Amanda H. Cronin / Sun Senior Editor

May 5, 2020

New York State Assembly Candidates Talk Climate Policy at Sunrise Endorsement Forums

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Climate justice, carbon tax revenue allocation and a green energy future were some of the topics discussed as candidates for New York State’s 125th assembly district vied for endorsement from Ithaca’s Sunrise Movement in a series of weekly forums.

Sunrise is a national climate advocacy organization dedicated to elevating progressive environmental policy platforms. The Ithaca chapter’s endorsement forums aim to identify the most climate-focused successor to the retiring Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-N.Y.), affectionately referred to by Ithaca Sunrisers as a “climate champion.”

Each forum opened with a different set of candidates introducing their climate-related credentials, then moved on to pre-written questions, ranging in topics like recent climate legislation, indigenous sovereignty, voting reforms and addressing current inequalities.

The three forums, moderated by members of Sunrise Ithaca’s Political Action Team, occurred weekly on Mondays. The first, on April 20, included Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer and Jordan Lesser ’03, legislative counsel to Lifton.

The second forum included Ithaca Common Council Alderperson Seph Murtagh Ph.D. ’09 (D-2nd Ward), Cortland County legislator Beau Harbin (D-2nd District), and Tompkins County legislator Anna Kelles (D-2nd District).

The final forum wrapped up with Lisa Hoeschele, executive director of Family and Children’s Counseling Services, and Prof. Sujata Gibson, law.

Economic, Social Justice Through Climate Action

Leifer and Murtagh expressed support for legislation that creates jobs in climate justice, as long as it prioritizes support for disadvantaged communities most harmed by climate change.

Lesser supports a statewide effort to create jobs while reducing energy demands. Kelles, Murtagh and Gibson emphasized the importance of workforce development and job training programs.

Many economic protections for disadvantaged communities, such as labor and wage protections, did not make it into New York’s Climate Leadership Community Protection Act, the state’s answer to the national Green New Deal proposal. According to Lesser, those provisions were “sticking points” for Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) and were ultimately cut as a compromise for passing the bill.

The CLCPA was signed into law in July 2019.

The candidates generally acknowledged legislators’ progressive intentions when crafting the CLCPA, but maintained that further action must be taken to strengthen the local economies and protect workers.

On the issue of indigenous land sovereignty, the candidates expressed a desire to collaborate with native leaders on climate legislation.

“We need to start including indigenous people in conversations and listen to what they want and need,” said Gibson.

Carbon Tax Revenues

The Climate and Community Investment Act taxes carbon-based fuels, including methane and imported shale gas. Among the assembly candidates, most were concerned about how the tax money would be utilized.

“We need to make sure whatever money that is redistributed from the tax is going to efforts to meet our climate goals,” Murtagh said.

Lesser expressed support for a New York State carbon tax bill introduced in 2019 that distributes 60 percent of tax revenue to communities who have been “hammered by climate change” and 40 percent to research and renewable energy development.

Hoeschele called for state-funded incentives and subsidies to support low-income communities and farmers who will be negatively affected by climate-friendly reforms such as carbon and methane taxes, as well as transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Transportation, Housing Options 

Decreasing reliance on personal vehicles in order to reduce individuals’ carbon footprints is one of the Sunrise Movement’s goals. The moderators asked each candidate how they plan to increase access to public transportation and affordable housing options to counteract this impact.

Harbin proposed teleworking — what many have become accustomed to during the pandemic — as an alternative to commuting via public transportation, in tandem with improving access to broadband technology in rural areas.

Ecovillages,” a sustainable community structure where affordable housing and employment are integrated, are one part of Gibson’s plan for reforming local climate policy.

Candidates also mostly supported banning the use of fossil fuels in heating for new construction projects, but with caveats.

“We can’t ban the use of something without creating a new solution,” said Kelles, who advocated for incentivizing solar farms and other renewable energies for heating.

Harbin said that rural and poor communities need state grants to assist in transitioning from natural gas furnaces to heat pumps. Heat pumps, which use outside air to heat or cool a home, are powered by electricity and are over three times more energy-efficient than traditional furnaces that burn fuel and emit greenhouse gases.

All candidates rejected the usage of nuclear power as an alternative energy source, citing the danger of leaks and the toxicity of nuclear waste.

Lesser cautioned that if nuclear power plants — like the James A. FitzPatrick plan in Oswego — were to close, they must be replaced with renewable sources of energy, rather than natural gas. The plant in Oswego produces energy for over 800,000 people in the region.

Murtagh and Harbin said that displaced plant workers must be supported in transitioning to new careers.

Voting and COVID-19

The candidates also broadly called for a variety of reforms that would increase voting access, including same-day registration and expanding vote-by-mail.

Leifer supports open primaries and the lowering of signature requirements for upstate elections. Currently, in New York State, primaries are closed — only registered party members can vote in that party’s primary. In an open primary, party registration is not a voting requirement.

In addition, Murtagh, Hoeschele and Harbin called for legislation to lower the voting age to 16.

COVID-19 also had its place in the conversations.

When Gibson, known for her opposition to vaccination mandates, was asked whether she would support mandatory COVID-19 vaccination with a religious exemption to achieve herd immunity  in the future, she stood firm: “It should be a philosophical exemption.”

Gibson then elaborated, explaining that she believes pharmaceutical companies with little regulation and accountability are “driving the pushes for mandates.” She cautioned that for “medically fragile populations,” state mandates can “become very draconian, very fast.”

Other candidates focused on the opportunity for renewed vigor on climate action in the world after COVID-19.

“This crisis has helped the government realize how to move quickly with emergency relief,” Lesser said. Lesser believes this same speed needs to be utilized in climate action: “The next crisis we know is already looming.”

“We have an opportunity to build an infrastructure where everybody can have a place at the table,” Kelles said. “We can build equity into the system.”

The Democratic primary for the state assembly is scheduled for June 23. As of now, it will proceed despite New York’s recent cancellation of the presidential primary.

This piece is part of The Cornell Daily Sun’s Election 2020 Section. Read more of The Sun’s election coverage here.