For lots of years I made the trek to Albany to advocate on a number of important issues – Domestic Violence, Rape, Early Childhood Education, Community Schools. For the last year I’ve made Climate Change my priority. The cause I lobbied for on Tuesday was Divestment of Fossil Fuels, specifically from the NYS Pension Fund.
I’ve always loved the energy of Lobby Days. It’s great being part of something bigger, sharing a mission with colleagues and stakeholders, and promoting legislation that can make a difference. I’ve found it fascinating to be part of the dialogue: with legislators, mentors, strangers and friends. Politics are always part of the landscape in Albany, Getting a glimpse of the political intrigue or an insightful takeaway can be the icing on the cake.
Tuesday, January 23 did not disappoint. The leaders of Divest NY had identified about 18 legislators whom we needed to up their game. Passing pension fund divestment in Albany has been gathering momentum over the last three years, especially recently.
In December, Governor Cuomo announced a plan to collaborate with Comptroller DiNapoli on divesting the state common pension fund. Literally an hour later, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer announced that he would recommend the divestment of the New York City pension fund. Mayor de Blasio followed this up in January with his own announcement about NYC divestment (plus a lawsuit against five large oil companies for climate damage they have caused). We went to Albany hoping that leaders there would be eager to keep pace with the city.
Our pre-lobbying session laid out the basic dynamics:
- Comptroller DiNapoli, the sole trustee of the state pension fund, has resisted divestment. The legislation we were lobbying for was created to either change his mind or force him to act.
- DiNapoli came out of the NYS Assembly. Many in the Assembly think of him as family. Would legislators loyal to DiNapoli want to force him into a corner?
- The legislators who are sponsoring the bill believe climate is an existential threat. They also believe that fossil fuels are a poor investment given the world’s commitment to abandon them.
- Our advocacy with legislators would focus on the urgency of climate change as well as the dramatic change in the economics of fossil fuels and renewables.
- Divestment is a leadership opportunity, both to raise public awareness about climate change (look at how much press the Governor and Mayor got!) and to set an example for other states to follow.
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (Rockand) is a member of the Government Employees Committee where the divestment bill sits. A group of us had visited with him in district in the Spring. It was a great meeting: he and his intern researched divestment way beyond the fact sheets we provided, and this stimulated a healthy and honest exchange of ideas. Soon after the meeting Assemblyman Zebrowski became a bill sponsor.
The focus with Zebrowski at Tuesday’s meeting was the Government Employees Committee. The Chair and its other members have not yet signed on as sponsors. Zebrowski promised to reach out to his committee and get back to us with where the Chair and members stand. Almost every person in our group had something valuable to say in the meeting. We left inspired by Zebrowski’s responsiveness and impressed with his political sensibilities.
I’ve always loved the unexpected encounters in Albany. Ours was in a crowded elevator. There was a tired looking man leaning next to the elevator buttons. One of our leaders recognized him: Assemblyman Abbate, the chair of the Government Employees Committee. She called him by name and explained that her group had met with his aide earlier and that she was glad to have a chance to clarify where he stood in terms of bringing this bill to the floor. His answer was quick; he’s in conversation with DiNapoli, respects his leadership and will follow his lead. It confirmed the suspicion I had, that it would be very hard for Zebrowski to move the chair unless the committee members decide to embrace sponsorship.
Our last meeting was with Speaker Heastie’s Director of Communications. Would it have been different if we got to meet with his Legislative Director as we expected? That the Speaker can bring any bill to the floor for a vote, makes him a Super Power. But Heastie prefers to only move bills to a vote if they have a very large number of Democratic sponsors. We pushed the Director of Communications to challenge Heastie to make an exception in this case based on the urgency of climate change. He shared that divestment has been talked about a great deal since the announcements by the Governor and the Mayor, and that the Speaker has participated in several conversations. He suggested that we work hard to gain more sponsors,, which is exactly what we had been focused on throughout lobby day.
At the end of the day I think others had a similar take-away to mine:
1.Momentum is building
2.There are some complicated Political Forces at work in Albany
3.The amount of legislative support needs to be huge
4.The Ultimate Question: What will it take for Comptroller DiNapoli to decide to divest without being forced to?
Can it happen in 2018? The competing agendas of NYS and NYC are powerful catalysts for NYS Divestment Fireworks. But to ignite the legislature it will take all hands on deck.