By Gwendolyn Craig
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pulled the $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act from the November ballot, he told reporters during a conference call on Thursday.
“We’re going to postpone the environmental bond issue hopefully one year, to next year, but I don’t think it would be financially prudent to do it at this time,” Cuomo said.
The proposed fund was intended to build resilience against climate change effects such as flooding, among other environmental priorities. It would protect forests, restore wildlife habitat and help communities build disaster-resistant infrastructure. The last major environmental bond act passed in New York was in 1996.
The governor’s decision brought immediate dismay from environmental advocates.
“The bond act provided critical funding for climate change mitigation and investment,” Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer told the Adirondack Explorer. “Without significant public investment, we’re spinning our wheels.”
The state Senate and Assembly passed the $3 billion bond act in the state budget this year, forwarding it for New York voters’ consideration. A provision in the law, however, allowed the state budget director to pull the bond act before it goes to voters if the state’s finances are in poor shape.
Finances have deteriorated, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The state is looking at a $30 billion deficit over the next two years – a $14 billion shortfall in the current budget cycle and a $16 billion gap expected in the next fiscal year.
“The financial situation now is unstable, as everyone knows,” Cuomo said on the call. “We’re waiting to see what the federal government provides in aid. We’re waiting to see what the revenues (are that) come back to the state.”
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, chair of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, blamed Washington’s failure to help states through the pandemic economic downturn.
“This will have long-term consequences for combating climate change, increasing our storm resiliency and creating jobs,” Kaminsky said. “There is just no excuse for this and it is shameful.”
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, represents a large portion of the Adirondack Park. Little supported the bond act this year, her last serving in state government before retirement.
“I’m usually an optimist who pushes forward, but I do think this is the right decision,” she said in a statement to Adirondack Explorer. “The bond act will help many communities in our region but the timing for voter support needs to be right. I am hopeful that will be the case next year.”
Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, warned that even when the coronavirus threat is stabilized, climate change will remain a problem.
“Government can’t continue treating the environment as a luxury–it is a critical asset,” Tighe said.
The budget bill language said, “that if the act is not submitted to the people at the general election to be held in November 2020, this act shall expire and be deemed repealed.” A spokesperson at the state Budget Office said the bond act will have to return to the state Legislature next year.
Bill Ulfedler, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in New York, had an emailed comment ready for the moment Cuomo made the announcement to reporters.
Ulfelder called the decision a “missed opportunity.”
“While it is clear that the pandemic has had a serious impact on the economy of our state and the nation, this measure was an opportunity to create jobs and conserve the clean water, clean air, and natural resources our children and grandchildren depend on,” Ulfelder said.
“The Bond Act would have been a pathway to a better future for New York, by addressing looming problems that threaten the health, safety, and prosperity of all New Yorkers,” he said.
He and other environmental advocates welcomed the chance to revisit the bond act in the future. Ulfedler said “it is incumbent upon our state leaders to ensure other, existing sources of funding for these critical purposes are fully utilized and are not further reduced in the state budget as the deficit is addressed.”
Not all were shocked or in disagreement with Cuomo’s decision on Thursday. The Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board said it was the right decision to postpone, when there are a number of other priorities for the state to fund.
“New York State, schools and local governments are dealing with very large budget deficits and it is uncertain whether the federal government will provide COVID-19 impact aid to the state and local governments,” said Fred Monroe, a spokesperson for the Review Board. “Now is not a good time to move forward with the largest environmental bond act in New York history.”
The bond act received plenty of criticism when it was announced, too, for its lack of specificity on what it would fund. Monroe said that was an issue the Review Board still had.
Some groups, like the Adirondack Mountain Club, had hoped it could fund trail work. Michael Barrett, director of the ADK, said though he was disappointed the bond act would be delayed, he understood Cuomo’s reasons and called it “good judgement in waiting to promote this important initiative.”
The Adirondack Council called out national leadership for “failing to correct course. Without the prospect of new federal aid to states from Congress, we understand why the Governor is reluctant to move forward with new borrowing at this time,” Rocci Aguirre, deputy director of the council, said in a news release.
Aguirre added that the bond act could have been a financial win for taxpayers by funding things like new wastewater treatment systems. That is a project Lake George is dealing with now.
David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, said Cuomo’s move was “expected and understandable,” given the pandemic and the state’s finances.
“We know the governor remains committed to this very important environmental measure,” Gibson said. “We anticipate its return to public consideration next year.”