets address state and federal unfunded mandates. For 9 major state programs alone, the state’s counties and New York City collect and contribute $12 billion annually to the Albany’s coffers. 

Of them, Medicaid is especially damaging to local budgets and your tax bill. In 1966, property taxes contributed $112 million to state Medicaid funding. This year it’s $7.5 billion. It’s been said that if the state fully funded – and better managed -- its Medicaid obligation homeowners would see their property tax bills cut by 54 to 62%.

School districts accumulate just as many mandates over the course of every several years, whether it’s new training, testing, standardization, reporting, or planning. Education officials will tell you that unfunded state mandates by themselves (not counting federal edicts) make up 16% of the school tax bill.   

With some mandates the state will placate the counties by shuffling money. Like a fixed card game or pyramid scheme, the state will take money from the counties and then send it back in part to pay for some state-mandated initiatives. But, that’s a losing battle: In 2001, the state reimbursed the counties at a rate of 16%; today, that number is 10%.

Realize, too, that not only are you throwing hundreds of dollars at the state every year but with the tax cap in place counties have to cut your local services (roads, bridges, parks, and police) in order to hold up their end of the bargain to the state.

How do we rectify this?

Beyond reforming the funding of existing programs, a start would be to stop the bleeding and make sure nothing more happens.

In every legislative session in recent years bills have been introduced that would ban future state mandates that increase costs on local governments and school districts without providing state funding to pay for delivering the required programs and services.

That’s the way it should have always been. If state officials want to do things, they need to find the way to make it happen, instead of finding scapegoats – the counties, the schools, and, ultimately, the homeowners.

So, I encourage you to get mad about all this and demand change.

Sure, the fireworks over license plates are awesome but there should be more – a lot more – when it comes to unfunded mandates.

$25 once versus $2,500 every year?

Given that perspective, it should be easy to choose your battles and just as easy to get people to join you in the fray.

From the 02 September 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

In defense of GMOs

If anyone dare bring up any reservations about anthropogenic global warming or express concerns over possible side effects of vaccines they are castigated for not knowing or believing in science.

Somehow, those who most often point the accusatory fingers are most often those who themselves don’t believe in science, specifically the value of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).

The deniers are everywhere.

For purely unscientific reasons (saying GMOs are the causes of everything from environmental mutations to lower intelligence) they forced the federal government’s hand in mandating labeling of GM foodstuff and still to this day constantly batter and demean the ag industry’s players who use GMO.  

It’s truly unfortunate because, in almost all cases, GMOs have proven to be a Godsend (or more accurately “Mansend”) for humanity and the environment. 

GMO crops are in almost everything. Genetic modification accounts for 95% of the soy bean output and 88% of the corn planted in the United State.

Their use has allowed for much higher yields (a 20% increase in global efficiency in just 20 years), larger and better looking fruits and vegetables, and a longer useful life for produce after harvest.

Those agricultural victories are an absolute necessity for human nourishment. Today, there are 795 million starving people on this planet. In the US alone, 1 in 10 Americans is deemed food insecure. Without GMOs cutting deeply into those sad numbers every year and bringing people out of starvation, where would we be in 2050 when the global population is projected to be 21% greater than it is now (9.3 billion versus 7.7 billion)?

Those people being nourished are also benefiting from advances brought about through genetic modification of crops. Consider that 250 million children in developing countries are subjected to Vitamin A deficiencies that lead to blindness among other ailments. Golden Rice, which is infused with bate-carotene, was produced to combat that. Millions of people have been saved by this GMO.

The anti-GMO crowd would like everyone to believe that GMOs are a scourge to the environment and a cause of global warming (what isn’t nowadays?).

They are anything but.

GMOs have reduced pesticide use by 37%. They allow the use of no-till farming which decreases erosion by 1 billion tons per year in the US, which also substantially decreases nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from farms. That same farming procedure also eliminates greenhouse gases: since 2015 American farmers have cut back on what is equivalent to 12 million cars off the road. 

The GMO witch hunt has to stop. It benefits no one to put the fear of GMOs into consumers who already can’t make smart food choices as it is -- more than two-thirds of US adults are overweight or obese, an outcome of choosing processed foods over produce, a situation that will be compounded by the war on fresh foods that might happen to have GMO origin.

Adding to that, your average consumer is incapable of telling good science from bad.

We need to leave that to the scientists to take care of.

In almost all cases, those bioengineers, nutritionists, and agriculturalists have done such great work that they cannot distinguish between GMOs and non-GMOs. And, neither can your body.

GMOs are safe, productive and the key to a brighter tomorrow for so many of this world’s hungry citizens.

From the 26 August 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Trump Administration’s Plan Bee

Over the past 15 years, there has been a precipitous decline in honey bee populations. Most apiaries have seen their bee colonies decrease in size by 30 to 90 percent.

This past winter alone represented the greatest loss of bees since 2006 with a nearly 40 percent decline nationally. 25 percent had once been the maximum rate of mortality in northern states that had significant cold-weather die-offs.

Unfortunately, it’s not just a winter thing anymore. This century’s losses have been occurring everywhere and anytime -- during the spring and summer when temperatures are perfect and food is plentiful.

Scientists and beekeepers chalk it up to colony collapse disorder, a large umbrella of diagnoses that covers everything from parasitic mites to deadly pesticides.

It was determined in 2011 by independent studies released in prominent journals like Science and Nature that a primary cause of honey bee deaths was the family of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. In 2012, those findings were affirmed just across the border by Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs which discovered that 70 percent of the dead bees across the province showed exposure to neonicotinoids.

This nerve agent had been used in increasing abundance on corn since 2005 after entering the market in the 1990s (as recently as 2015 it was used on most all commercial corn in the United States). That timeline of pervasiveness aligns perfectly with the sudden decline in bee populations.

Produced by Bayer, Syngenta and Valent, neonicotinoids are applied directly to the seed and thus become a part of the adult plant, including the nectar and pollen upon which the bees feed. The chemical doesn’t kill bees outright, but it seriously impairs their development and behavior, which accounts for the inability of the bees to feed properly, maintain their colonies and replenish them through adequate reproduction. 

In response to this, in 2018, Canada announced a ban on the 2 of the 3 most popular forms of neonicotinoids used there. A gradual phase-in of the new standards won’t begin until 2021.  

A more powerful means of suppression happened in the European Union. There, neonicotinoids have been banned since 2018, which had followed moratorium in place since 2013.

It’s a different story here. There hasn’t been a similar sense of urgency.

Even though federal studies link neonicotinoids to colony collapse, including a report released by the USDA and EPA in 2013, the government didn’t plan to make any serious inroads until a major, multi-year study on the impact of neonicotinoids was made available from the EPA in 2018.

As out an outcome of that study and many more, the Trump Administration announced a ban of 12 neonicotinoids in May.

It was a win, but it was not big enough: Two of the substances made by Bayer aren’t even used in the States and 47 products containing the compound can still be used here (Fortunately, those nearly 4 dozen poisons have to be re-registered by 2022, so there’s still some time for beekeepers, farmers and environmentalists to have their say.)     

While the Trump Administration had made some progress that President Obama’s couldn’t with neonicotinoids (Obama’s ban on them on wildlife refuges only hardly addressed the larger problem) it’s still one step forward, two steps back with Trump and honey bees.

In early July, the Department of Agriculture announced it was suspending its collection of data regarding honey bee colonies, a critical report that allowed the USDA, beekeepers, and scientists to compare quarterly losses, additions, and movements and to analyze the data on a state-by-state basis. Without that data, we don’t know if bees are dying off or rebounding.

Then, weeks later, the Environmental Protection Agency rescinded a ban on bee-killing Sulfoxaflor saying it has a lower environmental impact because it disappears from the environment faster than neonicotinoids. Never mind that it still spends time in the environment and still has an impact.  

The indifference and laissez-faire attitudes expressed by Trump -- and Obama before him -- to the plight of bees is a national security issue. Without bees we would suffer significant losses in food supply and we’d have to get many fruits and vegetables from other countries.

That’s because bees do a lot more than make honey.

If bees were wiped out, or something close to it, fruits and vegetables wouldn’t get the pollination they need. Estimates show that the total loss of crops would exceed $20 billion per year. Just consider the 30 million bushels of apples produced here in New York every year. And then, on the other side of the country, there’s California’s almond crop which yields 80 percent of the worldwide almond production and is 90 percent dependent on bees (a rate of bee need identical to that required by cherries and blueberries).

It may be asking a lot for an administration that has loosened many environmental standards, but the Trump needs to deliver a Plan B for their Plan Bee. We need to have the tools to study their populations and we need the laws in place to prevent their poisoning and mitigate their population declines.

Without bees, our agricultural economy would be a mess and consumers wouldn’t be able to get the affordable, domestically-grown nourishment we need.

From the 19 August 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News