Archive for December, 2013

A Bolder Response Than White House Vegetable Gardens – Voices From The Dust Bowl

December 22nd, 2013 No comments

 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt Visits Migrant Worker Camps in Wake of Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”

Eleanor Roosevelt visits migrant farmworkers at FSA Farmersville Camp in California (1940) (original caption)

[Intro: in case its not obvious, the context for this post was all the fawning press coverage of Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden. In historical context, the Obama’s are lame.]

Photos below are from the Library of Congress’ ethnographic collections – for the entire collection, check out:

Here’s a taste:

Location: Colonial Park near 150th Street, New York City

Date: June 6, 1939

Interviewer: Ralph Ellison

Interview Excerpt: “Do rich people and poor people have anything in common?”

Listen to the man’s response

“God made all this, and he made it for everybody. And he made it equal. This breeze and these green leaves out here is for everybody. The same sun’s shining down on everybody. This breeze comes from God and man cain’t do nothing about it. I breath the same air old man Ford an old man Rockerfeller breath. They got all the money an I ain’t got nothing, but they got to breath the same air I do.”

Migrant worker Camp Council meeting – This is what democracy looks like (Farmersville, California – May 1939) (my caption)


El Rio, Cal. – FSA Camp for Mexican fruit pickers. Front gate – 1941 (original caption)


group of children sitting on wooden bench – El Rio, Cal. 1940 (original caption)

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Obama and Gov. Christie on the Same Corporate Page on Environmental Regulation

December 22nd, 2013 No comments

Similar Executive Orders – Similar Records – Similar Corporate Interests

President Obama is a liberal champion of strong EPA regulations, right?

And Gov. Christie is a conservative Republican who hates “job killing red tape” and promotes “regulatory relief” for his corporate backers, right?

They are at entirely different poles of the ideological spectrum on regulation, right?

So how could they possibly be on the same page on environmental regulatory policy?

To understand that seeming contradiction, let’s start with last week’s important Washington Post’s story on the Obama administration environmental policy:

The White House systematically delayed enacting a series of rules on the environment, worker safety and health care to prevent them from becoming points of contention before the 2012 election, according to documents and interviews with current and former administration officials.

Some agency officials were instructed to hold off submitting proposals to the White House for up to a year to ensure that they would not be issued before voters went to the polls, the current and former officials said.

The delays meant that rules were postponed or never issued. The stalled regulations included crucial elements of the Affordable Care Act, what bodies of water deserved federal protection, pollution controls for industrial boilers and limits on dangerous silica exposure in the workplace.

As cynical and corrosive of democracy as that was, the WaPo story was not just about delaying critical regulatory protections for political reasons in the run-up to the 2012 election.

It was about substantively weakening and avoiding regulations, providing undue access to corporate interests, and behind the scenes bureaucratic maneuvers to gut regulations.

And you can find that story if you go into the weeds and chase the links in the WaPo story. Hitting those links, one can see how the Post  painted a hidden and devastating critique of Obama environmental policy.

Specifically, there were important substantive regulatory policy Reports embedded that told an insidious story about the reality of Obama administration environmental policy. We urge you to hit the links and get into the weeds to read what I will call the embedded story.

The embedded story totally contradicts the generally progressive and pro-environmental rhetoric that emanates from the White House and EPA press releases on a regular basis.

Specifically, the embedded story paints a picture of an Administration that routinely sacrifices – sells out – important public health, environment, worker safety, and consumer protections to industry pressure and corporate profits.

To grasp this story, you need go no further than this gem that we found in those weeds – this revealing excerpt from a new book by Cass Sunstein, the Obama first term “Regulatory Czar”.

The Obama ”Regulatory Czar” himself frankly admits and explains how that corporate sellout works:

In his revealing book, Sunstein tells us why: It is because he, Sunstein, had the authority to “say no to members of the president’s Cabinet”; to deposit “highly touted rules, beloved by regulators, onto the shit list“; to ensure that some rules  “never saw the light of day”;  to impose cost-benefit analysis “wherever the law allowed”; and to “transform cost-benefit analysis from an analytical tool into a “rule of decision,” meaning that “[a]gencies could not go forward” if their rules flunked OIRA’s cost-benefit test.

(see: Sunstein’s ‘Simpler Government’ Is Legally Suspect, Overly Secretive And Politically Unaccountable

The disgusting Sunstein revelations confirm exactly what I wrote previously when Sunbstein resigned in August 2012, both about his role, the role of cost benefit analysis, and how various procedural “reforms” of the regulatory process are designed to protect corporate interests and frustrate the public interest.

In addition to the actual individual regulatory practices documented by the Washington Post story and confirmed by Regulatory Czar Sunstein himself, we need to consider the formal policy  framework within which these regulatory actions occur, i.e. Executive Orders on regulatory policy.

Some time ago, I compared Obama’s Executive Order 13563 — Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review with Governor Christie’s

  • Executive Order #1 establishing a moratorium of regulations;
  • Executive Order #2 calling for “immediate regulatory relief”, cost benefit analysis, and rollback of NJ’s strict State standards to their federal minimum;
  • Executive Order #3 attacking regulations as “job killing red tape” and
  • Executive Order #4 prohibiting unfunded state regulatory mandates on local governments

Those Obama and Christie Executive Orders share many common premises, policy elements, procedures, and overall objectives – sometimes even language – including:

  • using regulations to promote economic development and jobs
  • removing regulatory burdens on corporations
  • providing behind closed doors access to corporate interests
  • reliance on cost benefit analysis to elevate economic considerations above protections
  • negative premises and perceptions of regulations and government bureaucracy as a drag on economic growth
  • equating industry “science” with government and academic science

So, in both Executive Orders and actual regulatory practice, Obama and Christie are on the same corporate page when it comes to environmental regulation.

And the word to describe it is a lot worse than “regulatory capture”.


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Open Space Program: Fix It Before You Fund It

December 20th, 2013 No comments

Yesterday I wrote about what I see as the underlying controversy in the open space funding debate about fairness, so today just a brief note on what I see as policy flaws in the open space program that should be remedied before funding is renewed, regardless of the source of funds.

One issue that is not getting adequate attention is that the “Keep It Green Coalition” (KIG) Senate sales tax alternative would significantly expand the current open space program and provide $40 million in new money for “stewardship”. Not only does that new eligible use and $40 million allocation divert funds from other historic program funding objectives, but there are policy controversies buried in that financial expansion.

There is great potential for abuse inherent in the undefined concept of “stewardship”:

1) Members of the KIG coalition would be recipients of those “stewardship” funds, so they have an undisclosed conflict of interest. Some of the KIG groups, such as Audubon, have well funded programs of “corporate stewardship”. That potential commingling of “stewardship” projects, policy, corporate funding, and conceptual spin and green cover raise additional policy problems.

So called “stewardship”, as practiced by some like NJ Audubon, are related to and could be difficult to distinguish from “mitigation”.

Mitigation deals have facilitated and provided cover for some really bad projects, most recently the Susquehanna Roseland power line through the Delaware Watergap and Highlands. In that case, $60 million in “mitigation” funding paved the way for the federal USDOI deal and garnered the support of Audubon, while $18 million went to buy the Highlands Council’s approval.

A similar “mitigation” model is proceeding in the Pinelands, as South Jersey Gas Co. has ponied up $8 million to bribe the Pinelands Commission and demonstrate “an equivalent level of protection” in land acquisition.

2) “Stewardship” is a vague and undefined policy.

When does the legislature appropriate $40 million for an undefined new state program, with no goals, measurable objectives, or standards?

The move to bring stewardship into the open space program can be viewed as an end run around the controversial “stewardship” debate that recently emerged in the context of the Forest Stewardship bill.

In that legislative debate as well as in current on the ground land management practices, the concept of “stewardship” on state lands includes controversial commercial logging.

All these issues must be clarified in the Open space funding legislation and the abuses I scratched the surface of above that have transpired to date must be stopped, before open space funding legislation is enacted.

Financial reforms

I testified to Smith’s Environment Committee last week that if the legislature is truly interested in fiscal discipline, then the following changes should occur:

1) eliminate the $40 million for “stewardship” – especially given the lack of a definition and clear policy, that gives rise to the abuses noted above;

2) collect current market rate based easements for commercial uses of state lands, like for pipelines and electric power lines ROW.

There are hundreds of miles of utility ROW criss -crossing state lands.

Most of those ROW leases for economically profitable industrial uses like oil and gas pipelines and power lines were giveaways – they were negotiated up to 100 years ago. Many have ridiculously low rates, some just $1 per day.

Renegotiating those ancient ROW leases to reflect current market value of the ECONOMIC USE of the land (not the appraised development value of the land) could provide hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues.

The taxpayer should not be asked to pony up 100% of open space funding until the corporations pay their fair share.

3) prohibit purchase of lands in DEP approved sewer service areas (SSA), except for urban parks and community gardens.

Why should the public pay hugely inflated land values?

SSA and local zoning increase the value of land by 10 times or more.

DEP has mapped 40,000 acres of environmentally sensitive lands in sewer service areas. It is crazy to spend scarce taxpayer dollars on lands that are inflated in value like that;

4) revise land value appraisal methods to prohibit consideration of the value of environmentally contained lands that have regulatory constraints and can not be developed at local zoning based density.

Here is an example: suppose a 100 acre parcel of land, zone for 1 house per 2 acres, is comprised of 25 acres of wetlands, 25 acres of Category One stream buffers, and 10 acres of Critical habitat.

The land owner would want that land appraised at a value that reflect a development potential of 50 residential units.

But, when environmental and regulatory constraints are considered, there are only 40 developable acres and a development potential of just 20 residential units.

The law must be changed to mandate that the land appraisal be based on only the 20 unit development potential, not the 250% higher value reflecting 50 units.

5) Legislation should mandate thew DEP develop a strategic plan, coordinated with land use plans and regulations, and that expenditures be consistent with the plan.

What other State government program is allowed to spend $200 million per year with no plan, based on political priorities and patronage?

6) Corporations that abuse and benefit from “fake farmer” local property tax loopholes under NJ’s Farmland Assessment program should be assessed an State open space tax that closes that loophole and captures undeserved corporate subsidies.

That would provide millions of dollars to open space coffers.

These kind of reforms can be used to broker a compromise on the funding mechanism.

[End note: – Chairman Smith rejected these recommendations by saying that they fail to solve the Gov.’s ability to divert funds.

But the constitutional dedication of 4% of corporate business tax (CBT) did not solve the problem of division of environmental money and it led to DEP budget cuts that more than offset the 4% CBT revenues. It backfired. It was a mistake. And I can say that because I was the lead advocate for CBT, led the ENGO campaign for it, and wrote the language on the Resolution and Constitutional dedication back in 1996.

In hindsight, that CBT dedication vehicle served as a good way to bash Gov. Whitman, but not as a sustainable source of environmental funding.

The only check on the Gov.’s ability to divert money is political.

Note that the Gov. selectively diverts money. Why is that?

I don’t have the data, but why is the large majority of the money the Gov. diverts from environmental accounts?

It’s because the environmental groups and their legislative supporters are politically weak and ineffective.

Note that the Gov. rarely – if ever – diverts corporate subsidy money or economic development money. Corporations have political power – weenie environmental groups don’t. That explains why environmental money gets diverted to pay for things like corporate tax cuts, corporate subsidies, and economic development projects.

Note also that the Gov. does not divert Bond Fund money – there are legal reasons for that, but still, the larger reason is about political power.

There are legal restrictions on diversion of bond fund money because Wall Street and bond holders have power. Even the Big Bad Gov. Christie doesn’t fuck with Wall Street.

Bondholder power trumps citizen democratic power – and that’s what needs to be addressed. – end ]


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A Spotlight on A NJ Spotlight Story

December 20th, 2013 No comments

Accountability applies to friend and foe alike.

Tom Johnson, NJ’s senior and best and most reliable environmental reporter, lost his edge on this one and gave DEP, polluters, and Senate Environment Committee Chairman Bob Smith a big wet kiss.

His story on yesterday’s Senate Environment Committee release of a polluter friendly bill left out some essential stuff, see: STATE PRAISES PRIVATIZED CLEANUP OF HAZARDOUS-WASTE SITES.

I wrote about what went on at that hearing in this post, which makes it seem like Tom and I were not in the same room: Your Orwell Today: Christie DEP Calls Privatization of Toxic Site Cleanup Program “Self Implementation”.

So, again relegated to the NJ Spotlight comment section  I tried to make his readers aware of that (my pariah status over there is another story in itself, an example of thin skinned petty BS):

Two points:

1) The DEP data on the so called number of cleanups was a misleading sham. Sen. Greenstein even called DEP out on this abuse. DEP combined simple, low risk, underground storage tank removals with real cleanups.

The key reason that DEP can get away with this misleading inflation in cleanup progress is because DEP failed to meet a May 2010 legislative deadline to develop the “Remedial Priority System (RPS) that is supposed to rank sites based on risk – worst first.

Because there is no RPS, there is no scientific basis for setting cleanup priorities and no ability to distinguish a 100 gallon UST tank pull from a 1,000 acre toxic site with groundwater pollution.

It is absurd and intolerable that the legislature and the media let DEP get away with this abuse.

What we saw yesterday was nothing like real legislative oversight.

2) Because I was going to say all this, Sen. Smith blocked my testimony – or any other testimony on the bill, an unprecedented move to gag critics.

That too should be called out by the press.

BTW, Tittel was not at the hearing and testified on Dec. 5 in support of the bill.

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Geographic Distributional and Equity Implications of NJ’s Open Space Funding Mechanism

December 19th, 2013 No comments

We Want Your Money and We Want It – Now!

The taboo politics underlying the Open Space funding dispute

The wonky title of this post sounds like a good research proposal – perhaps I should submit it to Dodge? :)

The best way to fund open space is now the subject of a raging debate. But that debate seems misplaced.

Let me suggest that the real debate is driven by and about policy, not funding and financial mechanisms.

As the debate is framed by the media, the choice appears to be between two competing financial plans: the Assembly is backing a bond referendum and the Senate is supporting dedication of a portion of the sales tax.

The environmental community is split: the “Keep It Green Coalition” supports the Senate’s Constitutional dedication of the sales tax, while Sierra Club and NJ Environmental Federation support the  Assembly bond alternative.

What explains this difference?

Based on reading news reports, one would think that “legislative squabbling” or turf wars between the Senate and the Assembly  was the cause of the inability to reach consensus on renewing the Garden State Preservation Trust, or Green Acres Program.

Here’s a typical superficial media treatment of that debate:

TRENTON — The stalemate over how to fund future open space purchases continued Thursday, with legislative committees in the Senate and Assembly advancing competing proposals.

In legislative hearings held simultaneously, the two bodies forwarded different methods of funding land preservation with no clear indication of which would reach voters, or when.

The Senate Environment Committee moved ahead with a proposal to fund open space purchases for 30 years by dedicating a percentage of the sales tax. The Assembly Budget Committee advanced a $200 million bond measure.

Or, listening to the testimony of the Keep It Green Coalition, one would think the impasse was due to the legislature’s

“inability to get its act together” (~~~ Tom Wells, The Nature Conservancy, formerly DEP Green Acres Administrator to the Senate Environment Committee today).

(Mr. Wells even had the gall, get this, to describe the Assembly $200 million bond issue as like “death from a thousand cuts” – and that is a verbatim quote. Methinks Mr. Wells is too well fed.)

But today, if one listened closely to the Senate testimony of Nicole Dallara of the Sierra Club, a much more complex set of issues emerge.

Sierra Club noted three key factors that explain the dispute:

1) the sales tax is a regressive mechanism, that is, the low income and poor – the least well off  – pay relatively far more than the wealthy and corporations;

2) the large majority of sales tax revenues are generated in urban areas (Sierra said that 80% of revenues were collected there, but I don’t know what the source of this data is. But, regardless of the precision of the data, the point seems obvious – urban areas are where the sales and commercial activity is);

3) urban areas and urban parks have historically been shortchanged in allocation of Open Space funds, as the majority of the money goes to rural and suburban area (again, Sierra claimed that 80% of the money went to rural/suburban while just 20% went to urban areas. And again, the precise data is not relevant, but the overall point seems clear – the open space is out in the countryside, while the underserved people whose relatively larger needs are not met are shortchanged and pay the lion’s share of the tab and live in the cities).

And the program funded by the Senate version would compound this situation by providing $40 million in new money for “stewardship” – funds that would be allocated to the very KIG member groups supporting the measure.

These observations raised profound geographical distributional impact and social equity questions.

The KIG coalition today seemed to shift the focus of their arguments to a claim that the sales tax is increasing and that the $200 million dedication would not divert any funds from existing programs. This shift conveniently ignores both the geographical distribution and social equity questions implicit in the sales tax funding mechanism and Open Space program they support.

These questions can no longer be swept under the rug.

The Sierra factors on who pays and who benefits suggest both a geographic distributional shift and reverse economic redistribution of income from the poor to the well off: reverse Robinhood.

When one considers who owns the lands that are purchased with those taxpayer dollars (corporations and the wealthy) and who lives there and benefits from the land that is purchased (mostly nearby homeowners and wealthy suburban towns), the case gets even stronger that there are gross disparities and inequities in the Open Space program that parallel NJ’s historic geographic reality: poor cities surrounded by wealthy suburbs – spatial relations as racial relations.

This explains why DEP lacks a strategy or plan or map or rational priorities for how the money will be spent. And why no legislator or “land conservationist” demands that they produce one – everyone likes a $200 million patronage honey pot.

So, given these un-mentioned equity and land planning issues, I find it most frustrating when members of the KIG coalition – many of whom receive state taxpayer funds to run their organizations and pay their salaries – seem so arrogantly oblivious to these social equity concerns.

And I wish that the press would stop tap dancing around this set of controversial issues and tell the story.

Giving exploding  inequality and a seemingly austerity driven right wing political prohibition on raising new revenues and making the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share, we simply can no longer tolerate or afford to feed that growing inequality by transferring $200 million from the poor in the cities to the wealthy in the suburbs.

As our good Governor Christie has said, belly up to the bar gentlemen and break open your wallets.

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