Let’s Talk 2016! What? Too Soon?

With the love-fest that was the 60 Minutes co-interview with President Obama and the outgoing Secretary of State, it looked to me to be the groundwork of the 2016 election season.

President Obama was inaugurated just over a week ago, and here we find ourselves, a relatively teensy snippet of time into his second term. With immigration reform and the debt ceiling pressing, the gun control debate spiraling into ever more shrill pitches, and pointed looks into his use of drone strikes, now is of course the time to project into an uncertain future and remark on who might be the next guy to take his seat.

“Guy” of course, is a euphemism to a mean either “man” or Hillary Clinton.  With the   love-fest that was the 60 Minutes co-interview with President Obama and the outgoing Secretary of State, it looked to me to be the groundwork of the 2016 election season. In the way that Bill Clinton almost single-handedly ignited Obama’s reelection campaign, Obama is publicly repaying that favor, recycling the loving stare that Mitt Romney employed during each of their Presidential debates.

The Secret Service couldn’t contain Joe Biden during the inaugural parade as he constantly ducked around them to shake hands and kiss babies. Coming from his successful negotiation with Senate leaders to avoid the fiscal cliff, it’s looking good for Joe in 2016 as well.  His goal for the short term: help secure the economy and wind down the war in Afghanistan.  Long term: distance himself from Obama. 

Obama’s inaugural speech was unprecedented in that he included a multitude of social ideas that had never been thus far voiced by a politician of his stature:  gay rights, gun control, climate change.  Boom.  But when he said “Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone,” there was a disconnect between his version of events and the reality of his last term. 

According to Conor Friedersdorf of The Altantic, “Obama favors greater central authority in health care, energy, education, gun regulation, and occupational safety. His underlings have actively undermined state efforts to decentralize marijuana policy. And on national-security matters, he has worked to centralize authority in the executive branch.”

Here’s where Joe comes in.  Whereas Obama can scarcely contain his contempt for Congress (and who can blame him?) Joe steps up.  The negotiations that mark the makeup of deal-making are his bread and butter – he knows them, he gets them, and by the reflection coming off of his shiny whites, he loves them.  He can be what Obama simply cannot – the bridge between the Senate and the Oval office and the beginning of taking this country back to its federalist roots, putting power back to the states. 

If Obama is the elitist who doesn’t trust the states to do what he deems is right, then Biden does, as long as there is effective leadership.  This is evident from his thirty-six year tenure in the Senate, as Chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee to his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Hillary has markedly less experience in the Senate and once proved to be as polarizing a candidate as one could possibly be.  Yet she brings with her the heavyweight status of Secretary of Statesmanship and the badass reputation that resulted from her tenure, traveling to 112 countries and transforming Benghazi from what the Republicans wanted to paint as her 9/11 (really?) but will be etched in the hearts of the public as the righteous smack-down of Ron Johnson and Rand Paul.  What it really comes down to is what the state of the country is like four years from now: will the focus be on foreign policy, where Hillary’s experience reigns, or will we see an America fed up with partisan bickering and looking for someone like Biden, who demonstrated that he can lay down the boxing gloves long enough to make a dance partner with the likes of Mitch McConnell?

This could all be null and void if New York’s own Andrew Cuomo continues on the upward momentum of his liberal agenda.  He’s already succeeded in passing gay marriage legislation, and led the country with the first and so far strictest gun control laws, effectively limiting the number of bullets magazines can hold here.  After recouping the state from the inept Governor Patterson after the dramatic step-down of Eliot Spitzer, Cuomo has the advantage of being high profile politician-bred in a powerful state in need of constructive change. (I’m still not ready to talk about Spitzer.  It still hurts.  He should know that he and I are not on speaking terms, though I read him on Slate, and love every sensible smart word that comes out of his mouth.) 

For Cuomo, he’s placing his bets on jobs and education as his “one-two punch” for economic development. If he can reinvigorate the economy and pass more laws to give him top-notch Progressive street cred (Women’s Equality Act, protecting the right to choose and legalizing pot, anyone?), both Hillary and Joe will see some serious competition.  Especially if he can channel the Obama the Orator the way he did in his State of the State address:

 “Our state Capitol is restored to its original majesty in many, many ways.  We set out two years ago to bridge the divide. We needed to bridge a divide from yesterday to tomorrow; from what was to what can be; from dysfunction to performance; from cynicism to trust; from gridlock to cooperation to make the government work. And we are, literally and metaphorically.”

“You people in the media are incorrigible,” Obama chastised 60 Minutes‘ Steve Kroft. “I was literally inaugurated four days ago and you’re talking about elections four years from now.”

That’s why I waited all the way until now to bring this up.

NY Misses the Target on Mental Health: DC Gets It Right

Quite frankly, the biggest issue with New York’s new gun law is not what’s in it, it’s what’s missing.

New York took bold steps last week and with lightening-speed passed what has been called the “nation’s toughest gun law.” The stuff that makes NRA-types go nuts got all the media attention – bigger restrictions on assault weapons, a new limit on ammunition magazines, a ban on Internet sales, and real-time background checks to name a few.  But also within the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act (SAFE) is a new provision that requires licensed mental health professionals – psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers – to alert local mental health officials if a patient “is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.” The local mental health folks will then conduct their own evaluation and if they concur with the potential risk, that patient will be added to a statewide database of folks who can’t get a gun. If they already own a gun, local cops are going to bang on that person’s door, demand to see the gun and take it.

Mental health professionals have always carried an ethical duty to warn, but the state has generally left it to practitioners to decide when and how to report. Practitioners usually listen for an explicit threat, conduct a more thorough assessment, and then weigh a series of options that might include notifying those at risk, arranging hospitalization, and/or calling the police. That flexibility has given clinicians the ability to deal with a potential risk of violence without breaching confidentiality and perhaps keeping that person engaged in a course of treatment that in and of itself, may diminish risk.

The mandate in the new law is broad and in this environment, will likely be applied much more often than the current standard. Several prominent mental health experts have already expressed their concerns.  Dr. Paul Appelbaum, director of law, ethics and psychiatry at Columbia University told the New York Times, “It undercuts the clinical approach to treating these impulses, and instead turns it into a public safety issue.” Dr. Eric Neblung, a psychologist and the president of the New York State Psychological Association told the Wall Street Journal, “You’re turning psychologists into police officers.”

To the average person, keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill is a no-brainer. But get this: a large body of research suggests that people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime. One national survey found that those with chronic and severe mental were victimized a whopping eleven times more often than those in the general population.

And if we can’t get that imposing image of the crazed gunman out of heads long enough to consider the numbers, it’s important to recognize that New York’s new law doesn’t target the few mentally ill who could become shooters. It targets those who seek treatment – including cops, corrections officers and other uniformed personnel, who are often most reluctant to seek help. And if we are truly concerned about guns winding up the hands of unstable folks, why not make psychological testing a pre-requisite for getting a gun?

Quite frankly, the biggest issue with New York’s new gun law is not what’s in it, it’s what’s missing. The Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act does absolutely nothing to enhance access to mental health services and contains no new funding for such programs. Perhaps that’s because our state is cash-strapped, or maybe it’s because including funds would have prompted some of the more fiscally conservative folks to hold-up the bill. Then New York wouldn’t have been first.

A day later, President Obama rolled out his gun control package. It contained all the high-profile stuff like background checks for gun show shoppers, limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines and the like, but he also called for new federal investments in school safety and mental health counseling. 

In addition to $180 million in school safety spending, the President’s proposal includes: $15 million to help teachers and youth professionals provide “Mental Health First Aid,” to identified students; $40 million to help school districts, law enforcement and local agencies better coordinate services for students in need; $25 million to finance new, state-based strategies to better identify individuals ages 16 to 25 with mental health and substance abuse issues and get them the care they need; $25 million to boost school-based mental health services aimed at treating trauma, anxiety, and enhancing conflict resolution; and $50 million in new funds to train social workers, counselors, psychologists and other mental health professionals.  That money would also provide stipends and tuition reimbursement for more than 5,000 new mental health professionals that want to work with young people in school and community-based settings.

Is it enough? Probably not.  It does, however, restore some of the $235 million the Administration ripped out of the state Safe and Drug Free Schools grants program last year and ensures a more proactive, comprehensive approach to keep our kids and communities safer.

While it’s true that New York, our legislators and Governor Cuomo can now lay claim to passing the first and toughest gun law in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, the absence of solid mental health solutions means that it probably won’t prove to be the nation’s best.

Photo: White House Photo

LIPA Style

LIPA would have failed miserably during Sandy if Nikola Tesla was the CEO of LIPA and Roger Ailes was the communications director. LIPA is broken because Long Island is broke.

Long Island came face-to-face with an uncomfortable reality during Hurricane Sandy. Our utility infrastructure is outmoded and unsustainable. Beyond the political posturing and the finger-pointing, the situation remains unchanged from the days prior to Sandy to now.

Blaming the current administration of the Long Island Power Authority for its inability to respond to a storm of this magnitude amounts to nothing more than scapegoating. Newsday’s recent editorial tirades against LIPA, the politicians calling for heads to roll at the authority and the public’s roiling anger are easy and obvious. Fixing the problem is much more complicated and expensive.

In a crisis like this one, everyone becomes an expert. WFAN’s Mike Francesa suspended his coverage of sports and launched into endless harangues against LIPA, which no doubt gave the NY Jets’ hapless management a momentary reprieve. Even my 9-year-old daughter knew the words to WBLI’s parody, “LIPA Style.” Putting aside the histrionics for a moment, it’s clear that we are no closer to a solution than we were three weeks ago, or 30 years ago for that matter.

So let’s boil it down. LIPA is a management company, not a utility company like National Grid. They are responsible for purchasing power, updating technology, tracking outages, communicating with customers and generally maintaining the grid. But even these important responsibilities are ancillary functions to the main purpose behind LIPA: managing debt.

LIPA was formed from the ashes of LILCO and the abandoned Shoreham nuclear plant, an all-too-familiar story to Long Islanders. It was created as an energy management company hybrid that was dead on arrival due to the overwhelming debt that the defunct Shoreham project carried along. Any attempts to chip away at the debt through aggressive power purchase agreements or renewable technology investments amounted to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Even though only about half of the outstanding $7 billion in LIPA debt can still be attributed to the albatross that was Shoreham, the total outstanding obligation hasn’t budged because borrowing without increased revenue begets more borrowing.

Still the cries for change at LIPA come from every direction. Why can’t we bury the lines? Because this isn’t Texas. We have neither the land nor the money to start digging new trenches and burying wires. Not to mention there are other things hanging from those poles (ahem, Cablevision), which further complicates the impossible. Why didn’t they upgrade the system like other places? Because it costs money to replace poles and wires that can withstand downed trees and high winds, and money equals rate increases.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo should be lauded on the one hand for his swift and tireless efforts in the wake of the storm. On the other hand, it must be said that his initial criticisms of LIPA sound somewhat hollow. For 22 months, the standard answer to questions regarding the vacant leadership post at LIPA and the vacant board seats has been: “We’re waiting to hear from the second floor.”

This is government-speak for “It’s up to the governor.” LIPA wasn’t even authorized to fund vacancies in the communications department. So for the governor to criticize LIPA for its lack of leadership and communication during the crisis is disingenuous at best. This doesn’t alter the fact that LIPA would have failed miserably during Sandy if Nikola Tesla was the CEO of LIPA and Roger Ailes was the communications director. 

LIPA is broken because Long Island is broke.

As a result, Michael Hervey has tendered his resignation from LIPA. He’s the fall guy and I get it. But this is not something to cheer. Hervey has three things going for him that all other leaders before him did not: experience, the admiration of his team and an engineering degree. I’m not saying he should remain as head of the authority, but losing him is a setback.

Please don’t mistake me for a LIPA apologist. There is no question LIPA was overwhelmed by the storm and therefore ineffective in its response. Furthermore, its communication with the public was awful. Better communication would have eased tensions in the same way a sign on the Long Island Expressway that tells you how long it will take you to get to the Midtown Tunnel does; it doesn’t make the trip faster, it just manages your expectations in the hopes of reducing road rage. You can bet that if Richie Kessel was still at the helm that everyone would have know what was going on, even if he had to knock on every door. Whether anything else would have been different is anyone’s guess.

With that said, there is a simple and extraordinarily unpopular answer to what ails us: We have no choice but to pay down LIPA’s debt.

We can talk about wind farms and solar arrays on top of parking lots until we’re blue in the face, but nothing will mitigate our financial mess until this debt is eradicated. Either we pay now, or our kids pay later. (Assuming they’re still here.) Any talk of funds to upgrade the system or of nationwide executive searches is meaningless unless and until we get serious about putting Shoreham behind us once and for all.

Any plan moving forward must seek to sunset LIPA altogether by combining federal money and local rate increases to aggressively pay down a significant portion of the debt and sell Long Island’s power infrastructure and remaining debt to a public utility. Anything less is just shouting at the rain.

Gambling with Andrew Cuomo

Few New Yorkers will shed tears for our indigenous brethren who will once again find themselves on the losing end of a political battle. After all, breaking treaties with Indians is a time-honored tradition in the United States. We’re awesome at that.

New York State Gov. Cuomo of the Andrew persuasion continues to ride high in the opinion polls, and for good reason. His approach thus far has been pitch perfect, even tackling controversial issues such as gay marriage with remarkable finesse. Cautiously and quietly the governor has moved a fairly progressive agenda forward in the first year of his administration. Now, on the eve of his sophomore year in office, he is martialing his political capital to begin making fiscal moves that will test his popularity and his political resolve.

Cuomo has targeted two key areas that should sustain his reputation as a strong fiscal manager and reform-minded executive: his regional economic development initiatives and his income tax modifications to provide a marginal break for the middle class while imposing a slight increase to the state’s highest earners. How he proceeds on the issue of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) upstate in the Marcellus Shale region could have a lasting effect on his record.
If fracking is allowed to proceed in the state, Cuomo risks alienating liberal democrats and environmentalists but the money generated from drilling operations may prove too tempting for the new governor to pass up. But as dicey as this issue is for Cuomo, there is another revenue-generating idea on his agenda with potential negative consequences upstate that will barely impact his approval ratings.

Up for consideration in his plan is the creation of private Class III gaming facilities throughout the state. Establishing more full-fledged casinos in New York may invite criticism from New Jersey and Connecticut as well as anti-gambling advocates, but it will undoubtedly pass the legislature’s scrutiny within the 2013 time frame delineated by the Cuomo administration. It entails passing muster in two consecutive sessions followed by a public referendum; but once approved, the state would then be allowed to issue licenses to private operators. In a statement Cuomo said, “Through this plan, we can promote job creation and recapture revenue that is currently being lost to other states.”
Fair enough, but why so many hurdles just to allow private casinos? We already have Off Track Betting, the lottery and Indian casin…. Ooooohhhh! Right. Those pesky agreements with the Indian tribes. The reason this move requires so many political machinations is that Class III gaming licenses were intended to be in the exclusive purview of recognized Indian tribes in the state. Contracts, by the way, which have been extremely lucrative for the state as well. The constitutional amendment and subsequent referendum are political-speak for “how government breaks treaties with Indians.”

The reason New York tribes have enjoyed any success in the gaming industry is because they have possessed the ability to construct and operate casinos on reservation territories without competition from private, off-reservation interests. It’s this exclusivity that has enabled tribes to succeed in spite of their remote locales. Introducing casinos into more urban areas will be a boon for the state and a disaster for the tribes. Ironically, this decision could also have the unintended consequence of further decimating employment in isolated upstate regions, many of which rely on direct and ancillary income and jobs created as a result of tribal gaming facilities.

Nevertheless, few New Yorkers will shed tears for our indigenous brethren who will once again find themselves on the losing end of a political battle. After all, breaking treaties with Indians is a time-honored tradition in the United States. We’re awesome at that. This latest move will have come as no surprise to tribal leaders who no doubt anticipated the inevitable demise of their rights before the ink was dry on the agreements. What I find so poignant about this turn of events is the timing and the characters involved as the target date of 2013 will be exactly 20 years after Andrew’s father, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, granted New York’s tribes the sole authority to operate Class III facilities.

This multi-generational twist–the old “the father giveth and the son taketh away”–is a great angle but not without precedent. In fact, our most recent national holiday provides the perfect historical illustration of intergenerational power struggles.

The pilgrims in Plymouth who survived the harsh winters of the early 1600s in their new home did so through the kindness and assistance of the Wampanoag tribe headed by the great sachem Massasoit. The friendship that blossomed between Massasoit and one of the original settlers, Edward Winslow, endured for the remainder of both men’s lives and is the stuff of legend. In fact, it’s through Winslow’s journal that we have one of only two accounts of what would come to be known as Thanksgiving. In his entry he states: “Amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”

Fifty years later, both Winslow and Massasoit were gone. The great Sachem’s son, Metacom–also referred to as King Philip by the settlers–was threatened and cajoled by the increasingly hostile colonists. In 1675 war broke out between the Wampanoag, led by Philip, and the settlers. A year later the colonists feasted and celebrated once again, this time by toasting their victory over the Indians in what is now known as King Philip’s War.
According to historian Jill Lepore, “the final day of Thanksgiving, of the war, is the day Philip’s head is marched into Plymouth. This decapitated head on a pole in the center of town is cause for a great celebration.” Philip’s severed head remained atop a stake outside of Plymouth colony for 20 years while his 9-year-old son was imprisoned and then sold into slavery. The governor of Plymouth, who is widely credited as having killed Philip’s brother and drawing Metacom himself into war, was none other than Edward Winslow’s son, Josiah.

The son of Massasoit’s most trusted friend and ally murdered both of his sons. Rather Shakespearian, wouldn’t you say? Such is life in Indian Country. So while Andrew Cuomo’s actions are certainly more tempered and less violent, he earns low marks for originality. At least Josiah Winslow had the decency to wait until his father had passed away before he unraveled the good intentions set forth by his elders.

Suffolk County: Come Clean on the Coup

This is just one small example of the indignities we suffer at the hands of our elected officials whose spiteful disregard of transparency and democratic principles has reached an insufferable zenith.

This week I find myself freed from the self-imposed undertaking of reporting weekly on the Occupy Wall Street protest that has blossomed into a global fascination, spawning chapters around the globe and gracing the pages and screens of nearly every news media outlet. Since the beginning of the occupation in New York, I have been committed to covering what I believe to be one of the single most important political developments in my lifetime. Yet because our cover story this week dives deep into the machinations of the movement and our staff is fully engaged, I am able to return to a Long Island story of great political importance.

This story, however, is not entirely unrelated to the discussions in Zuccotti Park. In fact, it has much in common with the reasons behind the growing unrest among Americans. It is a story of hubris and duplicity right here on Long Island that is symptomatic of a political system completely out of touch with the needs and rights of those it is designed to represent.

On Sept. 22, the Long Island Press published a cover story titled “Suffolk County’s Bloodless Coup,” which recalled Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s shocking announcement that he would step down at the end of his term. This decision came as the result of an arrangement between Levy and District Attorney Tom Spota, who was investigating irregularities in Levy’s campaign fundraising. In a backroom deal, which has not been made public, Levy agreed to hand over his campaign funds to Spota and forgo running for re-election. In return, it seems Levy has been allowed to simply go quietly into the night.

This agreement, which made an end-run around the electorate, has the tacit approval of party leaders Rich Schaffer and John J. LaValle, the county’s Democratic and Republican chairmen, respectively, who both claim to have been caught totally by surprise. Suffolk legislators shrugged off the news of Levy’s unceremonious demise as if to say “good riddance to bad rubbish.” The incredible indifference on display from people who often found themselves on the receiving end of a Steve Levy tirade only furthers speculation that something is rotten in Hauppauge.

One persistent theory is that Levy’s quiet removal paves the way for several pieces to come together on Suffolk’s political chessboard. (Warning: Serious “inside-baseball” alert.) Let’s start with the obvious. With the pugnacious Levy out of the picture and politically castrated upon the liquidation of his war chest, a significant obstacle has been removed from Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone’s quest to become the next Suffolk County executive. Suffolk GOP infighting over the choice of County Treasurer Angie Carpenter to run on the Republican ticket may have further cleared the way for a Bellone victory, although no one apparently told Carpenter, who is running full bore against her opponent despite being out-financed rather handily. Quite a remarkable turn of events for a GOP committee that at the beginning of the year thought they would have a popular candidate with more than $4 million in the bank at the top of their ticket.

As far as the GOP is concerned, neither the Carpenter nor LaValle camp has erased the animus between them. At times it seems as though they’re running completely separate campaigns. For his part, Suffolk County Democratic leader Rich Schaffer has vowed not to repeat the mistakes of former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who sat on his war chest, and as result was banished to the private sector after failing to fully grasp the discontent of the electorate.

Enter the crux of Suffolk’s political conspiracy theory; it’s a doozy. (Takes a deep breath, and…)

A newly minted County Executive Bellone taps Spota to replace Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer. After all, with a serial killer on the loose, who better to replace the unpopular commissioner than Suffolk’s superstar top cop, Tom Spota? Given his resume, the public would probably favor this move and, quite frankly, Spota would likely do a terrific job. Next to Dormer, of course, this is like saying you’re the smartest kid in the remedial class; but it would be well received, regardless.

A vacancy in the district attorney’s office would give Gov. Andrew Cuomo the ability to appoint Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko, former federal prosecutor and bright light in the Democratic Party, to the position. Lesko, who many say is frustrated by the cronyism and the acrimony in Brookhaven politics, would likely welcome the chance to shine as district attorney. Naturally, this transfer would give John Jay LaValle and his mentor John Powell a chance to reclaim the supervisor’s office, a position both men covet.

Undoubtedly, the people mentioned above will publicly deny this scenario and dismiss it as unfounded sedition. Or perhaps they will all remain as taciturn, and therefore complicit, with respect to this scheme as they were during Steve Levy’s fall from grace. Either way, should all or part of it come to pass, perhaps then Suffolk County residents will finally wake up and realize that they were robbed of their right to know the circumstances behind Levy’s demise.

Irrespective of whether this theory holds any water, our public officials— and the leaders they answer to—fail to understand that it is this impertinent attitude toward constitutionality and disdain of our citizenry that has people around the globe filling parks, flooding streets and occupying public squares. This is just one small example of the indignities we suffer at the hands of our elected officials whose spiteful disregard of transparency and democratic principles has reached an insufferable zenith.

If the Suffolk County district attorney can unilaterally decide the fate of a sitting county executive and administer a political punishment without fear of reprisal from citizens, his example illustrates on the smallest level why the upper political echelon of the republic have likewise engaged in even more dangerous, egregious and undemocratic behavior. Therefore, for the very same reasons the public has a right to know why more than 1,000 people have been locked up for protesting corporate greed while those responsible for corrupt banking practices that are bringing our economic system to its knees aren’t also subject to the same treatment, so too is it our right to know the real story behind the bloodless coup in Suffolk County. The latter may pale in scope and degree, but the seed of this argument bears the same fruit.

This is just one small example of the indignities we suffer at the hands of our elected officials whose spiteful disregard of transparency and democratic principles has reached an insufferable zenith.

What New Yorkers Should Know About Hydrofracking

You can’t put the Earth back the way it was. Can’t cure the cancer these companies left behind. Can’t put the pieces of rock back together.

Hydrofracking Operation in PennsylvaniaA seat at the table. This was the going price for tacit support of hydraulic fracturing, “hydrofracking” as it is commonly known (or simply “fracking”), from the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV) and several other state environmental groups. I resigned my personal seat at the table on the Long Island board of the NYLCV after it took such a pusillanimous stance on what will prove to be one of the worst environmental and shortsighted economic blunders in New York’s history.

Late last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed a blue ribbon panel to advise the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on the regulations and rollout of hydrofracking upstate, effectively ending the moratorium on natural gas shale exploration. Hydrofracking means breaking through shale to extract natural gas trapped in pockets deep beneath the ground, a process that has deservedly come under increased scrutiny recently for countless reasons. But first, a little context.

Hydraulic Fracturing History. Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than oil, and something the United States has in abundance. Increasing access to natural gas is compelling as our dependence upon fossil fuels continues to grow while our tolerance for protecting oil interests around the globe steadily wanes. And since the combination of renewable energy, conservation efforts and efficiency standards have yet to keep pace with our insatiable appetite for energy consumption, any solution with environmental advantages, no matter how marginal, is persuasive.

Fracking has been around for more than a century as a means of pressurizing the drilling process of oil and gas wells. It’s referred to as “Enhanced Oil Recovery”, a process required for the most difficult of drilling scenarios, where oil and/or gas are trapped within rock formations. Essentially, once a well is drilled, a mixture of water, sand and a small amount of chemicals are pumped down the well at extremely high pressure; the mixture bores through the shale to release the gas into the well while the sand and chemical combination help prop open the fracture in the formation. Back on the surface, the gas is separated from the extraction fluids.

It’s important to understand that the pressurization itself is one of the reasons that the declines in the rate of shale production are steeper than from primary and secondary drilling methods. Removing fossil fuels from the ground is a difficult and delicate process that ranges from relatively pristine oil fields that can be easily drilled and pumped to the most extreme cases that require hydraulic fracturing through dense rock formations. The need to maintain intense levels of pressure in the drilling environment—as opposed to tapping an easily accessible reservoir under the desert—means that more can go wrong along the way. These areas reach what is known as “production total decline” faster than other plays—or drilling sites— because the pockets are spread out through the shale formation and difficult to access, and pressurization is hard to maintain over time. In fact, shale gas was considered too difficult to tackle until Halliburton established a new horizontal drilling protocol in the late 1940s that revolutionized the industry; even still, it wasn’t until the technology was enhanced by the chemical mixture in the 1990s that fracking began to catch fire, renewing the natural gas rush primarily in Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming. 

 Where we are today. There is no question that decreasing our dependence on foreign oil is popular and necessary. The question is whether this is the right method of extraction, particularly in a populous place such as New York. The answer is definitively “no.” And the reasons aren’t strictly environmental, though the pernicious effects of fracking on human health and the environment are certainly enough to arrive at this conclusion independently. Advocates of fracking have argued that the proper regulation of the process and the protection of the watershed are enough to satisfy environmental concerns and that the economic benefits of fracking the Marcellus Shale, which runs from Tennessee through New York, are considerable, particularly in hard-hit areas upstate. But taken individually, every argument in favor of fracking falls down under scrutiny. So, let’s get to it.

Environment. Fracking is both an art and a science. This is the most complicated of drilling endeavors. Because of the precarious nature of this technology, it is nearly impossible to contain the spread of contaminants involved in the process; likewise, it is impossible to contain the spread of methane gas once it is released from the shale. Fracking cannot and does not extract 100 percent of the natural gas from the rock, leaving a small quantity behind that can infiltrate surrounding areas. Moreover, the process itself requires millions of gallons of water that eventually return to the surface  contaminated by the chemical mix. In no instance, has there been a system robust enough to thoroughly remediate the return flow from a gas well.

Countless examples have been offered to the public and to state and national environmental agencies of the dangers of fracking, whether they are contaminated drinking wells, methane gas explosions or known-carcinogens found in areas near drilling operations that could only have come from the pressurized mixture being shot through these wells. Despite the growth of cancer clusters near the drilling wells or the evidence of homeowners living in fracking areas being able to set their tap water on fire, New York believes that it has the secret regulatory sauce to control the hazardous effects of fracking. Okay, so let’s look at the regulatory environment.

Regulation. The only reason fracking chemicals have remained proprietary is then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s insistence that the 2005 federal energy bill exclude the Environmental Protection Agency from hydrofracking regulation that would normally have come under the purview of the Safe Water Drinking Act. Cheney allowed his former employer, Halliburton, to do an end-run around the regulations the moment the public started linking environmental contaminants to the new chemicals used in fracking. His actions alone should alert any nose-breathing person to the inherent danger in this process. Instead, we have new “mandatory regulations” from the EPA, which are not yet the law of the land, that require full disclosure of these chemicals. Good luck. If the government had any ability to enforce this requirement, it would already be law. Yet, when Sen. Robert Casey [D-Pa.] introduced a bill (S.1215 Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act) in 2009, it died unceremoniously in committee. He attempted again in March of this year to revive the bill (S.587), and it too is sitting in committee where it will also undoubtedly meet its maker.

New York believes that it can keep hundreds of wells in check through the auspices of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Although Gov. Cuomo’s 2011 budget didn’t hack away at the DEC staff, the resource-strapped agency is incapable of policing leaks below gas stations, let alone monitoring wells throughout New York. The idea that the DEC will have the manpower to regulate these operations is a joke, and everyone knows it. The only logical conclusion here is that the economic benefits of infrastructure spending and job creation are so great that the state is willing to take the gamble. 

Economy. The thought of residents in a small, working-class town upstate coming off government assistance and getting back to work, putting food on the table and earning an honest wage is the kind of post-recession Norman Rockwell imagery the oil and gas industry would like us all to believe. The economic reality of gas drilling of the fracking persuasion is a little different than this ‘Wish You Were Here’ postcard from a bygone era. First of all, the drillers are too smart to buy property anymore. Instead they offer attractive drilling rights in the form of leases to landowners who are indeed paid handsomely for access to their land. Once the rights are sewn up, employment grows. But not necessarily the kind of employment illustrated above. Experienced drillers and machinists come from far and wide to exploit the new territory because they are already trained in this field of expertise. Suddenly, restaurants are packed, car dealers are moving inventory, and supermarkets and drugstores are filled with new faces in the community. I’m not suggesting this is a phantom recovery, because it’s not. These are important economic steps, but not if they are fleeting. The problem lies in the short productive life of the wells being drilled, which ends up curtailing the peripheral employment created during the height of production.

When American think of oil and gas operations, they think of enduring periods of wealth typically associated with the gulf states or Arab nations that went from rags to riches seemingly overnight, awash in the endless supply of crude. Unfortunately, the reality of natural gas stands in stark contrast to this vision. Gary S. Swindell, a well-known petroleum engineering consultant, conducted and published a study in 1999 on the 30-year performance of Texas natural gas wells, some of the highest yielding gas wells in the nation. His conclusion: “There have been substantial changes in the decline profiles of wells drilled in Texas over the last 30 years. This study indicates that for new Texas gas wells, the decline rates in the early years are now on the order of 50 percent per year.” Swindell updated the study in 2005, noting the rate of decline is closer now to 60 percent per year.

What does all of this mean? It means that the easy stuff is gone. Every year we have to look for deeper, more difficult plays, and the only reason the oil companies keep gobbling these operations up is because the market price is so artificially high due to market speculation. If we were in a normal commodities pricing environment, none of these areas would be considered because there wouldn’t be a shale play in America that would make financial sense.

Even the U.S. Energy Information Administration cites that “the average gas well half-life has dropped for all major production regions and for the lower 48 States. Second, the regional gas well production half-lives have converged to a value of between 23 and 25 months.” Translation: At best, the average production life of a natural gas well is four years.

 Four years. After that, they’ll be gone. The customers in the restaurants, supermarkets and auto dealers will have moved on to the next play. That’s called a bubble. But when this bubble pops, there’s no going back. You can’t put the Earth back the way it was. Can’t cure the cancer these companies left behind. Can’t put the pieces of rock back together. When the wells are sucked dry, so too is the local economy when the drillers head for the proverbial hills and leave the land owners high and dry with polluted and devalued properties. This is a zero-sum game, and for some reason, with all of the information and resources available to us, we’re still willing to take a “seat at the table” instead of dismissing the practice entirely.  

Personally, I refuse to vie for a seat at the devil’s table to drink hemlock and swallow my pride. The NYLCV and others are committed to advising the official hydraulic fracturing policy as though it’s a policy worthy of consideration, or worse, a fait accompli. It is neither. We still have a choice. The only question is whether we have the courage to make the right one.

Solar’s Time Is Now

Introduced by our own Long Island Assembly Member, Steve Englebright (D-East Setauket), the Solar Jobs Act will help offset what is currently the most expensive and polluting slice of New York’s electricity mix, peak generation, with reliable power from the sun.

The calendar says summer isn’t even officially here and Long Islanders are already looking for relief. From the heat, sure, but also from those jaw-dropping summer electric bills that are starting to come in the mail.

The market cost of electricity is continuing its relentless upward trend, which doesn’t bode well for Long Island, where we already pay some of the highest utility rates in the nation. Those bills are particularly high in the summertime, since many of us rely on air conditioners to cool our homes and offices. And adding insult to injury, energy costs nearly double on the hottest days when LIPA switches on those more expensive “peaker” power plants to meet the increased demand.

Who pays? All of Long Island – businesses, residents and government. High energy costs are a serious concern for our fragile economic recovery, and they will only continue to rise unless New York State gets serious about a smarter long-term strategy. Fortunately, there is a solution all around us in the form of clean and abundant solar energy – if only Albany would give the green light.

Right now, our state legislators are weighing a major initiative, called the Solar Industry Development and Jobs Act, that will finally make good on our state’s solar potential. It’s a simple, market-driven proposal that calls on utility companies to gradually increase the amount of solar energy they purchase over time. The goal is to install 5,000 megawatts of solar capacity by 2025, enough to power more than 500,000 homes and get the Empire State back on top.

Introduced by our own Long Island Assembly Member, Steve Englebright (D-East Setauket), the Solar Jobs Act will help offset what is currently the most expensive and polluting slice of New York’s electricity mix, peak generation, with reliable power from the sun. Furthermore, by keeping energy dollars invested in the state, this legislation will have significant immediate and long-term benefits for our economy. It will create 22,000 new local jobs across a broad range of skill levels and generate an estimated $20 billion in economic activity. 

For Long Island, that means more jobs at local companies like KPS Solar. And by drawing on lessons learned in other states, the Solar Industry Development and Jobs Act is designed to deliver those high economic returns at a low cost to ratepayers.

Perhaps most importantly, this legislation will finally give solar energy the policy foundations needed to build a strong, self-sustaining local market. All across the country, states that have effective solar policies are seeing lower energy costs – which, in turn, drives additional demand for solar that lowers its cost even further (what economists call a “virtuous cycle”). In those states, utilities are already signing contracts for solar power that are at or below the price of natural gas. The Solar Jobs Act would effectively move New York’s solar industry beyond one-off projects by steadily building a robust new energy economy.

This solar initiative is far from pie in the sky. In fact, just look next door to see how well it is working. New Jersey implemented exactly the kind of solar program we are contemplating right now, and as a result, the Garden State installed more solar capacity last year than the Empire State has in its entire history. New Jersey now generates more than six times as much solar energy as New York. And because it has a first-to-market advantage, New Jersey has one of the most robust clean-energy sectors on the East Coast – including all those green jobs that should be ours.

The clean-energy future that Long Islanders have wanted for years could be a reality before legislators break for the summer. The Solar Jobs Act has bipartisan support in the Assembly and Senate, and is sponsored by 17 members of Long Island’s delegation (3 Senate, 14 Assembly). Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) will play a critical role in its passage, and he has been supportive in recent discussions. The Solar Jobs Act also fits perfectly within Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign promise to help create a thriving innovation economy.

In other words, there is no good reason New York can’t get this bill done in June. The Solar Jobs Act opens the door to a smarter, safer and more economical future. If Long Island continues to rely on fossil fuels, electric bills will only go up and up with each passing summer. The sun, on the other hand, is NOT raising its rates this year; sunlight will always be free and solar energy is getting cheaper all the time.

Kevin MacLeod, president of KPS Solar based in Bay Shore and staunch advocate for alternative energy, contributed to this article.

No Country For Red Men

In 2011 we have new legislators, a new Cuomo, and the same old fight. Alas, the brief recurring respite Indian Country has between Election Day and Inauguration Day every few years is over, and the fight begins again.

Cuomo, Part Deux, presents the Executive Budget for NYS

Governor Cuomo contributed another brief chapter in dealing with what for centuries has been known as the “Indian Problem.” Frustrated by the rise in the Indian tobacco trade on tribal territories within New York and the state’s inability to collect taxes on this increasingly profitable enterprise, Cuomo took action and attempted to force tax collection on reservation tobacco sales—and ran into a brick wall of defiance.

No, you didn’t miss something in the first 100 days of Andrew Cuomo’s tenure. This was the 1990s under Gov. Cuomo of the Mario persuasion. But the former governor’s son has already taken his first step toward renewing this practice, by including $130 million presumptive tax dollars from taxes on Indian cigarettes in this year’s budget. Never mind the fact he is relying on reports from a department that acknowledges that 70 percent of what would be considered “bootleg” cigarettes—cigarettes purchased outside of, but consumed within, New York State—come from states bordering New York and Canada. The capriciousness of the $130 million estimate is even more suspect considering that “expert” testimony at various hearings over the years have placed the number anywhere between $65 million and $1.6 billion.

No matter how the state arrives at its figures, by inserting any number into the budget Andrew Cuomo has picked up where his father, and several others, left off.

In the waning days of Mario Cuomo’s administration, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the court’s 1994 decision in a case called Milhem Attea & Bros., granting individual states the right to collect taxes on cigarettes sold to non-natives on reservation territory throughout the United States. With the so-called collection authority in place from the highest court in our land, the issue of enforcement was left to the individual states to pursue. This is where it got ugly.

After an unsuccessful attempt to force Indian tobacco retailers to open their books and provide sales figures and tax revenue to New York, the state established a coupon system whereby taxes would be applied at the wholesale level and collected in advance. Trying to coordinate this effort between manufacturers, wholesalers and individual tribal retailers and the violent reaction it stirred in Indian Country—the Seneca Nation in particular—led the governor to institute a policy of forbearance. Forbearance is another way of saying “even though I think I’m right, it’s the next guy’s problem.” The issue was essentially too complex and heated to pursue, so Cuomo punted and passed the buck to the following administration.

CLICK HERE TO READ PRESS COVER STORY ABOUT CIGARETTE TAX DISPUTE BETWEEN U.S. AND INDIAN COUNTRY

Gov. George Pataki took up the fight during his first term in office, and was met with amplified defiance from Seneca that set the new administration back on its heels. Pataki too went “four and out” and punted.

Insert “Gov. Eliot Spitzer” and “Gov. David Paterson” into the paragraph above as they both attempted to traverse this well-worn path with no success. Every governor since Mario Cuomo, once learning the nuance of policy as it relates to tribal land and sovereign rights, winds up hiding behind the policy of forbearance. Last year state Sens. Craig Johnson (gone), Carl Kruger (indicted), Pedro Espada (indicted), and Assembs. Richard Brodsky (gone) and Michael Benjamin (gone) shook their fists at hearings and press conferences urging Paterson to step up to the plate and take on New York’s tribes.

But that was so 2010. In 2011 we have new legislators, a new Cuomo, and the same old fight. Alas, the brief recurring respite Indian Country has between Election Day and Inauguration Day every few years is over, and the fight begins again. My father is fond of the phrase “every 100 years, all new people.” The more you think about that phrase the more freeing, or paralyzing, it is. For Indians it’s more like “every 10 years, all new politicians.”

I bring this up now because Andrew Cuomo is by all accounts an extremely bright guy with a long memory; a bright guy who undoubtedly understands the intricate and delicate relationship with tribal nations in New York better than any governor that came before him, his father included. He has the benefit of an institutional knowledge his father had to acquire on the job and the added bonus of witnessing each successive governor fail with respect to imposing taxes on cigarettes sold on reservation land.

Given these circumstances, quietly inserting $130 million in tax dollars is more than a warning shot. It marks the beginning of yet another skirmish in a long, tiresome and 400-year war against the indigenous people of this nation.

Political Football

Republicans do the Hora during the election

The Republicans are inching closer to control of the New York State Senate. This is less of an ideological victory of sorts than it is an interesting development in the ongoing power-play of regional interests. At stake are redistricting and determining the identity of the “third man” in the room in Albany. For Long Islanders, it’s about money.

The political and corporate leadership of the Island have long opined over our funding imbalance. In short, we send more money to Albany than we receive. Unfunded mandates, the support of New York City schools and the staggering burden of Medicaid forces local municipalities to install punitive tax measures on businesses and residents. This, of course, is an affront to our sense of fair play. That said, no one would switch places with any community north of the Tappan Zee.

The state as a whole continues to flounder on the eve of another Cuomo administration. And while everyone expects Gov. Cuomo of the Andrew persuasion to be hard-charging, there appears to be little for him to charge at. Layoffs of government workers are a given and public contracts will be broken and battled over in court. Closer to home on the tiny island next door, the astounding resurgence of the financial industry in New York City isn’t enough to cover looming budget gaps in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s out-year forecasts. Identifying new sources of revenue or trying to figure out where budgets are going to be slashed is anyone’s guess. But insiders are hardly in the prognosticating mood. Instead, everyone is keeping their heads down so as not to be noticed by the governor-elect, in the hopes that avoidance equals survival in what will likely be a bloody term.

Cuomo, who strode to Election Day on the “compared to the last two guys and the cast of lunatics I’m running against you have no choice but to pick me” campaign, has remained radio silent on his plans for straightening out our fiscal woes. His non-endorsement of fellow Democrat, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, speaks volumes about his intention to govern in a tight-fisted manner. This pales in comparison to the copious amount of ink spent trying to predict whether Cuomo will bury the hatchet with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in the back room or in the back of his head. Either way, front row seats are cheap as we fast approach the Albany cage match of the new millennium.

All of this brings us back to the issue of money and whether Long Island will hold onto its share or part with more of it. The reality is we simply cannot afford to be the state’s piggy bank any longer. Nassau County is teetering on the brink of disaster, and the back-channel chatter of insolvency is getting louder. Even Suffolk County, which has enjoyed the benefit of a more equitable property-tax assessment system as well as having the most frugal county executive in its history, is showing signs of economic stress. 

The great hope is that fate has intervened in the form of the reconstituted Republican delegation from Long Island. With Senators Brian Foley and (likely) Craig Johnson both falling on the “MTA commuter tax” sword, the scales may have positively tipped in the Island’s favor. While I know little about Foley’s successor, Lee Zeldin, I have had the opportunity to get to know Jack Martins, who finally appears to be close to solidifying Johnson’s ouster in a hotly contested bid now a month past the November elections. Martins has been an astute and effective mayor in Mineola where he has carved out a solid niche as a forward-thinking executive. Whether these skills are applicable in a legislative role in Albany remains to be seen. But history has shown that when the LI delegation speaks with one voice (and Republicans rarely vary from the provided script) it is a juggernaut.

Again, this has little if anything to do with ideology—the Long Island delegation could all be from the Rent is 2 Damn High party for all I care—but it has everything to do with strength in numbers. If Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) is indeed the third man in the room and he has a strong offensive line giving him enough time in the pocket, we stand a better chance of holding our ground while the rest of us figure out how to reinvigorate the local economy before the play clock runs out. Sorry for the hackneyed sports analogy but amidst my normal political ruminations, I’ve got Jets-Patriots on the brain.

The Empire Strikes Back

My election plans almost went off without a hitch with my posterior comfortably settled into the perfectly formed groove in the corner of my couch. Beside me, my wife, my home phone, my BlackBerry, my laptop, my Blue Point Toasted Lager, a bowl of popcorn and a dog with a broken leg and a cast the size of his body (long story) were all neatly in their places for the evening. The only thing missing from my election night space capsule was a pair of Depends. Everything was perfect except for one detail. By the time all of my communication devices were fired up and News12 was tuned in, it was 10 minutes past 9 p.m. Ten minutes from the moment the polls closed throughout New York. Sometime during those 600 seconds I missed the gubernatorial election.

The New York Times had declared Andrew Cuomo our next Governor at 9:01 p.m. with Newsday following suit six minutes later. At 9:10 p.m. I felt like the last lonely boy invited to the dance.

My faithful reporters were on hand at candidate headquarters from Islandia to Manhattan busily reporting, tweeting, blogging and conferring with one another while I stared absently at the computer, my wife stared absently at me, and the dog stared absently at the enormous cast on his leg. By the time I recovered and touched base with the first of our reporters, Sen. Chuck Schumer was giving his victory speech and national pundits were talking about the overwhelming message delivered to Barack Obama and attempting to quantify the “Tea Party Effect.”

All of this with zero precincts reporting in from any Board of Elections in the state.

Life is moving too quickly, and frankly I’m not sure what to make of it. Earlier in the evening I was on a dinner date with my 7-year-old daughter. In between talking about school, friends and funny things her little sister says, I mentioned that it was Election Day again and Daddy would be up late talking to his friends from work. She knows Daddy likes Election Day. But when I mentioned this, a perplexed look came over her face and she asked me, quite casually, “Is it time to get rid of Barack Obama already? Hasn’t it only been like two years?”

Did I mention she’s 7?

Stunned, I sat back in my chair and stared absently at her inquiring little face, and tried to formulate a cogent response. (Little did I know my absent expression would return so frequently throughout the night.) Collecting myself, I stammered through some benign, meandering explanation of federal and state governments, election cycles and the importance of voting. Then I gave her a stern look and said emphatically, “And by the way, we don’t ‘get rid’ of our elected officials, young lady. We need to have more respect for our public servants than to talk of discarding them so callously—irrespective of your opinion of them.” One day, of course, she will question everything I ever told her after she’s dug up yellowed copies of the Long Island Press and perused my vituperative political diatribes. She has plenty of time to reach the jaded pinnacle of life her father occupies now. Until then she should breathe deeply because the air is as thin up here as my patience.

Where was I? Right, 9:30 p.m. Since the world had careened by me in the past half hour and I could only bog down our reporters with inane questions, I settled into my normal caveman routine, obsessively navigating BOE websites and watching television coverage. Since candidates were declaring victory before any votes were tabulated, I assumed the new voting machines were so stealth they auto-tweeted the results and bypassed the media. The only thing left was to watch the flurry of victory and concession speeches, and call it a night.

And then the waiting began.

Sometime in the 11 o’clock hour, after watching the News12 anchors stumble through the broadcast—despite the valiant attempts of the field reporters, Jerry Kremer and Mike Dawidziak, to salvage it—my wife gave up and went to bed. My phone stopped ringing and e-mails ceased shortly thereafter. Even the dog limped away from me and fell asleep somewhere around midnight. By 1:30 a.m. the results were still trickling in with some local and statewide candidates declaring victory; others would have to wait a few more hours or even a lengthy recount. Either way, the early evening mania was a distant memory by this time and no one seemed to know why the results were taking so long.

Much of the uncertainty was put to rest today, and there were few surprises. New Yorkers thought better of Carl Paladino and otherwise returned to their pre-Obama voting habits, complete with the state Senate delegation (almost) back in Republican control. Democrats and moderate Republicans outside of New York were abused, and the House tipped dramatically to the right, while Senate Dems held on for dear life. The real story is the Tea Party newbies and whether anger-fueled rhetoric will convert to policy and reform, or wind up in gridlock and rancor. My guess is the latter because Washington D.C., is about to be overtaken by too many rookie politicians who are probably mouthing Robert Redford’s immortal words from The Candidate: “What do we do now?”