Syracuse School Board Elections Heat Up Over Police Debate

Originally published in The Appeal on June 11, 2021.
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A year ago, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, activists flooded the streets of Syracuse, New York, with demands for police reform. The Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition (SPAARC) put forth “The People’s Agenda for Policing,” which included a call to remove school cops, known euphemistically as school resource officers (SROs). Students stressed that schools rely on police too heavily for discipline and cops are too often called in for matters best handled by mental health experts or social workers. The Syracuse school district spends about $1.6 million on policing each year, and activists argued that the district could use some of that money to hire alternative support staff instead.

The push to remove police from public schools is not new, but it gained traction over the last year as racial justice protests swept the country. School boards in places like MinneapolisMilwaukeeDenver, and Portland, Maine, voted to end their contracts with local law enforcement, and in Syracuse, activists pointed to Rochester, a city just 90 minutes away, where the City Council also voted last June to remove school cops. The issue has become a focal point of local school board elections, too, like in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where some candidates campaigned last fall on promises to halt the practice of using armed police in schools.  

Research suggests the presence of cops increases suspensions and arrests, especially for young students, but there’s no consensus on whether they reduce school crime or violence. Student surveys show Black students tend to have significantly more negative perceptions of school police.

In early July, activists met with city leadership to discuss their demands. “I didn’t see that as helpful, I just saw it as a way to spill out our trauma in front of them and get blank faces in return,” said Shukri Mohamed, a leader in SPAARC and an affiliate group called CuseYouthBLM. Overall, Mohamed said she feels the school board and mayor have been very unresponsive to their concerns. “They’re very out of touch with what students are facing, even though we’ve provided them space and time and records to show what [school cops] feel like,” she said.

In light of their frustrations, Syracuse activists have their sights set on the city’s June 22 school board election. Youth have rallied behind Twiggy Billue, a longtime social justice leader and president of Syracuse’s National Action Network chapter. Billue has been pushing to remove cops from the city’s public schools for more than a decade, and in 2014 she published a book on how harsh discipline policies negatively affect students throughout life.

This isn’t Billue’s first attempt at running for the school board. In 2019, she competed against four other candidates in the Democratic primary for four spots and narrowly lost. This time there are four candidates competing for three seats. While the Syracuse Democratic Socialists of America chapter has endorsed Billue, the local Democratic Party has endorsed the three other candidates on the ballot: Karen Cordano, Nyatwa Bullock, and David Maynard.

Maynard, a former teacher and principal, said the issue of school cops “hasn’t really come up much at all” as he’s been campaigning. “It was a big issue last summer. … I believe they wrongly took a look at police officers in schools, but there wasn’t a lot of oomph for that,” he said. Maynard said his 20 years in school administration showed him the value of school police and he believes they really care about students. “They have such a complex set of abilities, and if you look at the Syracuse murder rate, violence doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door,” he said. Homicides were up 55 percent in Syracuse last year, though no data links this to violence in schools. In the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year with data available, there were 4 incidents of assault with a weapon (not including firearms or explosives) and 43 incidents of assault without a weapon.

Cordano, a parent leader, said voters have asked her about school police as she’s campaigned and says it’s “a very nuanced situation” that does not lend itself to “an easy yes or no answer.” Although she believes school police should not be used to discipline children, she says she wants to  learn how many guns and weapons they confiscate annually. “That information could change my mind in a heartbeat, depending on what the numbers are,” she said. “I feel like I don’t know enough to advocate right now, but I do think once the data is clear to me, then let’s figure it out.”

Bullock, an activist and undergraduate who is a former teaching assistant, did not respond to requests for comment.

Billue told The Appeal that working with SPAARC and the National Action Network has allowed her to look around the country and see “similarly situated” communities “finding success” in identifying school police alternatives. “We know there is potential for violence in schools but other schools have units outside of school to make sure nothing bad enters,” she said. “We also think something other than police could be implemented alongside community partners.” 

The issue of police violence in Syracuse schools came to a head in 2008, when an officer working in a high school punched a 15-year-old girl in the face and broke her nose. The cop said the student hit him first and he ultimately arrested her and charged her with attempted assault. Some parents and students defended the police officer, and others condemned his actions. The superintendent ultimately removed the cop from school, though the police chief had said the behavior was justified. About a decade later, another officer was removed when he broke a 14-year-old’s elbow during an arrest.

Some defenders of keeping police in schools point to violent incidents, like in 2018 when a teenager stabbed two students at a high school.

Most members of the Syracuse school board have been much more quiet on the issue than the candidates.

Three members—Pat Body, David Cecile, and Derrick Dorsey—are retiring, and only Body responded to a request for comment about school cops. “I voted to keep the SROs in our high schools,” she said in an email. “We want to make changes to the role.” Body did not answer a follow-up question about what kinds of changes she’d like to make.

School board commissioners Mark Muhammad and Tamica Barnett also did not respond to requests for comment. But last summer Barnett told Syracuse.com that although she’d like the board to have oversight of school resource officers, she believes they help young people establish positive relationships with police and are necessary sometimes in violent situations. “I’m inside the schools,” she said in July. “I would encourage anybody that’s really pushing for the SROs to be removed to spend days inside the schools.” Commissioner Katie Sojewicz referred media inquiries to school board president Dan Romeo.

Romeo told The Appeal that after having several board conversations about SROs, he and his colleagues have “decided that keeping them in our schools is what we would like to do going forward. There was a clear message in our discussions that we are willing to improve the SRO program and those discussions are happening.” When asked what kinds of improvements specifically, Romeo said in an email that a committee “will look at any opportunity to improve. While I am not a part of the group, I would say the [Memorandum of Agreement] with the city, job description/duties and responsibilities and personnel selection are all things that will be looked at.”

Perrine Wasser, co-chairperson of the Syracuse DSA chapter electoral committee, told The Appeal that committee members  see electing Billue as “the best chance we have at removing SROs” and that she believes some school board members could be persuaded. “I think this is what a lot of the parents want, and I think that will be clear when Twiggy shows up and has a lot of support,” Wasser said. “And she’s just the most consistent in showing up for the community and listening to what students and young people want.”

Sarhia Rahim, a SPAARC leader and co-founder of Raha Syracuse, a Muslim youth group, said she knows that even if Billue is elected “some of the other people at the table may not listen because they haven’t listened to us.” Still, Rahim said “we know where Twiggy stands … and I can’t say the same thing for a lot of the other commissioners.”

Mayor Ben Walsh is also facing a Democratic primary on June 22. His opponents, Khalid Bey, and Michael Greene, did not respond to a request for comment on school resource officers.

In an emailed statement to The Appeal, the mayor’s chief policy officer, Greg Loh, emphasized that the Walsh administration has engaged in discussions over the last year regarding the role of police, but the school board will make the final determination on district policy.  “Mayor Walsh’s Syracuse Police Reform Executive Order stated that he is committed to the implementation of a new model for school safety and security,” Loh said. “His order said the city would work in coordination with the Syracuse City School District which is governed by the Syracuse Board of Education.”

Mohamed of SPAARC and CuseYouthBLM said they’re not going to be deterred even if their goals take awhile. “We’re not stopping any time soon,” she said. “If it means we keep going for 10 years, then so be it.”

On the 2020 Murder Spike and What This Means for 2021

Originally published in The Daily Beast on June 9, 2021
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As millions of vaccinated people emerge from lockdown, returning to shops, bars and restaurants, American life is kicking back into high gear. And in the United States in 2021, that means elected officials and crime experts are bracing for an unusually deadly summer marked by wanton gun violence. 

But the reasons for and locations of the likely surge in shootings, a trend that began before but has accelerated during the pandemic, are more complicated than the effects of lockdowns or traditional seasonal shifts in urban crime patterns. Instead, experts say, everything from a flood of fentanyl and open-air drug markets to surging gun violence in rural areas and small towns could make for a remarkable season of tragedy.


Homicides generally spike every summer, but 2020 saw a spike of shootings and murders that far outpaced even the typical surge. One analysis from the Council on Criminal Justice, a research and policy group, found a 30 percent increase in homicides across 34 U.S. cities compared to 2019, and Jeff Asher, an independent crime analyst, found murder up 37 percent across 57 localities. An analysis of gun-violence data by Everytown, a gun-control advocacy group, suggests 2020 had the highest rate of gun deaths in the last 20 years.

Other types of crime, including rape and robberies, seemed to drop in 2020, likely due in part to stay-at-home orders. But homicides and shootings were already increasing between 2014 and 2019, meaning even a return to 2019 murder levels wouldn’t indicate crime is on a good track. 

“After 2014, shootings went up, and they continued to go up, and they accelerated wildly last year,” said John Roman, a crime researcher with the University of Chicago. “Why is that? We don’t know, but the thinking that it’s suddenly going to stop strikes me as wishful thinking. The best [crime] predictor of what happens this year is what happened last year.”

One challenge in interpreting crime data in general—and making sense of the 2020 surge in particular—is the slow pace at which it is published. National news outlets have run many stories highlighting the murder wave in large U.S. cities, painting a picture of spikes that are unique to those generally liberal, urban areas. “The U.S. saw significant crime rise across major cities in 2020 [a]nd it’s not letting up,” read one CNN headline from April typifying the genre. 

But one reason reporters tend to focus on crime in large cities is because they have the capacity to publish more frequent crime statistics, whereas other smaller towns and rural areas don’t or choose not to. 

The grim reality is that while murder spikes were most pronounced in large cities, shootings and homicides were up significantly across all U.S jurisdictions last year. Preliminary FBI data from nearly 13,000 law enforcement agencies found cities with 25,000 people or less saw 25 percent increases in murder last year, and mid-sized cities had increases ranging from 24-31 percent. Final FBI data will be published in September.

“Even in the suburbs and rural areas it was up 15 percent,” Asher told The Daily Beast. “Crime fell last year in America, but murder rose historically.”

So what are the most plausible explanations? One likely factor is a jump in the number of guns in America, which somehow has gotten even more out of hand. FBI data suggests nearly 40 million guns were sold last year, a 40 percent increase from 2019. New data from Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found roughly 20 percent of those who bought guns last year were first-time gun owners. 

The research also found 39 percent of American households now own guns, up from 32 percent five years earlier. 

“Gun crime usually occurs between people who know each other, and if you talk to cops, they’ll tell you that there are more than the traditional players who are now carrying guns,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

The research literature is clear, added Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University: more guns mean more gun deaths. Whether that means the huge increase in 2020 gun sales is the best explanation for spiking gun violence is less clear. 

“Honestly we don’t know, though we should know soon,” Webster said, pointing to the forthcoming data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF), which traces crime to specific guns. “Once that data comes out, we’ll be able to see in a fairly direct way: were those gun sales used quickly in crime, or is this just a coincidence.”

Webster said his main concern going forward is that more guns, combined with more guns in public places because states are making it easier to carry firearms legally, coupled with more illegally-carried guns due to a loosely regulated secondary gun market, all increase the chance for violence. “As a public health epidemiologist, basically what that translates to is more exposure to guns, more people in more places with firearms, and even though the vast majority are going to be safe and not harm themselves or others, some portion will,” he said.

The pandemic itself stands as another likely explanation for the increase in shootings and homicides. And, indeed, this overlaps with the increase in gun sales, as purchases spiked in the early months of the pandemic, even before police-violence protests stoked fears of unrest. The pandemic weakened community institutions that experts say typically help deter crime. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist and criminologist at Princeton, has said the corresponding disconnection from places like schools and pools and rec centers all help increase the conditions that may lead to violent behavior.

Roman at the University of Chicago, too, has argued that the disruption of routine activities for large numbers of young men in poor areas likely contributed to violence with other young men in similar situations. But he told The Daily Beast that the infusion of federal stimulus funds to state and local governments should help support those institutions and individuals who help keep people from committing crime and being victim to crime, including therapists and social workers, and libraries and pools.

A less plausible explanation for the rise in homicides, though one that gets quite a bit of airtime on cable news, is the so-called de-policing theory, which suggests police have scaled back their work in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. Dating to at least 2014, the suggestion has been that police are either doing their jobs less well because of low morale from being criticized, or simply being less proactive in the field out of fear of discipline or even criminal punishment. Some pundits have pointed to cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, which saw stark increases in homicides last year, as evidence that activist pressure to “defund the police” is driving the murder surge.

But even some law-enforcement leaders acknowledge the weaknesses of the defund theory.

Laura Cooper, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents police executives in the U.S. and Canada, told The Daily Beast that the defund the police movement “has not been pervasive” across their membership cities. And, she noted, “in a lot of places, they’ve actually increased police budgets.” Cooper added their data shows violent crime has increased, even in the first quarter of 2021, regardless of whether cities increased or decreased their police budgets. 

That’s not to say tensions with the police have had no relationship to crime levels. If police are perceived as illegitimate, then community members tend to be less likely to cooperate or assist cops in investigations. “If you ask police chiefs what will make a difference, they will tell you that the most important thing is regaining public trust with the community,” said Wexler. “It sounds sort of fuzzy, but it’s not.”


One likely explanation for 2020 gun violence that gets less airtime is the opioid crisis and the corresponding explosion of open-air drug markets. Preliminary CDC data suggests more than 87,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, a 29 percent increase from 2019. Black Americans were disproportionately affected, and the drug overdoses were driven largely by fentanyl and other opioids.

Roman said the fentanyl crisis could help explain some of the geographic spillover in shootings and homicides we’re seeing. “Open-air drug markets are the ultimate recipe for violence,” he said. “You have dealers fighting over customers, customers fighting with dealers, wholesale networks on top of that competing for market share. New beefs, turf wars, gangs.”

Roman thinks one reason politicians focus less on opioids is because it’s just a massive problem that defies demographic realities, and has no obvious solution. “But it’s pretty myopic,” he said. “We have this huge [opioid] problem we all know about it. And we’ve decided it isn’t related to this other murder problem that takes place in the exact same space.”

Webster of Johns Hopkins agrees the role of drugs and illegal drug markets is “an under-examined” factor. 

“The increase that we’re seeing in overdose deaths really is a signal that obviously drug markets are very active places,” he said. “So I actually suspect that there is a connection, though what we do about is a far more challenging question.” Webster believes drug markets are a less-studied factor because they’re just harder to measure, and “we get too comfortable” with other explanations, like policing and anger over it. 

The first few months of 2021 have shown few signs of improvement in terms of shootings and homicides. One analysis from Asher of 37 cities suggested murders were up 18 percent over the same period last year, and gun sales have continued apace

As the public and elected officials grapple with these and forthcoming crime statistics, there will be a familiar pressure to respond by increasing police budgets, even though policing is more of an indirect response to violence. Indeed, in the New York City mayoral race, three leading candidates have all backed more resources for cops even as rivals call for the NYPD to be defunded. 

But if spending more on police can have a marginal benefit in crime reduction, as the country learned from its largest protest wave in history, it can also help provoke backlash and long-term community harm. 

“I think the story is pretty simple and we make it pretty complicated,” said Roman. “The reason you get a gun is because you’re afraid of someone using that gun against you. What we can do is change how fearful people are of other people with guns. That’s really the only way out. It’s the difficult path, and it’s not clear how much of that runs through traditional policing.” 

New York City Unions Prepare to Shift Retirees Off Medicare

Originally published in The Intercept on June 8, 2021.
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NEW YORK CITY public sector unions are pushing a plan to move retirees from Medicare to privatized health insurance, drawing intense protest from thousands of members. The move, which could affect 200,000 municipal retirees — including retired teachers, sanitation and park workers, firefighters, and staff from the City University of New York — and their 50,000 dependents, could be finalized as soon as July 1. But many members are hoping to stop it.

In New York City, public sector retirees are insured by Medicare, the federal government’s program for people over 65, and the city reimburses for outpatient care, as well as for a supplemental “Medigap” plan that offers additional services. The proposed switch, which would move retirees to privatized health insurance through a program known as Medicare Advantage, comes as retiree health care costs continue to climb, putting strain on city budgets and union negotiating power.

Stu Eber, president of the Council of Municipal Retiree Organizations, which advocates for retired city workers, told The Intercept that his organization is concerned that retirees will lose access to their current providers and at existing Medicare rates; that not all local hospitals currently accept Medicare Advantage, including the illustrious Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; and that Medicare Advantage typically requires patients to seek permission from an insurance company for tests and procedures. “We do not have these barriers now, and we do not want them in the future,” Eber said. “Gatekeepers can delay our necessary health care and even kill us.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the New York City teachers union, told local labor publication The Chief that embracing Medicare Advantage was “our way of not sitting back” as health care costs continue to weaken the union’s ability to win teacher salary increases and other benefits. “The last thing I want is for health care to be at the center of every collective-bargaining negotiation,” Mulgrew said.

In 2018, New York City’s Office of Labor Relations negotiated an agreement with the Municipal Labor Committee, which represents retired city employees, to save $600 million annually in health care costs, beginning in 2021. Switching to Medicare Advantage was one of eight ideas put forward at the time; others included consolidating drug pricing and auditing insurers for claims and accuracy.

The city has yet to release specific details of the Medicare Advantage plan, including its proposed private provider. As more members have gotten wind of the health insurance switch in recent months, New York’s public sector unions have been attempting to quell the mounting anger.

In mid-March, Eber sent a letter to the Municipal Labor Committee and Mayor Bill de Blasio admonishing them for having never consulted with the 200,000 retirees and their families about Medicare Advantage. “The lack of transparency in your rush to change this program is both insulting and frightening to those of us who have collectively worked millions of years serving the people of New York City,” Eber wrote.

“I definitely do not want to go on Medicare Advantage, and I’ve been very, very upset since I’ve found out about this,” said Shelley Cohn, a retired public school teacher who has been on Medicare for the last six years. “It’s a disgrace.”

Cohn and over 15,000 retirees have signed a petition urging for the continuation of Medicare Part B benefits. “We contributed to Medicare during our years of employment with the tacit understanding that we will have the hard earned entitlement when we turned 65,” the petition reads. Teachers also point to the United Federation of Teachers’s own multiple resolutions against privatized health insurance and de Blasio’s stated opposition to privatized health insurance when he ran for president.

MEDICARE ADVANTAGE WAS launched in the early 2000s with the stated goals of giving consumers more choice in their health insurance offerings and reducing overall Medicare costs. Monthly premiums in Medicare Advantage plans are typically lower compared to those offered by traditional Medicare, and the plans often include additional benefits like vision and dental that traditional Medicare plans don’t provide.

The convenience of “one-stop shopping” for benefits and lower premiums have served as attractive incentives for seniors, many of whom live on fixed incomes. More than 24 million Americans were enrolled in such Medicare Advantage plans as of last summer, roughly 43 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries.

The concern, though, is that while Medicare Advantage may seem like a good financial deal to relatively healthy seniors, as they get older and develop more complicated health care needs, they could end up paying much more than they would have under Medicare. With traditional Medicare, retirees can access the majority of health care providers, and patients are not required to get pre-authorization from insurance companies to receive any tests or procedures their physicians recommend.

A deputy commissioner from the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations acknowledged that such pre-approval from insurance would likely be required for municipal retirees under a shift to Medicare Advantage. Cost savings often come from making it harder for patients to access services.

Diane Archer, president of Just Care, which offers health and financial information to seniors, said if New York City moves forward with the shift, “they’ll be saving money on the backs of retirees” who need expensive care. Corporations and unions nationwide have been able to avoid an outcry over similar cost-cutting moves “because the majority of people they’re moving are in good health and value what appears to be additional benefits; they generally don’t understand the financial and administrative barriers to care they will face when they need costly care.”

A mayoral spokesperson told New York Focus that any new health care plan “will increase both quality and benefits for retirees” and “will also remain free for them while lowering costs for the City.” A spokesperson for the city did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

In a statement provided to the Intercept, United Federation of Teachers spokesperson Alison Gendar said the union is seeking to create a plan that “replicates the network size and structure of the current … plan, without any reduction in benefit.” The UFT’s position, Gendar added, is that any new health care plan “must provide our members with the same or improved benefit structure. Members must have access to the same doctors in addition to having the choice of any Medicare-eligible providers.”

In a meeting with the UFT retirees’ chapter on May 4, Mulgrew, the teachers union president, stressed that the union’s plan would not be like the “horror stories” members had been hearing.

“Unions can negotiate something better for their retirees than people can get on their own in the Medicare marketplace, but I don’t think it will be anywhere as good as what they have now,” said Archer. “Mulgrew explains that people will still have premium-free care, but he doesn’t explain that they could have out-of-pocket costs that will be prohibitive if they develop a complex condition.”

NEW YORK CITY labor groups aren’t the first unions to look to Medicare Advantage as a way to cut costs. Experts predict that there could be a marked increase across the country over the next few years as local budgets come under more strain.

Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, noted that Medicare Advantage is being considered at a time when organized labor is under attack from multiple levels, including over pensions and retiree health care. Unlike traditional Medicare, Medicare Advantage invests heavily in sales representatives who market their products nationwide. “They always have an answer, but it’s just like if you’ve ever been pitched to buy a timeshare,” Lawson said. “Yeah, those people make a good pitch; it doesn’t change the fact that it’s just a hustle.”

Lawson predicted that other big-ticket unions will follow the UFT’s lead. “I don’t think you could say right now that you know for certain how it’s going to go based on the experience of other unions,” he said, but he believes that the UFT is “generally at the beginning” of the trend.

Health care researchers say it’s not necessarily true that New York City retirees will be worse off under Medicare Advantage, but the lack of good data makes it hard to be confident. “Surprisingly little is known about how much Medicare Advantage enrollees pay out of pocket for the services they receive overall, across plans, according to health condition, or in comparison to beneficiaries in traditional Medicare (with or without supplemental coverage),” wrote Kaiser Family Foundation researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2018.

Jason Abaluck, an economist at Yale whose research found great variation among Medicare Advantage plans, told The Intercept the existing evidence “is not completely clear that [New York City retirees] will not have a more efficient plan and of the same quality” under Medicare Advantage.

One reputable study from 2018 found that when Medicare Advantage patients were forced off their plans because their private provider exited the market, the patients who switched to traditional Medicare ended up utilizing hospitals much more often, but there was no change in mortality rates. Abaluck said that while mortality doesn’t capture everything, the study “counts as evidence against the claim that Medicare Advantage plans are harming people by spending less, but it is far from definitive.”

Other studies have shown that individuals in Medicare Advantage plans tend to utilize fewer health care services, including preventative care. “This suggests that some of the tools that Medicare Advantage plans are using to control costs are pretty blunt instruments,” said Abaluck. Some research has suggested that individuals with poorer health tend to disenroll from Medicare Advantage plans more often. A 2018 Office of Inspector General report found evidence of inappropriate delays and denials of care and coverage under Medicare Advantage plans, which also suggests that beneficiaries had initially been denied services and payments they were entitled to receive.

This past spring, in an annual federally mandated analysis on Medicare, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission wrote that “the current state of quality reporting in [Medicare Advantage] is such that the Commission can no longer provide an accurate description of the quality of care.”

David Meyers, a Brown University health policy researcher, told The Intercept that much more work is needed to understand how Medicare Advantage plans work for the sickest patients with the most serious needs. One study Meyers worked on found that Medicare Advantage beneficiaries were more likely to enter lower quality nursing homes than those on traditional Medicare. Other research by Meyers found that about 30 percent of Medicare Advantage plans have narrow primary care networks, and even more have narrow psychiatry as well as mental and behavioral health options. Limiting provider options is “one way plans can save money,” Meyers said.

“We’ve gotten some verbal assurances from the unions, like Mulgrew said Memorial Sloane Kettering would accept Medicare Advantage, but let’s see that in writing,” said Eber. “No one has given us a written explanation of how the city expects to save $600 million, yet the vendor is going to make a profit and retirees won’t pay the price.”

Biden Says He Backs a Just Transition for the Climate Crisis. Advocates Say, “Prove It.”

Originally published in In These Times on June 2.
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One of the most difficult problems that political leaders have faced in addressing climate change has not involved the science or technology, but the politics, including bringing key constituencies like energy workers and their labor unions on board. This skepticism and resistance to change is why a so-called ​“just transition” — referring to an ethical and economically secure shift away from a fossil-fuel powered economy — has become so integral to crafting a successful climate plan. 

Figuring out how to provide economic security for both energy workers that have depended on the nation’s fossil fuels and frontline communities has become a leading priority for activists and elected officials alike. The Biden administration, for its part, has thrown its weight behind developing a just transition, though some advocates tell In These Times that federal leaders haven’t gone far enough, or worry the executive branch’s rhetoric won’t deliver real results. Other researchers have called for more careful study of past economic transitions, as well as more firm commitments around social programs such as universal healthcare. 

On January 27, one week after taking office, Biden signed an executive order establishing an interagency working group focused on addressing the economic needs of ​“coal, oil, gas, and power plant communities.” The group, co-chaired by National Economic Council director Brian Deese and National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy, is a collaboration between 12 federal agencies including the labor, interior, treasury and energy departments. 

In late April the working group published an initial report identifying 25 of the most impacted regions for coal-related declines, and highlighted existing federal programs that could provide nearly $38 billion in funding for relief. The report noted that ​“creating good-paying union jobs in Energy Communities is necessary but not sufficient” and stressed that ​“foundational infrastructure investments” including broadband, water systems, roads, hospitals and other institutions would be necessary to economically revitalize these areas. The group also noted that a just transition would require prioritizing pollution mitigation and environmental remediation, like plugging leaking oil and gas wells and reclaiming abandoned mine land. These objectives hold the potential not only for job creation but also achieving environmental justice priorities.

Next steps from the working group include organizing town halls with senior Biden administration officials in affected communities like those in Appalachia, the Northern Rocky Mountain region, the Illinois Basin, and the Mid-Continental Gulf Coast, and establishing a centralized mechanism for distributing federal resources. 

Near the end of its second term the Obama administration launched its own interagency effort to provide grant funding and technical assistance to communities impacted by the transition to renewable energy. Known as the POWER Initiative, the effort was never subject to a formal Government Accountability Office evaluation but a 2019 analysis prepared by the Congressional Research Service determined some of its legacy programs continued to be active and receive annual appropriations under the Trump administration. The Appalachian Regional Commission credited the POWER Initiative for investing over $200 million in 239 projects across Appalachia. Jason Walsh, the executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, told In These Times that the Biden administration’s effort is ​“the POWER Initiative on steroids.” (Walsh convened the POWER Initiative prior to joining BlueGreen.)

Just infrastructure

Biden also included some measures to support a just transition in his recently released infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan, such as a $16 billion fund that would finance energy workers plugging oil and gas wells and cleaning up abandoned mines. ​“In addition to creating good jobs in hard-hit communities, this investment will reduce the methane and brine that leaks from these wells, just as we invest in reducing leaks from other sources like aging pipes and distribution systems,” reads one White House fact sheet.

The American Jobs Plan also endorses an $100 billion investment in projects such as affordable broadband access and calls for a new $40 billion Dislocated Worker Program at the Labor Department.

Walsh, of BlueGreen, said more is needed to support workers on the legislative front, and that his group has been having ​“an open dialogue” with the administration on how to make those supports a reality. ​“We need to start from recognition that our existing Department of Labor programs are not designed to sufficiently support workers who are dislocated, they just don’t provide enough support,” he said.

Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said he worries the proposed amounts of spending in the American Jobs Plan are too low — and others too vague in their description. With respect to the $16 billion for plugging oil and gas wells, for example, Richardson noted that the plan ​“doesn’t specify the breakdown in cleaning up these sites, but it’s likely that this amount is insufficient to meet the needs.” Other development initiatives were mentioned in the American Jobs Plan, such as the Economic Development Administration’s Public Works program, but without proposed funding levels. Richardson notes the plan is also silent on other important areas relevant to a just transition, like the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and removing loopholes from our nation’s bankruptcy laws that have enabled corporations to abdicate responsibility to their workers.

Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund, a philanthropic effort focused on helping coal communities, called Biden’s infrastructure plan ​“an ambitious first step.”

Lawmakers in Congress have pushed forward just transition bills that overlap with priorities in the American Jobs Plan. Last month, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D‑NM) introduced an $8 billion bill called the Orphaned Wells Cleanup and Jobs Act. ​“Communities suffer when oil and gas companies abandon their drilling sites and don’t clean them up,” said House Committee on Natural Resources Chair Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D‑NM) in a statement supporting the bill. ​“I look forward to the day when these hazardous sites are a thing of the past.”

In the Senate, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D‑NM) introduced the Schools and State Budgets Certainty Act, aimed at helping states like New Mexico wean off the money they currently rely on from the federal fossil fuel leasing program. (The leasing program accounts for almost a quarter of the country’s annual carbon output and generated nearly $8.1 billion in tax revenue for the federal, state, local and tribal governments last year.

Nicole Ghio, a senior fossil fuels program manager at Friends of the Earth, said while she has some concern with Heinrich’s bill as presently drafted, her group strongly supports the legislative goal of helping states decouple their revenue from the federal leasing program as part of a just transition. ​“We’ve seen what an unmanaged decline of fossil fuels looks like,” she told In These Times. ​“We need to avoid repeating what’s happened in Appalachia.”

What energy workers need

Outside of the proposals made by the White House and in Congress, advocacy groups are helping to highlight the urgency of making a just transition central to any climate and infrastructure plans.

report published in March by the Labor Network for Sustainability, which supports unions in tackling climate change, featured lessons and interviews with more than 100 workers, Indigenous leaders and community representatives about navigating workplace closures, the climate crisis and major upheavals in local economies. The Just Transition Listening Project spotlights some encouraging examples of what a just transition might look like, such as the Redwood Employee Protection Program of 1978, a federal initiative that supported dislocated timber workers. That program provided up to six years of pay, benefits, vacation, relocation and retraining for full-time and seasonal workers and a three-year bridge to retirement for those 62 and over.

The report also highlighted the justified skepticism from some workers that new clean energy jobs would offer comparable standards of living, and it explored tensions between environmental justice activists and union members.

Mijin Cha, an assistant professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College and one of the report’s co-authors, told In These Times that it’s important to remember that fossil fuel jobs themselves were not necessarily good jobs when they first came online. ​“We have created a lot of low-paying renewable energy jobs but there’s no reason they have to be,” she said. ​“It’s through worker organizing and worker power that they can become good jobs.” The Just Transition Listening Project endorses passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, federal legislation that would eliminate right-to-work laws, impose new penalties on employers who retaliate against union organizing and establish new rules so that employers can’t delay negotiating collective bargaining contracts. This type of pro-union legislation would help give renewable energy workers more power on the job. 

Still, worker skepticism on quality job creation is understandable, as ​“it took decades and decades of bargaining to make those jobs well-paying and provide pensions,” said Todd Vachon, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, and another report co-author. Labor laws today are also much weaker compared to the 1930s, though the PRO Act would help address that.

Common themes that emerged in Just Transition Listening Project interviews included fears over the sustainability of replacement jobs as well as the affordability of healthcare, retirement and education. To ease these concerns, the report authors recommend instituting universal programs like Medicare for All that would help alleviate a lot of the anxiety that sparks opposition to economic transitions. The authors also explored the idea of creating universal transition programs not just for energy workers but also for workers facing dislocation from automation and outsourcing. ​“If we could really provide a robust social safety net, it would make a huge difference,” said Dimitris Stevis, a political science professor at Colorado State University and another report co-author.

Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies and the co-chair of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, commended Biden’s team for endorsing the passage of the PRO Act to help workers unionize, but he lamented that the administration and even most Democrats haven’t embraced single-payer healthcare. ​“The fact that that’s not really a part of the just transition conversation shows how lacking in a comprehensive vision the administration and political leadership’s vision is,” he said.

Walsh of BlueGreen alliance said that ideally there would be a generous universal dislocated worker program. ​“I would love to be able to work toward that, though I’m skeptical we’ll get there,” he said. ​“I also want to take advantage of the opportunity we have over the next 4 – 6 months to pass infrastructure legislation and fight hard for energy workers who are most impacted right now.” 

Cha of Occidental said serious gaps still exist in our understanding about how past economic transitions have played out. ​“We don’t really know what happened, where the workers were displaced to,” she said. ​“We have general numbers, but we don’t have good qualitative data and it’s all really incomplete.”

The researchers think Covid-19 has impacted the conversation around a just transition as well, as millions of workers experienced very recent and concrete job losses and disruptions from the pandemic. Following the report’s publication the authors led a congressional briefing for House and Senate staff, and have been in subsequent discussions with some of those offices, according to Labor Network for Sustainability spokesperson Judy Asman.

Asman said her group also submitted recommendations based on the report to Biden’s interagency task force, and presented their findings to Greenpeace International, Last Chance Alliance, and some labor organizations, though she declined to specify which. 

Cha said the important thing for lawmakers to realize is that they don’t have to start from scratch. ​“We know how to meet the immediate material needs of workers so they don’t have to be in crisis,” she said. ​“We know that wage supplements and universal programs can give workers and communities time to develop what they need. We know what people need on a basic level.”

Pressure Mounts to Tax the Rich in Connecticut

Originally published in The Intercept on May 28, 2021.
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In the wealthiest state in the country, a legislative fight is brewing over whether to tax the elite residents who bring the state its superlative. Connecticut boasts the third-largest center for hedge funds in the world, 14 resident billionaires, and trifecta control for the Democratic Party, including a supermajority in the state Senate and a near supermajority in the House. In April, the state’s Finance and Revenue Committee approved a package with tax cuts for poor and middle-class residents, financed largely with new taxes on households earning more than $500,000 per year. But the General Assembly ends June 9, and Connecticut’s Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont has declared that he will veto any such move. 

“Governor Lamont has been clear for months: Connecticut doesn’t need more taxes, we need more taxpayers,” said spokesperson Max Reiss in a statement to The Intercept.

Connecticut isn’t just the nation’s wealthiest state — it’s also among the most unequal ones, with the top 1 percent out-earning the rest by more than 42 to 1. Affluent towns like Darien and Greenwich stand in stark contrast to the realities of deeply poor cities like Hartford and Bridgeport. (Lamont, a multimillionaire who grew his personal fortune through the telecommunications industry, lives in Greenwich.)

“I think sometimes people think they know more than they know,” said Rodney Wade, a pastor from Waterbury, Connecticut, who has been advocating for the tax increases through a labor, faith, and grassroots coalition known as Recovery for All. “And when you don’t understand the language and the issues, then you believe that you have the answers. At the end of the day it boils down to who has your ear, and what we’ve learned is it’s been hard to get the governor’s ear, compared to his buddies.” 

Connecticut’s state legislature isn’t the only one in the Northeast to recently lean into a progressive revenue campaign, and advocates are hoping that their neighbors’ wins will help them with leverage. Last year, New Jersey became one of the first states to pass a millionaires’ tax, increasing state income taxes on millionaires by nearly 2 percentage points while also creating a new annual rebate for families earning less than $150,000.

This past spring, New York lawmakers also succeeded in passing new legislation to tax the state’s highest earners and corporations, something New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo had long resisted. All told, the legislation will raise $4.5 billion in new revenue, in part by increasing the personal income tax rate on individuals making over $1 million.

“Every time a state rejects the notion of austerity and leans into raising revenue, it’s more wind in our sails,” said Charles Khan, the organizing director at Strong Economy for All, a labor and community coalition in New York. “So seeing New Jersey do that last year, and seeing [Gov. Phil Murphy], a former Goldman Sachs exec sign it — that really helped.”

Activists and lawmakers in Connecticut are pushing increases on the wealthiest households that would generate about $760 million annually, plus a tax on digital ads that could generate an additional $162 million per year.

Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Connecticut-based conservative think tank Yankee Institute for Public Policy, told The Intercept that the proposed tax increases would “make the state more dependent than ever on volatile investment income” and argued that in the past, when such revenues haven’t materialized, the state turned to less-targeted tax hikes that hit the poor harder. According to Liebau, the newly proposed tax increases “target people who are extremely mobile and often have the option to move their residence to a lower-tax state.” She pointed to an analysis from her think tank showing that Connecticut still hasn’t recovered the number of high-earning households it had before the Great Recession. It “barely” remains the wealthiest state, the think tank warns.

For decades, efforts to raise revenue by taxing a state’s wealthiest residents have been met with arguments similar to Liebau’s. Resistant lawmakers and local business groups warn that taxing the rich too much would drive the wealthy to move away altogether, leaving the state with even less revenue than they started with. The other common refrain is that higher taxation is an issue for the federal government to address, not something that can be tackled on a state-by-state basis. 

Both arguments sound true at first blush: Adjusting federal tax policy would be a major game-changer, while at the same time, the wealthy already avoid the full cost of their tax bills. Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the London School of Economics; the University of California, Berkeley; Carnegie Mellon University; and the IRS put out a new analysis, estimating that the richest 5 percent of Americans hide more than 20 percent of their earnings each year from the federal government. 

But in recent years, a growing number of advocates and researchers have begun to push back on these talking points, homing in especially on the fear that state tax policy significantly drives residential migration patterns. (Climate preference appears to be a much greater factor.) One Cornell University sociologist analyzed tax return data and found that the rich rarely change the state where they live. Just 2.4 percent of millionaires move across state lines each year, and of those, only 1 in 8 were chasing lower taxes — or 0.3 percent of millionaires overall. “So tax flight is not a figment of our imagination, but it is greatly exaggerated,” wrote the researcher, Cristobol Young. “This fraction of moves is too small to matter, especially as New York continues to grow new millionaires faster than any leave.”

Khan, of Strong Economy for All, said his group’s work in New York has also revealed how state-based reforms can impact federal conversations. “When we can pass model-type legislation in blue states, it further moves the constituencies of those House and Senate members to be in favor of taxes,” he said. “So we’ve seen it does help us on the national level.”

Zohran Kwame Mamdani, a New York state assembly member who supported raising taxes, said his legislative colleagues often argued that taxation was a national responsibility and not their fight. His colleague Yuh-Line Niou, who also pushed for tax increases, added, “We heard that since there’s going to be dollars coming from the federal government, we don’t have to raise this money. But what we’ve said over and over is, well, that’s going to be a one-time infusion, and we need funding in perpetuity.”

In February, lawmakers, unions, and community groups from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts convened for a “legislative teach-in” to strategize on how to wage the most successful campaigns. More recently, dozens of legislators from those states signed on to a letter calling to end tax breaks for the wealthy and push more progressive state tax systems.

Connecticut advocates with Recovery for All say the proposed tax increases could go a long way toward funding housing, social services, and health care. “The funds could help finance more school counselors, support for paraprofessionals, food availability because some students need meals also at night and on the weekends,” said Jeff Leake, president of the Connecticut Education Association. Callie Heilmann, co-director of the grassroots group Bridgeport Generation Now!, added that the wealth tax could help support an alternative to policing. “We want to fully fund our mobile crisis teams so they can operate 24/7,” she said.

THE TAX INCREASES on the table in Connecticut are more modest than advocates sought even a few months ago. In early 2021, progressive lawmakers introduced legislation in both chambers to generate $4 billion-plus from the state’s wealthiest residents and corporations. Hundreds turned out in March to testify in support.

Sen. John Fonfara, a Democrat from Hartford — the poorest city in Connecticut — and one of the finance committee’s co-chairs, had originally aimed to raise taxes on households earning more than $140,000 annually, but he told The Intercept he couldn’t garner enough support from his colleagues for that. Still, the legislature has “never pushed anything of this magnitude before,” and he credits the Recovery for All coalition for pushing him to think more seriously about progressive taxation.

“I candidly admit I had not spent anywhere near enough time with the 2014 Department of Revenue Services incidence report,” he said, referring to an analysis that revealed the state’s regressive tax structure. “I now consider that my bible in many respects.”

Martin Looney, president pro tempore of the Connecticut Senate, acknowledged that changes to the tax code have thus far been modest and incremental. “I certainly believe we should take every opportunity to keep advocating for making our tax code more progressive, including having a separate capital gains tax,” he told The Intercept. “We’re going to continue to advocate for them in our negotiations with the governor.”

Business groups, Republicans, and Lamont have continued to stick to their arguments that taxing the wealthy more would be detrimental for the nation’s wealthiest state.

Lamont has pointed to the billions of dollars in relief funding for the coronavirus pandemic coming into Connecticut from the federal government as reason to avoid imposing new taxes. “The administration wants us to believe our economic problems just started with Covid,” said Fonfara.

“The discussion is predicated on the belief that Connecticut state government isn’t spending enough money,” said Liebau, of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. “Our elected officials should be finding better ways to give people their money’s worth, not conjuring up new ways to take more of it.”

Lamont’s opposition strikes some Democrats as particularly out of step, since he was one of the earliest endorsers of President Joe Biden, and Biden, along with Democrats in Congress — who have a much slimmer majority — have made a point of public support for taxing the rich. Lamont’s adamant centrism also stands in strong contrast to the progressive mantle he claimed when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2006, campaigning on ending the Iraq War and investing in public education. He moved rightward just four years later, when he positioned himself as a pragmatic businessperson in his gubernatorial bid.

Advocates in the Recovery for All coalition are still determining how they’ll ramp up pressure over the next two weeks, but they stress that their work will continue beyond the 2021 budget cycle. “There’s never been this type of coalition that has worked together before,” said Joelyn Leon, political director of the Connecticut Employees Union Independent, SEIU Local 511. Last week, the coalition held a mass rally at the state Capitol in support of the proposed tax increases, and earlier this month, they stormed the governor’s residence in Hartford to stage a “die-in” in support of a more equitable budget. They’re also running a series of digital ads to pressure the governor.

“What New Jersey’s done does help us from a lobbying perspective,” said Jennifer Berigan, the legislative and political director at Connecticut AFL-CIO. “What New York and New Jersey in particular [have] done demonstrates what’s possible.”

“Yes, the ideal approach would be a nationwide approach, but in the meantime there’s a lot we can do,” said Mamdani of New York. “This is not a zero-sum game.”

Startup Alternative to Rental Security Deposits Gets Legal Backing in Baltimore

Originally published in The Intercept on May 5, 2021.

A NEW BILL in Baltimore passed the City Council last month, promising to address the problem of high security deposits for renters while being met with objections from local housing and tenant groups. Mirroring similar statutes that have passed recently in two other cities, the bill requires Baltimore landlords to offer alternatives to the traditional security deposit. If tenants can’t or don’t want to pay a lump sum up front, landlords must offer one of two alternatives: either pay the regular deposit in three monthly installments or purchase so-called rental security insurance.

The bill doesn’t specifically name Rhino, a real estate startup that launched in 2017, but it’s widely understood that “security insurance” refers to a financial product that Rhino promotes. The product allows tenants to pay a small monthly nonrefundable fee in lieu of a large refundable security deposit. The average Baltimore deposit is $1,000, and a typical Rhino policy for that would be about $5 per month.

Local housing groups in Baltimore say they support the idea of offering three monthly installments as an alternative, but virtually all housing activists in the city have concerns about the Rhino insurance model. Lawmakers rejected an amendment introduced by Ryan Dorsey, one of just two council members to vote against the legislation, to take the Rhino option out of the bill.

The local outlet the Baltimore Brew reported that Rhino lobbied for the legislation and arranged for two council members, including the bill’s primary sponsor, Council Vice-President Sharon Green Middleton, to speak on Rhino-hosted housing roundtables. (Middleton did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment.) Jordan Stein, Rhino’s head of public policy and a onetime assistant in former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, registered as a city lobbyist on March 29, two days after the Baltimore Brew article was published.

The bill is heralded as “giving renters choice,” but the legislative text gives the ability to pick between monthly installments or Rhino to the landlord, not the tenant. Landlords nationwide dislike monthly installment options, typically viewing them as too risky.

The bill is now on the mayor’s desk. In a letter sent to Mayor Brandon Scott and the City Council, the Baltimore Renters United coalition urged a veto, calling the bill predatory and warning of unanticipated costs for tenants down the line. Under the Rhino model, the company promises to cover the landlord’s risk up to the value of the deposit, and if a landlord files claims for excessive damage on top of that or for unpaid rent that Rhino deems legitimate, then the company will pay the landlord and seek reimbursement from the renter. Rhino co-founder Ankur Jain told The Intercept that it would never sue a renter for those costs and that if a renter defaults on their bill, the company will simply take a loss, but Rhino’s tenant agreement form warns that failure to repay could hurt the tenant’s credit score and their ability to find housing or obtain any kind of insurance in the future. (Scott’s office did not return multiple requests for comment.)

The Baltimore Sun editorial board has urged the mayor to sign the legislation, arguing that renters may even be more protected from false landlord claims with Rhino and that “the important thing is, they will have choices.”

Less than two weeks after the council passed the law, Middleton co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post with a city council member from Atlanta and the mayor of Cincinnati, the two other cities that have adopted the legislation, in which they “strongly encourage cities across the country” to follow suit. 

“If local leaders have any doubts, look to our results,” they write. “Renter’s Choice legislation is one of the best examples today of private-sector innovations leading to public-sector solutions.”

In December, CNN Business published a piece with a similar stance, in which Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, and Jain argued together that pushing more “renter’s choice” bills would unlock funds from security deposits and provide immediate relief to tenants. “While the federal government continues to delay, we’re bringing about the single largest rent relief initiative in the country,” they claimed. Tenant advocates in Miami immediately blasted the op-ed.

Lawmakers in at least 10 other states have announced their intent to pursue similar bills, despite little evaluation of how the nascent laws have worked. (Rhino says 1 million renters use their insurance nationwide.) In an open letter, a coalition of supportive politicians linked to a petition hosted by Kairos, a venture capital firm that backs Rhino and which Jain also co-founded. Both supporters and detractors say they’re looking to prioritize the needs of low-income, vulnerable renters.

“Many of the people who will benefit from this legislation are seniors and Black and Latina women raising children,” Middleton wrote on Facebook. “[The bill] is about equity and confronting homelessness in a city where 70% of our neighbors without housing are Black.”

Zeke Cohen, the other Baltimore council member to vote against the bill, noted that his city was ground zero for the subprime mortgage crisis. The Rhino bonds “have a similar logic,” he told The Intercept. “They get tenants into housing quickly without the need for a security deposit. But just like subprime loans, they may result in financial ruin. … As always, the people who will be most hurt by this are financially vulnerable Baltimoreans, who are mostly Black and brown.”

JAIN, THE RHINO CO-FOUNDER, is a well-connected young entrepreneur who formerly worked as a vice president for Tinder. In an interview, Jain insisted that his goal was to ease the burden on renters.

“We look at the opportunity cost and the loss of flexibility from locking away that hard-earned money in an escrow account,” he said. “Someone might decide it’s better for them to have super low monthly premiums [instead of a security deposit] and use that money to pay off debt or interest payments or put it in the stock market where it can have a higher return.” Rhino and its supporters have been calling this idea a “stimulus” since it would free up funds an individual could theoretically spend.

In 2019, Rhino released a “Renter Choice and Flexibility Plan” on Medium, calling to “unleash” $45 billion in security deposit funds sitting in escrow accounts by 2021. Since it is not mandatory in most cities for landlords to offer security deposit alternatives like Rhino, many don’t. Rhino’s political strategy, then, has been to persuade elected officials to require it.

Jain said that by requiring landlords to make it an option, the company is helping ensure that lower-income tenants can take advantage. “If you go to most major cities, most high-rises already offer products like Rhino because it’s become a market standard,” he said. “But landlords operating smaller buildings don’t always offer alternatives, so these types of policies are designed to create more equitable access.” (Other competitors offering Rhino-like products include LeaseLock and TheGuarantors, which both launched in 2014, and Jetty, which launched in 2015.)

Rhino has also been courting landlords. In a leaked webinar the company held on April 28, which has since been taken down, head of sales Eric Krauss encouraged landlords to embrace its product to increase vacancies more quickly. Krauss also made clear that Rhino policies will be customized for each renter and that “riskier” tenants will have higher monthly premiums. 

Critics say calling these products “insurance” is a deceptive marketing ploy that provides tenants with a false sense of security. Some housing experts describe them as more akin to a surety bond, a type of three-way agreement in which a company promises one party that the other will meet its obligations. Housing authorities have taken different sides on the question, and supporters note that Rhino and its peers are licensed insurance agencies. 

“If tenants think of the product as insurance, as it’s described in Rhino’s marketing materials, and either don’t realize they’re purchasing a bond or don’t know how a bond works, they may unwittingly sign up for a liability that far exceeds what they would ever willingly fork over to their landlord for a cash deposit,” warned housing reporter Alex Williamson in a Shelterforce article last December.

Williamson interviewed two tenants who confronted large unexpected charges from Rhino at the end of their leases, after their landlords claimed that they had to make repairs and handle damages due to their behavior.

One tenant was Peter Steininger, a college student in Brooklyn whose landlord suggested that he get Rhino for a $45 monthly fee. (Rhino is available but not legally required in New York City.) When Steininger signed the contract, he didn’t realize that he was agreeing to pay the company for claims up to $7,200, more than double his security deposit.

When Steininger moved out, he learned that his landlord had filed $6,000 in claims. Steininger disputed the charges and provided evidence that the landlord had made false allegations. Rhino sent Steininger an automated message saying the company had ruled in the landlord’s favor, and Steininger said he struggled to connect with anyone in customer service thereafter.

Steininger told The Intercept that Rhino reached out to him shortly after the Shelterforce article was published and agreed to cancel the charges. “I think I probably would’ve been screwed if it wasn’t for Alex and Shelterforce,” he said.“

Rhino maintains that the experiences outlined in the Shelterforce article are not representative, that they’ve since stopped partnering with Steininger’s landlord, and that they cut off landlords generally who make fraudulent claims. “We learned a landlord abused the policy and claimed things that were not necessarily accurate,” Jain said. “We are no longer working with them, and the renter was fully protected.”

Housing advocates warn another major risk of Rhino is requiring that renters sign arbitration agreements, thereby giving up their right to take a landlord to court.

“These Rhino products are basically a scam, and that’s why they’re going around trying to get laws passed to specifically authorize these things,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Center. “Because they know if they just market them without some kind of legislation saying it’s okay, then they could probably be sued under state consumer protection laws.” 

Rhino supporters say complaints that tenants will lose their right to take landlords to court ignore that most tenants never do so even when they have good reason to. “If a landlord just keeps your security deposit, chances are you won’t spend $5,000 in court to get it back — and they know that,” Jain said.

Dunn thinks there is a version of Rhino that could be beneficial to landlords and tenants, but he’s pessimistic that it will work out in practice because a less scrupulous product “could be more profitable.”

WHILE RHINO AND its legislative partners are urging passage in more cities as soon as possible, citing the pandemic and the nationwide affordable housing crisis, there is not clear evidence of how the laws have worked in cities where it’s already passed.

In Cincinnati, the first city to authorize such a law, the legislation took effect in April 2020.

Zach Frye, a housing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati, told The Intercept that so far they haven’t seen much adoption of any of the security deposit alternatives by local landlords. Some of that, Frye suggested, could be driven by ambiguities in how the law was written. “The text of the law seems to have led to some confusion as to whether it’s mandatory for the landlord to offer, [and] I think that a lot of landlords have decided not to deal with this and keep on doing business as usual,” he said.

While a Curbed article from 2019 suggested that the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati had backed the entire bill, Frye said his organization had supported alternatives like monthly installments, but not the provision authorizing Rhino. “Overall, we don’t see many tenants as being aware of this law,” Frye said. “And at least as to the ‘insurance’ option, that may be a good thing.”

“Ideally, I’d like to see exorbitant security deposits done away with completely, especially since they are so often used as a way to simply extract more money from renters,” said Seth Weber, a volunteer with the Cincinnati Tenants’ Union, who also doesn’t think most renters know the law exists yet. “But this is a half-measure in a city with a massive housing crisis, and to me that is unacceptable.”

In Atlanta, the legislation passed in October under the radar of local housing advocates, who said they were too consumed by the Covid-19 crisis to pay it much notice. Bambie Hayes-Brown, president of Georgia Advancing Communities Together and an appointee to the City of Atlanta Housing Commission, told The Intercept that she plans to bring up the legislation at their next policy meeting “to see if we can find out some information about how this is going.”

Back in Baltimore, Marceline White, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, co-authored a Baltimore Sun op-ed in April outlining her concerns with the proposed legislation and its lack of protective guardrails. White told The Intercept that it’s been “radio silence” from lawmakers since her op-ed came out.

“When you hear warnings and pleas from housing advocates and consumer protection experts that this might not be implemented in a way that it was intended, then perhaps you want to take a pause,” she said. “It feels far too casual to say, ‘Oh, we’ll fix it later if we have to.’”

The Pandemic Spurred Governors to Grant Clemency, But Advocates Say It Isn’t Enough

Originally published in The Appeal on May 24, 2021.
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As the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, advocates pushing for the release of incarcerated people to contain the disease’s spread in prisons led to U.S. governors—especially Democrats—facing new pressures to use their executive clemency power to commute sentences.

Although specific clemency powers vary from state to state, governors hold immense sway over the fate of the 1.3 million incarcerated individuals held in state prisons. Hundreds of thousands of these people have been incarcerated over the last several decades as a result of America’s tough-on-crime sentencing policies and many of them are ineligible for parole. Even among states that have eased sentencing rules in the last few years, many have not made their reforms retroactive.

Advocates in Oregon have been pushing their Democratic governor, Kate Brown, to use her clemency powers to commute sentences. Measure 11, a mandatory-minimum sentencing statute that lawmakers passed in 1994, has fueled the state’s incarceration crisis. Nearly half of the state’s 12,000 prisoners were sentenced under the statute—and those who remain in prison are left with little hope for release outside of the governor’s discretion. Even subsequent reforms to Measure 11, like a bill that Brown signed in 2019, have not been retroactive

During the first six months of the pandemic, Brown commuted the sentences of at least 123 people, including 10 who were medically vulnerable to COVID-19. But she denied many other requests.

Some advocates feel Brown has been too cautious in releasing prisoners en masse during the pandemic. “She was very, very completely rigid about it, I think she decided it wasn’t politically feasible,” said Tara Herivel, an attorney in Portland who has been assisting with hundreds of habeas corpus cases during the pandemic. “It takes a bold governor to release people … and she didn’t find it important to be.”

A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to requests for comment. But as The Appeal previously reported, Brown granted 20 pardons, approved six conditional commutations and denied 240 commutation applications between July 1, 2015, and Feb. 14, 2020. Three other applications were closed during that period because the applicants died. 

Aliza Kaplan, who directs the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, told The Appeal she believes Brown should be credited for using her clemency powers over the years and that the pandemic helped create some new urgency within Brown’s office. One challenge, Kaplan notes, is that clemency is now viewed less as a tool for forgiveness and rehabilitation. “Governors have become afraid of using their power because of politics, but that’s never what the clemency power was intended for,” she said.

In Illinois, governors have virtually unfettered power to commute sentences, and they can issue mass clemency orders. In 2003, as he was leaving office, Republican Governor George Ryan used his clemency powers to commute the sentences of all 167 people on Illinois’s death row. In 2019, the current governor, J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, pardoned over 11,000 people with low-level marijuana convictions one day before a state law legalizing marijuana, including retroactively, was set to take effect.

Although Pritzker issued thousands of pardons during that year, his first in office, he commuted just three sentences, according to A Bridge Forward, a Chicago-based law firm that represents those seeking to clear their criminal records. (A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to requests for comment on clemency statistics.) But Pritzker ramped it up in 2020, granting at least 38 commutation requests, and dismissed objections from Senate Republicans. 

“I think COVID was not the overriding reason, but it did get the governor to take a serious look at people who were petitioning for commutation and he has been willing to make decisions that don’t necessarily make everyone happy,” said Ina Silvergleid, the founder of A Bridge Forward.

In Louisiana, advocates are also hoping Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards uses his clemency powers to try to correct for decades of overly harsh sentencing in a state with one of the nation’s highest rates of incarceration and people serving life without parole.

Edwards, who ran for office on a platform of criminal justice reform, also issued commutations during the pandemic. He commuted the sentences of 36 people in 2020, more than the 34 he extended in his entire first term. (Edwards’s Republican predecessor, Bobby Jindal, granted just three commutations over his eight years in office, and ignored roughly 700 clemency recommendations from the state’s Pardons and Parole board.)

“Clemency is something the governor takes very seriously,” said Edwards spokesperson Shauna Sanford, adding that he granted 279 commutations and pardons between Oct. 10, 2016, and March 9, 2021.

“He’s signed more than his predecessor but at a rate that we’d like to see increase,” said Kerry Myers, the deputy director of Louisiana Parole Project, which provides legal representation and residential re-entry services to parole eligible persons sentenced to life. There is precedent in Louisiana for issuing commutations at a faster clip: Throughout his first two terms in office between 1972 and 1980, Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards signed 945 commutations, and another 335 during his non-consecutive third term.

Just 5 percent of the roughly 4,600 people sentenced to life in Louisiana are eligible for parole, according to the Sentencing Project—meaning commutations or pardons are the only hope of release for the remaining 95 percent of incarcerated people.

But Myers agrees with Kaplan, from the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic, that politics is one hurdle slowing commutations. “We have a Democratic governor and a Republican attorney general with gubernatorial aspirations,” he said. “If Edwards starts signing large quantities of commutations at once, we know his opponents will make it a political issue, even if public safety is not a factor.”

In California too, advocates suspect fear of political backlash has slowed the number of commutations granted by Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. Danella Debel, a spokesperson for Newsom, told The Appeal that the governor has commuted one sentence so far this year, 55 in 2020, and 23 in 2019. “The Governor regards clemency as an important part of the criminal justice system that can incentivize accountability and rehabilitation, increase public safety by removing counterproductive barriers to successful reentry, correct unjust results in the legal system and address the health needs of incarcerated people with high medical risks,” she said in an email.

But only about 10 percent of those released from California prisons between July and November 2020 were age 55 and older, a group of people who are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 and have the lowest rate of recidivism after release. And with nearly 100,000 people still incarcerated, the number of people granted clemency in California has had little effect on the nation’s second-largest state prison population.

Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a national campaign to encourage governors and the president to exercise their clemency powers more aggressively and release 50,000 individuals held in federal and state prisons. The Redemption Campaign is focused on governors issuing categorical clemency, like releasing older incarcerated individuals or those who would be serving a lesser sentence if convicted today.

Advocates are also working to help governors feel less politically nervous about embracing clemency. Polling commissioned by the ACLU and released last August found that 86 percent of Democrats, 81 percent of independents, and 73 percent of Republicans support reducing prison populations and offering incarcerated people a path toward redemption with clemency.

In Washington State, Democratic Governor Jay Inslee granted eight commutations in 2019, 437 in 2020, and 25 so far in 2021, according to Mike Faulk, Inslee’s spokesperson. The vast majority of the 2020 commutations were granted in April, in a blanket order extending to individuals who were not incarcerated on violent, serious, or sex offenses and who were within 75 days of their earned release date.

Faulk told The Appeal that Inslee, unlike advocates and organizations like the ACLU, does not see clemency as a tool necessary to reduce mass incarceration, and that such an effort must be tackled on the legislative level and with buy-in from other public institutions, such as law enforcement and prosecutors. 

“Clemency existed before the era of mass incarceration; and, further, mass incarceration can most definitely be resolved without the use of the governor’s clemency authority,” Faulk said in an email.  

Still many advocates nationwide are sounding a different drum, emphasizing that clemency is integral to any strategy to correct for past harms of harsh sentencing. 

“If people want to end mass incarceration,” said Kaplan, “I can’t think of a better tool than governors granting commutations.”

Progressive Groups Fight T-Mobile and AT&T’s Texting Rules

Originally published in The Intercept on April 20, 2021.
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ABOUT A MONTH out from the 2020 presidential election, an app called RoboKiller published the first glimpse into how campaigns and advocacy groups were leveraging political texts and calls to shape the race. The app, designed to block automated calls and spam texts, found that after June 2020, robocalls declined, but political text messaging picked up. By the end of September, Republicans had sent 1.8 billion texts to voters, and Democrats had sent 902 million.

If you lived in a swing state, you were probably getting more than five or six texts per day from political volunteers — a level you’d never experienced in prior cycles. 

The draw of text messaging as a political outreach tool is not hard to understand in an age when millions pay extra to skip TV ads and emails often go straight to the spam folder. Text message “open rates” tend to be much higher than those of email, making texting a more attractive way for campaigns to engage voters. And while businesses are required under federal law to get affirmative consent to contact individuals by text, so-called peer-to-peer messaging, or P2P, has long operated in a legal gray area. Because peer-to-peer messages are sent by individuals, though aided by applications, they have not qualified as the kind of automated mass text blasts that need opt-in consent.

But mobile carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T are unhappy with the number of spam text messages — including political ones — that their customers receive. In the next few months, they’re rolling out major changes affecting who can send texts and how many they can send. The changes — named “10DLC” for the 10-digit long codes that high-volume businesses and apps use to text local numbers — will require high-volume text purveyors to register with the Campaign Registry, a subsidiary of the Milan-based communications firm Kaleyra. Carriers will impose higher messaging fees on any businesses, campaigns, and other mass texting efforts that don’t file with the Registry, and in some cases block them from delivering messages altogether. 

In recent weeks, a coalition of liberal and progressive advocacy groups have mounted a campaign to put the brakes on 10DLC, rejecting the characterization of their messages as spam and raising concerns that the blunt 10DLC rules will hamper one of their most effective organizing tools. The opaque registration and vetting process, the groups warn, could lead to discrimination against smaller organizations with less-established track records, as well as overwhelm them with new and higher fees. In early March, a coalition of prominent left-leaning groups — including the Working Families Party, MoveOn, the NAACP, People’s Action, the American Federation of Teachers, and Planned Parenthood — sent a letter to the White House and Congress urging intervention.

“Though AT&T and T-Mobile claim 10DLC is intended to reduce unwanted text messages, these restrictions in actuality will quash grassroots advocacy, labor union organizing, and progressive movement building,” the letter states. “We strongly urge AT&T and T-Mobile to reconsider the damage that 10DLC will cause. We are also calling on leaders in Washington to exercise your executive and legislative authority to defend citizen engagement and call on AT&T and T-Mobile to reverse these restrictions.”10DLC points to the extraordinary power tech companies have to regulate who can communicate with the public.

CTIA, the telecom trade association that represents AT&T and T-Mobile USA, argues that mobile carriers have an obligation to respond to user frustration with unwanted text messaging. But critics say 10DLC points to the extraordinary power tech companies have to regulate who can communicate with the public.

“10DLC isn’t legislation, instead you have for-profit companies [that] are now acting as a government,” said Debra Cleaver, founder of VoteAmerica, a nonpartisan voter advocacy group that sent peer-to-peer messaging to 30 million people last cycle. “I am skeptical of private organizations playing this regulatory role.

PEER-TO-PEER texting swept the political world following the 2016 election, when the Bernie Sanders campaign leveraged a young left-leaning texting company called Hustle. Hustle, which worked with roughly 100 campaigns and facilitated 5.5 million texts in 2016, had 1,300 Democratic campaign clients by 2018, sending more than 200 million texts. A number of competitor firms have launched in the years since, including GetThru, RumbleUp, and Opn Sesame. Peer-to-peer texting suddenly allowed campaigns to reach voters, especially in rural areas, who were less likely to have smartphones.

“There’s no question that texting is the breakout tech of 2018,” one Republican digital strategist told the New York Times that summer. 

Earlier that year, a coalition of peer-to-peer texting advocates moved to enshrine their exception to the opt-in requirement, petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to clarify that their texting methods were exempt from the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, the federal law governing telemarketers. In June 2020, the FCC issued a declaratory ruling affirming P2P was indeed distinct from autodialing, a win for campaigns and advocacy groups. Yet despite the FCC’s ruling, under 10DLC, all registered campaigns will be required to get opt-in consent, a major shift from the status quo.

Though liberal groups have expressed fears that the new 10DLC policies could target and silence them, conservatives have long argued that they have more to worry about when it comes to Big Tech discrimination. Over last year’s July 4 weekend, anti-spam monitors blocked a text blast administered by the Trump campaign, and it took five days for Trump officials to resolve the problem. Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T denied any partisan intent, but Republican operatives were left rattled by the experience. 

FOR PROGRESSIVES, one of the most concerning aspects of 10DLC is the issuance of so-called trust scores. Trust scores are algorithmic ratings that the Campaign Registry, a self-described  “reputation authority,” will assign to registered groups. The scores, based on a scale of 1 to 100, will impact how many texts a company or given campaign can send daily. Businesses and groups will also be able to pay for additional vetting from one of three third-party partners — Aegis Mobile, Campaign Verify, and WMC/GLOBAL — to potentially boost their scores.

While the details of the trust scoring system are not well understood, it’s been likened to running a credit score on each group. “They could be looking at things like a group’s personal tax history, members’ criminal histories, they could also be googling to find groups associated with people they deem unsavory,” said Don Calloway, founder of the National Voter Protection Action Fund, which uses peer-to-peer messaging to combat voter suppression. “Grassroots orgs have members who get arrested all the time in peaceful protests.”

Newer groups and groups with less of a national profile fear they’ll be penalized by the algorithms used to calculate trust scores. “My concern is that legacy organizations like NAACP and the National Urban League are going to receive higher ratings simply because of the space that they occupy in the world with no regard for the work that they’re doing,” said Fran Hutchins, the executive director of Equality Federation, a group that helps state-based LGBTQ organizations build capacity.

Calloway said there’s just no scenario in which they could get affirmative texting consent from everyone they currently reach, or even everyone on their email lists, so making it clear how one can opt out is a better option. “You will lose people you’re currently engaging, they simply won’t all be able to opt in,” he said.

Aaron Alter, the director of telecommunications at SignalWire, a nonpartisan communications firm that supports P2P, said their 120 clients who have been vetted already had “not seen any political bias.” Alter, who has spent the past two years working closely with carriers, also predicts that mobile carriers might eventually create a carveout to exempt political groups from the opt-in requirement.

Campaign Verify, which is set to assess political campaigns and committees at the federal, state, and local levels, has an even partisan split by design. But progressives have raised particular concern about the involvement of Aegis Mobile, whose former executive chair, Jeff Goettman, has donated to Donald Trump and Republican Party fundraising platform WinRed. Goettman’s LinkedIn indicates he left the company in 2017 and is currently working on a Republican gubernatorial campaign in Virginia, but critics like Calloway say his history still raises red flags. (Lobbyists for Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile also had close ties with the Trump administration.) Aegis Mobile and Goettman did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment. 

While it’s possible that progressives’ worst fears won’t come to pass, confusion abounds. Mobile carriers and some of their vetting partners have rolled out information with shifting deadlines, incomplete information, and mixed messages about how 10DLC might affect different groups. And all the new fees coming down the pipe are certain to cause new financial strain for organizations with fewer resources.

“I don’t think [carriers are] trying to take advantage but everything at the end of the day is a business,” said Alter. “And from a business perspective they are looking to see if they can capitalize.”

OVER THE LAST several years, mobile carriers have watched lawsuits crop up against unwanted political texts. Last summer, two Minnesota residents brought a class-action lawsuit against Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, alleging receipt of spam texts they had not consented to. The Trump campaign also faced legal challenges for unsolicited messages. CTIA commissioned polling from Morning Consult that showed a majority of Americans considered political texts a nuisance or spam, writing, “This is one area of actual bipartisanship — 74% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats.”

Margaret Boles, a spokesperson for AT&T, told The Intercept that “protecting our customers from unwanted text messages is a top priority for us.” She added that they’re currently in the process of collecting feedback from industry partners to “improve our internal processes, help to identify problem areas and ensure the integrity of our 10DLC platform to the benefit of message senders and receivers.”

A representative from T-Mobile did not return requests for comment.

For now, there are no plans for federal legislation to stop 10DLC, but progressive activists hope that individual members of Congress will contact mobile carriers and request that they partner with concerned groups before rolling out final changes.

“We’re asking members to use their influence,” said Calloway. His coalition has already had a meeting with Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who chairs the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. Calloway added that he has spoken personally with about 30 members’ offices but stressed that his organizing work represents only a fraction of the total.

Luján’s office did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.

“We encourage wireless carriers, aggregators, and others in the wireless ecosystem to adopt a more collaborative approach to text messaging regulations and actually engage with the communities impacted by these changes,” said LaToia Jones, a senior vice president at Hustle, “instead of unilaterally dictating opaque rules that disenfranchise voters and chill civic engagement without any external input or oversight.”

A Debate Over Carbon Capture in the Infrastructure Bill Could Test the Labor-Climate Alliance

Originally published in In These Times on April 15, 2021.
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n late March, President Joe Biden unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan, that his administration hopes to move forward this year. The plan would make major investments in improving physical infrastructure such as roads, schools and bridges while also creating good-paying jobs, expanding collective bargaining rights and funding long-term care services under Medicaid. 

The president’s plan also endorsed another proposal that a group of bipartisan lawmakers hope makes it into a final bill: expanding carbon-capture utilization and storage (CCUS) in the United States. The SCALE Act, introduced in mid-March by eleven senators and six House representatives, represents the country’s first comprehensive CO2 infrastructure and jobs bill. In describing the president’s infrastructure plan, the White House said it ​“will support large-scale sequestration efforts” that are ​“in line with the bipartisan SCALE Act.” 

The legislation, which would authorize $4.9 billion in spending over five years, would create programs to transport and store carbon underground. Its provisions include establishing low-interest loan programs modeled off of federal highway development programs, increasing EPA funding for permitting carbon storage wells, and providing grants to states to create their own permitting programs. Advocates point to countries such as Canada, Norway and Australia where elected officials have made similar investments in carbon storage infrastructure. 

The SCALE Act is notable both for the support it has, and hasn’t, received. Its early endorsers include a half-dozen industrial labor unions, centrist climate groups like the National Wildlife Federation, and energy companies like GE Gas Power and Calpine. Fossil fuel industry support for carbon-capture has historically been a top reason why progressive climate groups, meanwhile, remain skeptical of the idea, wary of subsidizing anything that amounts to corporate giveaways to some of the world’s worst polluters. While carbon-capture has long been a flashpoint in Democratic climate politics, most critics of the policy have stayed quiet on the SCALE Act for now.

Modeling released in December by the Princeton Net-Zero America Project found that construction of nearly 12,000 miles of pipelines capable of storing 65 million tons of COper year would be needed by 2030 for the United States to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 — a stated goal of the Biden administration. The Clean Air Task Force, a climate advocacy group, says the SCALE Act programs are ​“consistent” with the quantity and timeline of infrastructure deployment needed to meet those goals.

To date, nearly all U.S. carbon-capture projects are situated near existing COpipelines and Lee Beck, the CCUS policy innovation director at the Clean Air Task Force, says the SCALE Act’s goal would be to capture emissions from multiple sources and then transport the COfor storage elsewhere, as is currently being carried out through Canada’s Alberta Carbon Trunk Line System and Norway’s Northern Lights Project.

Supporters point to a number of recent scientific analyses that make the case for greater investment in carbon-capture. In February, the National Academies of Sciences released a report on decarbonizing the U.S. energy system which recommends that, over next decade, officials should focus on increasing deployment of carbon-capture technologies by a factor of ten while investing in permanent CO2 storage infrastructure. In 2020, the International Energy Agency warned that it would be ​“virtually impossible” to reach net-zero emissions without carbon capture technology, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said carbon capture is likely necessary to meet global climate targets. Supporters note that renewable energy sources like wind and solar are not viable alternatives for reducing carbon emissions in the industrial sector, which account for 32 percent of the United States’ energy use and nearly a quarter of its direct greenhouse gas emissions. 

President Biden’s campaign climate plan called for accelerating development of carbon-capture and he included Brad Markell, the executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, on his Department of Energy transition team. Markell endorsed the SCALE Act in March and said it ​“will be crucial to meeting President Biden’s goals of reaching net-zero emissions in the power sector by 2035 and economywide by 2050.”

In addition to Biden’s support, the Congressional politics bode well for SCALE Act advocates. Introduced by Sens. Chris Coons (D‑Del.) and Bill Cassidy (R‑LA) in the Senate, the bill would first go through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where Joe Manchin (D‑W.V.), a co-sponsor of the bill, serves as chair. The House version of the bill was introduced by Reps. Marc Veasey (D‑TX) and David McKinley (R‑W.V.) and the chamber passed several carbon-capture bills last year. In March, Democratic governors of Pennsylvania and Louisiana (Tom Wolf and John Bel Edwards) joined the Republican governors of Oklahoma and Wyoming (Kevin Stitt and Mark Gordon), in writing a letter to Congress urging the passage of the SCALE Act in any future infrastructure package.

In an email, Sen. Coons told In These Times that he ​“appreciates [Energy] Secretary Granholm’s public statements in support of CCUS, including CCUS transport infrastructure, and am encouraged by my conversations with the Biden administration over the last several months.” 

Perhaps the biggest asset working in the SCALE Act’s favor is the support of organized labor. Biden has faced heat in the media in recent weeks over whether he can truly deliver an ambitious climate agenda while supporting unions. The SCALE Act has endorsements from labor groups including the Utility Workers Union of America, IBEW and North America’s Building Trades Unions. And the BlueGreen Alliance — a coalition of labor and environmental groups — supports CCUS, though has not yet taken a position on the bill. One analysis commissioned through the Decarb America Research Initiative estimated that the SCALE Act would generate roughly 13,000 jobs annually over the 5‑year period, though many unions are excited by the prospect of simply maintaining existing jobs.

“We see carbon-capture technology as a way to retain jobs in industries that are core sectors of our union,” said Anna Fendley, the director of Regulatory and State Policy for the United Steelworkers. ​“It feels like the conversation around reducing emissions in the U.S. has been so focused on the power sector for so long and now a lot of groups and advocates are learning more about the industrial sector.” 

A false solution?

Carbon-capture opponents have described the policy as one of several ​“false solutions” to the climate crisis. Though many of these activists typically say that we can’t afford not to invest in fighting climate change, on matters of CCUS, they argue the technologies are too expensive, too under-developed, and will detract from other important investments that government needs to make in order to transform the economy. At worst, critics fear investments in carbon-capture could prolong overall dependence on fossil fuels. 

Last September, the House of Representatives passed a clean energy package, but after a coalition of progressive climate groups — including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Climate Justice Alliance—protested the bill’s inclusion of pro-carbon capture provisions, 18 Democrats, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D‑Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (D‑Mass.), voted against it. In These Times reached out to a number of climate groups that have opposed carbon-capture infrastructure in the past, including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Labor Network for Sustainability. Most have not spoken publicly on the SCALE Act to date and declined to comment for this story. 

Limited organizational capacity for rapid legislative analysis is one possible factor for the silence. Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said their group had not heard about the SCALE Act prior to In These Times’ inquiry. While noting they are ​“not in the CCUS camp,” Uehlein said the group hasn’t yet decided how it plans to respond to the bill. The Sierra Club declined the Charleston Gazette-Mail​’s request for comment on the SCALE Act. 

Some left-wing organizations, like Sunrise Movement and Evergreen Action, have previously acknowledged that industrial carbon capture could be acceptable, and others have expressed more interest in direct air capture, a method that sucks COout of the atmosphere. 

Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies and the co-chair of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, told In These Times that rather than protesting individual pieces of carbon-capture legislation — ​“which would make it a game of whack-a-mole” — environmental justice groups in his coalition are focused on educating members of Congress and their staff on why they should avoid such ​“false solutions” altogether. He added that putting new demands on the electrical grid through CCUS, direct air capture, and even industrial production of steel and cement at current levels was misguided at this stage of the transition away from fossil fuel energy.

Sen also criticized carbon-capture advocates for citing the 2018 IPCC report as evidence that CCUS is needed, as opposed to reforestation which the IPCC also explored. Reforestation, or replanting an area with tress, is another way to remove COfrom the air. Research suggests this solution can also offer significant short-term emissions reductions, but a 2019 IPCC report also warned that planting large-scale forests for carbon-removal efforts could lead to increased food insecurity and other environmental issues.

Beck, of the Clean Air Task Force, argued that it would be irresponsible to take any decarbonization options off the table in 2021, and emphasized that building out COinfrastructure would not help keep aging or non-economical facilities online. Shannon Heyck-Williams of the National Wildlife Federation agreed that ​“when it comes to coal power generation, there really is no future for coal power in America and carbon-capture doesn’t change that.”

But Beck and Heyck-Williams also maintained that, since there are so many existing natural gas facilities in the United States, it does makes sense to try and capture the carbon coming out of those plants — at least for now. ​“It would be faster to retrofit some of these facilities than expect they will be all phased out in the next decade in the current climate policy environment,” argued Beck.

SCALE Act supporters know they’ll have to tread carefully with language around COpipelines, given the years of dedicated activism in the climate movement against new oil and gas pipelines. Advocates of CCUS prefer to focus on phrases like ​“COinfrastructure” and ​“carbon management,” which they hope will steer the conversation away from flashpoints like Keystone XL. Beck notes that carbon infrastructure includes not just pipelines but also shipping, rail and barge. ​“COpipelines are very different in terms of size and safety,” added Jessie Stolark, the public policy and members relations manager for the Carbon Capture Coalition. ​“But to be completely honest, I do think we have an uphill battle in terms of reassuring people and conveying that kind of information.”

Whether progressive climate groups will choose to rally opposition to a congressional infrastructure bill that includes the SCALE Act — like they did for the clean energy package in 2020 — remains unclear. It will undoubtedly be tougher to pressure lawmakers to vote against a package that includes so many other key priorities. For now, rather than take aim at Biden’s new infrastructure plan for its support for carbon-capture, progressive climate groups have stuck to criticizing the package for committing too little spending on climate change mitigation efforts overall, with some advocates calling for a minimum of $10 trillion in spending over the next decade.

“It’s up to us to ensure that this proposal is strengthened, becomes law and that it is the first of many pieces of legislation that will address the many crises facing our generation,” said Deirdre Shelly of the Sunrise Movement.