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New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who is taking leave of his position.

The New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV) released their scorecard revealing how strong or weak state lawmakers are when it comes to voting on matters concerning the environment. The 63-member Senate was scored based on 16 measures and the 150-member Assembly had 15 measures to weigh in their deliberations. With few exceptions, Democrat lawmakers generally scored higher than Republican lawmakers.

Three of the eight Republicans on the 30-member Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee received a score above 50 percent. The ranking Republican member on the committee, Robert Smullen, voted 33 percent of the time the way the NYLCV encouraged lawmakers to vote.

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“Clean air and clean water is not a partisan issue,” Julie Tighe, executive director of the NYLCV told The Jewish Press. “We expect both parties to be supporting these items. We’d love to see more members scoring higher in their conference. It’s very disappointing that folks who are voting against the bills that will improve the environment are on that committee so we’ll certainly raise that issue with Leader Barclay.”

Three Republicans are on the 11-member Senate Environmental Conservation Committee: Two North Country senators, Dan Stec, the ranking member of the committee and Patty Ritchie, each received a score of 38 percent. The North Country includes the Adirondack Mountains, an environmentally sensitive six million-acre state park. The third Senate Republican, Anthony Palumbo, (R-New Suffolk, Suffolk County) received a 75 percent rating.

Of the 29 Jewish legislators in both houses, Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein (D-Borough Park, Brooklyn) received the lowest rating on the scorecard with 60 percent of correct votes. Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Rockaway Beach, Queens) and Helene Weinstein (D-Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn) came in with a score of 67 percent each. The other 18 Assembly members scored above 85 percent.

In the Senate, among the eight Jewish members, all had a perfect score except Simcha Felder (D-Borough Park/Midwood, Brooklyn) who rang in with a 75 percent rating.

“The environmental conservation committee is a very popular committee right now,” Tighe said. “Legislators are caring more about climate change because voters are caring more about climate change. People are more interested in working on climate change issues in particular. However, the Assembly did not even put in the governor’s energy efficiency bill. The first thing we need to do to tackle the climate crisis is to reduce the amount of energy that we’re using given our great needs on that front.”

Energy efficient transportation issues will highlight next year’s environmental lobbying, Tighe said.

“We have more to do with transportation in particular with regard to buses and electric vehicle sales,” Tighe said. “There were a lot of concerns about the wetlands bill. That didn’t get done this year. That’s something we’d like to see get done. The 30 by 30 bill, I don’t know what the opposition to that is. It seems we have a lot of people supporting the measure and want to protect 30 percent of our lands by 2030.”

There will be many bills carrying over to the next session, keeping Tighe busy.

“We have a lot of work to do on extending producer responsibility to try to address our waste problems because certainly that’s first and foremost,” Tighe emphasized. “We still have some opposition from industry on that. We’re trying to work through those things. Local governments can’t continue to bear the burden of all the waste challenges when there’s a real opportunity to get more of the circular economy moving on that front. Like what we’ve seen happening now with electronics, paints and a variety of other products.

“I’m disappointed that the clean fuel standard (low carbon fuel standard) didn’t get passed. We now have 97 members on the bill in the Assembly and 43 members in the Senate so clearly we have enough people who are supportive of that bill to pass it. So we’re hoping that’s something that will be picked up next year. This is something that will help move to electrification. It’s supported by the car manufacturers, renewable fuel generators. We’ve heard opposition from one or two groups but the opposition has been pretty limited. It’s not entirely clear how a bill that would reduce fossil fuel used for the transportation sector that’s working in California and Oregon, it’s sort of mind-boggling why it’s not passing yet. The bill did not get out of committee and we had a lot of productive discussions. Environmental Conservation Committee Chairman Steve Englebright (D-Port Jefferson, Suffolk County) did not get on that bill.”

It appears the Assembly Democrats were bringing other measures to a screeching halt.

“The Senate had the energy efficiency bill. They passed it but the Assembly didn’t even introduce it, which is a governor’s program bill,” Tighe said. “This is a huge priority for us and will be again in 2022. We need to get that done. We’re missing out on new building construction meeting the highest and best most efficient standards because we’re not updating our building code in requiring the most energy-efficient appliances.”

Some environment-related measures passed both houses and are awaiting the governor’s signature.

“Some of our long-time priority bills did pass like the safe school drinking water act, which will make New York the state with the most protection against lead in school drinking water,” Tighe said. “We’re very excited about that and hope Governor Hochul signs that bill into law soon.”

 

Zucker Resigns as State Health Commissioner – Sometime in the Near Future

Howard Zucker, one of the only Jewish, white, male commissioners left in the governor’s administration, has tendered his resignation effective upon another health commissioner taking the helm.

“There comes a time when the baton should be passed in this marathon journey that we call public service in New York state,” Zucker wrote to Governor Kathy Hochul on September 23. “With a fierce dedication to the public’s health, I have carried it through many crises in the last seven years and five months and placed the welfare of our residents at the forefront of all things, professional and personal.

“I look forward to pursuing new opportunities that explore the hurdles and unknowns in medicine, policy and public health and voyage into my own imagination to work on overcoming them.

“The never-ending story of New York has always been one of resilience and the chapters to be written and continually be filled with passion, steadfastness and the unwavering pledge to remove injustices and inequalities. For that, we are all the better for it and blessed to call ourselves New Yorkers,” Zucker concluded.

Hochul accepted Zucker’s resignation.

“He worked hard through the pandemic and I want to thank him for his service on behalf of the people and the state,” Hochul said at a Manhattan news conference the day Zucker’s letter was released. “He has agreed to stay on until the position will be filled. He understands that I’ve wanted to take the first 45 days to assemble a new team going forward. That process is ongoing and he understands and he respects that and he also has an opportunity to move on to new ventures.”

Zucker, 62, is board-certified in pediatrics, anesthesiology, pediatric cardiology and pediatric critical care. He trained at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Boston Children’s Hospital. He also has a law degree. Zucker is married to his wife Elissa. The couple reportedly has two children, Benjamin and Sadie. He earned $197,000 a year as health commissioner and as the head of the not-for-profit quasi-state agency Health Research Institute. By state law, the health commissioner is required to be a physician with at least 10 years of relevant experience and a background in public health.

Zucker has been criticized for withholding information from the public regarding the number of deaths from the coronavirus upon orders from then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in August. Reaction to Zucker’s pending departure was fast and furious as well as not favorable.

“(H)is resignation should’ve happened in January, when I first called for it,” wrote Senate Republican Leader Robert Ortt (R-North Tonawanda, Niagara County) in a prepared statement. “Howard Zucker chose to protect Andrew Cuomo’s political career above protecting the health of New Yorkers. We hope that he and Andrew Cuomo have occasion to continue discussing and refining their warped version of science during their retirement from public service.”

State Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, faulted Zucker for his lack of transparency and being forthcoming with pertinent information.

“Dr. Zucker’s resignation marks the end of a difficult chapter for our state,” James wrote in a prepared statement. “While I thank him for his service, we need more transparency and accountability at the Department of Health as we continue to battle COVID-19. I look forward to working with the next health commissioner, who must safeguard the health and wellbeing of all New Yorkers, especially the most vulnerable, and must do so with openness and great care.”

The head of the Assembly Republicans called the resignation “an obvious and overdue step.”

“Throughout the COVID pandemic, Dr. Zucker was more interested in protecting Andrew Cuomo’s image than protecting public health,” wrote Assembly Republican Leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski, Oswego County). “As Governor Hochul begins the process of finding a new health commissioner, I hope she looks for an individual without any ties to the previous administration or the numerous controversies that defined it.”

Southern Tier Senator George Borrello (R-Silver Creek, Chautauqua County) focused his criticism on the “mismanagement of the pandemic response and politicization of the health department.

“It is troubling that he appears to be exiting on his own terms,” Borrello maintained. “If he is resigning, he should leave today. Anything less than that means that he will be continuing to make decisions that affect the lives of all New Yorkers. If this is truly a new era of transparency in New York state government, his departure cannot come a moment too soon.”

Reported mismanagement of the coronavirus was highlighted in a statement by The Empire Center for Public Policy, a Conservative think tank based in Albany.

“The much-debated March 2020 order compelling nursing homes to admit COVID-positive patients, though it originated in the governor’s office, was issued under Zucker’s authority,” wrote Bill Hammond, a senior fellow for health policy. “Later, when that decision was blamed for worsening the death toll in nursing homes, Zucker played a central role in the Cuomo administration’s efforts to obscure what happened by misstating how the directive worked, withholding data, publishing falsified research under the Health Department’s name and stonewalling inquiries from the Legislature.”

At least one democratic assemblyman wants to see a breath of fresh air blow into the commissioner’s office.

“Resignation does not equal accountability,” Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing, Queens) wrote. “Dr. Zucker’s departure is the absolute minimum needed to restore faith and accountability in government. He was a corporate shill for the private hospital and nursing home industry, who compromised his oath ‘to treat the ill to the best of one’s ability’ for personal and professional gain.

“His successor must be an independent health professional who will fight for patient and nursing home resident rights. Though the next commissioner has not been announced yet, it will be hard for them to be loyal to that mission while also meeting the demands of corrupting influences and incentives,” Kim added.

“While Zucker’s resignation doesn’t absolve him or Cuomo from responsibility, it will at least enable the Department of Health to move out from under the horrible shadow of controversy and distrust that their actions cast across the state,” wrote Dan Stec (R-Queensbury, Warren County).

Hochul said she hopes to make a decision on a new commissioner in October, a move which will force the state Senate back to Albany for hearings and a vote to confirm the nominee. One name being mentioned as a possible successor is former New York City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett. If confirmed, she would be the first black person to hold the post and the third woman. Bassett, 68, resigned in 2018 after serving four years in the NYC post.

Bassett is currently director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University and the FXB Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health. She is also an associate professor of clinical epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.
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