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Blair Horner: Health Crisis Offers Opportunities For Powerful Interests

The Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote, “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.”  As we all grapple with the pandemic known as coronavirus, it is important to know that many will heed Machiavelli’s advice and see an opportunity.

Last week a price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia that pushed the price of crude oil into its steepest single-day nosedive since 1991.  The oil companies operating in the United States – the world’s largest producer of oil – immediately took a hit. 

The news of that financial shock hit while the nation was reeling and still trying to absorb the reality of the mushrooming coronavirus pandemic.  Few in the nation were paying close attention to the oil war between the Saudis and the Russians, but the Trump Administration and its fossil fuel allies saw an opportunity in the crisis.

The Trump Administration, which has as cozy a relationship as any have had with the oil, gas and coal sectors, last week offered a bail-out – a bail out to an industry that has made enormous profits while it was lying to the American public about global warming, an industry that used its public relations expertise to undermine and discredit the science of climate change, an industry which has used its enormous wealth to push its candidate into the White House and the leadership of the U.S. Senate.

Is the industry being asked by the Trump Administration to pay for the mess that they have caused?  No.  Instead, while the nation was engulfed in the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, the Administration pushed to protect Big Oil.

Some were paying attention. Environmental groups and conservatives opposed to bailouts pulled together to block the bailout plan.  But in the end, the oil companies got some help when the President directed the U.S. Department of Energy to purchase crude oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in an effort to support the energy companies.  No requirement that they help stop the world careening toward a global warming catastrophe.

Here in New York, there is no love for the fossil fuel industry.  The Cuomo Administration has blocked fracking and has committed to develop alternative, non-fossil-fuel-powered energy sources.

But this week lawmakers return to a changed state Capitol, the seat of state government trying to chart a path with a looming budget deadline amidst a crisis the likes of which has not been seen since 1918.  Adding to the tension: It was reported over the weekend that at least two lawmakers have tested positive for the coronavirus.  As a result, the Capitol was closed to the general public and closed discussions began on how best to arrive at a budget agreement this week – two weeks before the state deadline.

Given the circumstances, the speed is reasonable.  A key strategy in minimizing the impact of the coronavirus is to reduce meetings of lots of people – people who could infect others.  Wrapping up the budget early minimizes the likelihood that public officials or their staff members who might be positive for the virus will spread the contagion to others.

But debating a budget is the most important action state government will take.  And a closed, secretive process increases the likelihood that those with the most hotwired lobbyists will have their voices heard, not members of the general taxpaying public.  The shadows are where special interest groups are often most effective, where their ability to leverage a crisis is heightened.

We all agree that hammering out a state budget is hard in the best of times and will be even more difficult during these trying times.  But it is incumbent on the governor and state legislators to take additional steps to open up their discussions to the public at large, for example, by offering daily public updates by the leaders on the progress of negotiations, publishing with specificity the differences in policy and spending choices among the leadership of the Senate, the Assembly, and the Executive.  And ensuring that legislation is in its final form and reviewable by the public for the constitutionally-required three days before final passage.

Not only would the public be informed, but it would limit the ability of the well-heeled, powerful interests to undermine the public interest.  And maybe, just maybe, force the oil companies to pay for the environmental damages that they have caused to New York.  When it comes to the public’s interest, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

In the best of times, Albany’s budget-making is marked by secrecy and policy horse trading.  We do not live in the best of times.  During this new challenge, Albany can show the nation not only how to aggressively attack the coronavirus, but how to do so while improving its budget making.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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