Turbocharged by the national Democrats’ lurch to the left, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s overnight stardom and a generalized Trump-inspired panic, the downstate owners of New York’s legislature have exceeded my dismal expectations in their first session in power.
Liberal democracy is a fragile thing—we forget that the framers of the U.S. Constitution took pains to guard against the tyranny of the majority. That’s why Congress is a bicameral legislature with different houses built on different models of representation. Defenders of pure majority rule cry “Abolish the U.S. Senate.” They forget that the Senate is designed to distribute power by geography instead of by raw vote totals, balancing the more-populist House of Representatives. This does not always lead to outcomes we like—but it contributes to long-run stability in a diverse society.
That sectional interests deserve protection is vividly demonstrated in the recently-completed New York legislative session. As I noted before the 2018 election, “where you stand depends on where you sit” has particular application to the state Legislature. After that election there were exactly three members of the majority party in the Senate representing upstate districts. If you’re new to New York politics, the majority party rules its chamber. Minority members need dentures to smile in public.
The just-passed Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act neatly captures the mix of progressive posturing and downstate-centric policy that dominated the 2019 legislative session.
New York has hardly been a laggard on environmental policy. Coal plants have been closed or “re-powered” to burn natural gas (including the generating plant in Eastman Business Park). Supplying 19 percent of the state’s electric power in 1990, coal’s contribution is 1 percent today with the remaining two plants set to close next year. Wind now contributes 3 percent of our electricity, a fivefold increase in generation in a decade.
The climate bill is a triumph of ideology over practical policy and it further erodes upstate’s competitive advantage after years of lackluster economic growth. The bill sets hard targets for renewable energy, requiring the Public Service Commission to take whatever actions are required to move New York to 70 percent renewable power by 2030, from 28 percent in 2017. 2030 used to sound like it was far in the future. But think about this in reverse: Maybe I’m just getting old, but 2009 feels pretty recent to me.
Not only does the law set implausible targets, but by mandating change through renewables, it is also unnecessarily prescriptive. Dramatic reductions in carbon emissions and unhealthy particulates have come from swapping natural gas for coal or fuel oil, yet the state continues to block gas pipeline construction, a particular problem for downstate counties confronting the 2021 closure of the 2,000-megawatt Indian Point nuclear plants.
Moreover, despite the enormous expense of this dramatic shift in power generation, the cost will be invisible in the state budget. Whether reflected in dramatically higher energy prices or subsidies through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, ratepayers will bear the burden. Although consumer prices play an important role in encouraging better energy use, this approach also conveniently lets lawmakers escape the responsibility for paying for this more-ambitious new mandate.
The climate bill will differentially disadvantage upstate as our industries are far more dependent on energy than the finance sector powering New York City. As a share of total output, the state’s finance sector purchases only a fraction of the power required to run a manufacturing plant.
The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act brings the specter of rent control to upstate cities, too. Economists consider rent control counterproductive where housing scarcity is driving up rents. It is even more damaging where supply isn’t the problem. Drive around Rochester’s Crescent or troubled neighborhoods in Buffalo or Syracuse—the scale of abandonment and poor maintenance is significant. Artificially lowering rents will accelerate this process and simply add to the city’s list of dwellings waiting for demolition. There are better ways to help the city’s renters.
The Empire Center’s Bill Hammond summarized a raft of new laws governing the state’s health care system, including mandated coverage for three cycles of in-vitro fertilization and a range of other services. Worthy mandates? Sure. But when New York’s health care costs are among the highest in the nation, we may not wish to pay for them.
This is the tale of two states: New York City’s economy is driven by “high value-added” firms with substantial profit margins. Its competitors are Hong Kong, London, Singapore, Toyko and San Francisco.
Upstate competes with the rest of the world. Let’s not impose downstate costs on upstate margins.