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August 28th, 2016

Guests: AFT President Randi Weingarten and EPL/Environmental Advocates Executive Director Peter Iwanowicz

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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten

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Weingarten agrees with Bill Samuels that education funding should be separated from the property tax in New York State if there is to be true equity in the school system:

“Theoretically, I totally and completely agree with you. I think the property tax essentially has enshrined the inequity that we have. And what it also does is it’s inequitable to seniors … The property tax is about a moment in time … What is has historically done is that communities that can afford it will afford more for their schools than communities that cannot. Or a community that has not-for-profits that basically form the commerce [but don’t pay taxes]… also don’t have the kind of tax base they need. And if a big corporation like Alcoa, [which] almost left Massena[, New York]. If they left Massena then Massena would be totally devoid of their principal taxpayer. So … for lots of reasons, [the property tax is] not the best way to fund schools. … We need to go to an income tax system for school funding. I think that’s the right way to go, but in a democracy like New York is that’s going to take incremental progress and so at least right now let’s have a supplemental income tax process that gives those that have the least, the most, just like Title I does in terms of the federal law.

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Weingarten on how New York State has to address inequality in education funding, so that the neediest schools get the most funding, unlike now, where the opposite occurs:

“The problem is if we don’t change hearts and minds we have what we have with Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which is years and years of litigation. We need to have a strategy that says ‘All kids matter’ and those kids who have the least need the most, and that is quite contrary to the property tax system. So there needs to be a system … just like the federal government does with Title I—to, on an incremental basis, give more to kids who have less and do it on an income basis where those who have the most, like the gazillionaires, [pay their fair share]. Deal with carried interest, deal with the financial transaction tax, find a way to create an investment strategy so that we invest in America. We do this when we have wars. We need to do this to insure that we have a next generation that has the ability to live their lives and dream their dreams.”

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EPL/Environmental Advocates Executive Director Peter Iwanowicz

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Bill Samuels asks Iwanowicz whether New York should follow the lead of states likes Montana, Massachusetts, and Hawaii, and pass a state constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to clean water, fresh air and a healthful environment:

“It’s a great question to pose and thanks for posing it. Often we think New York State is an environmental leader and as our [EPL/Environmental Advocates Green] Scorecard points out we have a lot of work to be done to reclaim that sort of leadership mantle [from] other states … dealing with climate change, and other states, as you mentioned, have basic rights built into their constitutional framework and I think that as we head toward the [State Constitutional Convention] ballot question of 2017 we should as environmentalists, and indeed as citizens of New York, be asking ourselves, ‘Isn’t it time that we expressed these types of rights that everybody has a right to breathe air that’s not going to trigger an asthma attack or cut short the life of a senior? Everybody has a right to water that comes out of their tap that’s not contaminated and is going to cause disease or kill them.’

We’re seeing such a preponderance of threats starting to emerge, coupled with a weakened government due to budget cuts and layoffs of staff that have happened over the years, that it probably is time to start having this discussion about building in that type of right into our constitution. Most people sort of assume it’s there and assume sort of that the regulatory framework flows from it, but, as you pointed out, it’s not there and indeed this is the time to have that conversation.

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Iwanowicz says that it is fair to characterize Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature’s response to the drinking water contamination in Hoosick Falls as as “tone deaf” as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s to the water crisis in Flint:

“Yeah, I think that’s a fair characterization of it. It was definitely tone deaf a year ago when the issue really emerged of all of our radarscope and it was very slow for the state to sort of take action.

I think readers of the [EPL/Environmental Advocates Green] Scorecard will see a timeline of the Hoosick Falls event and the politics around it and I think it’s about to get a lot more attention, though it was on and now off and now on again. The state Legislature will be holding a series of hearings starting August 30th in the town of Hoosick Falls and then in September a couple more joint legislative hearings between the Senate and the Assembly in which they’re going to be trying to ask ‘Who knew when?’ and ‘What did they do?’ to try to get to the bottom of why state government has failed to kind of protect adequately the public of Hoosick Falls.

We’re also seeing this chemical start to emerge in other drinking water systems, in the mid-Hudson Valley in Newburgh. The City of Newburgh has had to find a new drinking water supply because their past reservoir has been found contaminated. And we’re starting to see it emerge on the Eastern End of Long Island, out in Southhampton.

So, water that is safe enough to drink is sort of a core value that I think we all assume the government is out watching for us and it seems like New York State was not ready to understand the magnitude of the challenge that was being posed in Hoosick and was very slow to engage. The federal government sort of stepped in and immediately told people not to drink water and the state has turned around from there, but we’re still in the finger pointing between the federal government and the state government and I think these legislative hearings will provide a little bit more clarity on that and indeed Congress is now threatening to do an investigation. Documents have been subpoenaed both from the EPA and the state, so I think it is headed to a bigger spotlight like the Flint, Michigan situation.

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Iwanowicz on the partisan divide in the State Legislature on environmental issues:

“Generally, what we’re seeing is that Democrats in either house [of the State Legislature] do better on our Environmental Scorecard than Republicans. There are notable exceptions, but for the most part it’s troubling this sort of partisan split when it comes to the simple sort of issues of ‘Are we going to keep our land protected?’ or ‘Are we going to provide air healthful to breathe or water clean enough to drink?’, which is becoming an emerging enormous issue about lead in water systems and other chemicals.

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