A pandemic threatens conservation budget and $3 billion environmental bond act
By Gwendolyn Craig
Early this year Gov. Andrew Cuomo held what one might call an uplifting budget presentation before an audience of state workers and legislators packed in the Kitty Carlisle Theater at The Egg in Albany.
Cuomo is known for his pomp and circumstance, and during his January presentation larger-than-life slides showed sweeping vistas of New York, including the North Country, with promises to protect the environment. One of Cuomo’s highlights was a proposed 30-year, $3 billion environmental bond act and a 5-year, $33 billion plan to combat climate change.
But the pomp has fizzled with the latest circumstances, as the coronavirus pandemic’s economic impact threatens much of the original budget.
On closer examination, it’s clear that $33 billion climate fund wasn’t necessarily a new initiative, but a totaling of the state’s climate expenditures. The Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, however, was new. A similar infusion of environmental bonds hasn’t passed in New York since 1996.
Essex County Supervisor Shaun Gilliland is among the skeptics who expect the bond act to fail.
“When you’re looking at being tens of billions of dollars in the hole, I don’t think voters of New York are going to say, ‘Let’s add another $3 billion,’” Gillilland said. “I just don’t see that happening.”
The new fund’s winter unveiling was the crescendo to the state’s passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, enacted last year. Cuomo and other state leaders have boasted the goals are “nation-leading climate targets,” and include reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the state by 85% by 2050.
The state was already facing about a $6 billion deficit, which Cuomo had linked to Medicaid spending. That deficit continues to grow as the economy crashes and now the state Division of Budget is projecting $61 billion in lost revenue over the next four years.
The budget (now subject to change) passed at the beginning of April, with a fairly rosy picture and very little changed from Cuomo’s January presentation. Legislators even approved the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, meaning it could go up for a public vote in November. But the budget included provisions allowing Cuomo to make spending adjustments throughout the year and giving legislators less than two weeks to review, sign off or contest them.
It means, like everything in the state since the pandemic hit, that things could change on a dime.
The review process
Proposed budget adjustments were supposed to come out in May, followed by more rounds as the revenue situation becomes clearer in July and January.
Dave Friedfel, of the nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission, said this is the first time the state has ever done its financial plan this way. The commission has called on Cuomo a number of times to release his cut proposal and to “make it as public and detailed as possible,” Friedfel said.
The first spending adjustments were set to come out around May 15, but Cuomo put it off, telling reporters during his daily press briefings that the federal government should provide financial assistance. On May 28, Cuomo and Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, said the state had not laid off any workers, and they hoped not to. There is an “across-the-board hiring freeze,” DeRosa added.
“Maybe the federal government becomes enlightened and responsible and actually funds the amount necessary to close the gap, which would be smart and right, but if they don’t do that, there’ll be a shortfall,” Cuomo said on May 28. “We’re preparing for a shortfall and reducing expenses all across the board.”
He had only generally said that schools, local governments and hospitals could see their budgets get cut by 20% if the federal government doesn’t provide assistance.
How involved legislators will be in these potential cuts is also of concern to the Citizens Budget Commission, and to legislators themselves.
“The executive has a lot of power in New York State, in the budget anyway,” Friedfel said. “The Legislature is how the people are heard, and how things are deliberated, regardless of who is occupying the governor’s mansion. It’s important that policies and spending priorities get debated.”
In a webinar with the North Country Chamber of Commerce on June 2, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said the state could borrow as much as $4.5 billion this year, but even DiNapoli is hoping the federal government will step in.
“The loss in revenue that’s impacting our state and local governments is a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic,” DiNapoli said. “It is not because of mismanagement or budget practices.”
With so much unknown, local leaders and environmental groups are worried that just about anything could be on the table for cutting, including the Environmental Protection Fund, the annual pool for conservation expenditures in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Not only that, but Budget Director Robert Mujica has the authority to pull the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act from the November ballot if the state’s finances are in poor shape. If Mujica does that, the bond act dies and can only be resurrected with a new vote by the Legislature.
“Between that (the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act) and the Environmental Protection Fund, we’re holding our breath a little bit,” said John Sheehan, of the Adirondack Council. “So far the Legislature and the governor’s office have both said they want to try and keep them intact, and I think in many ways the bond act will provide money for projects that will help bring people out of the recession.”
Michael Barrett, of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said his organization is focused on making sure the Environmental Protection Fund remains untouched. The fund pays for a number of trail contracts, including in the Adirondacks. With trail popularity and overuse a major issue for the High Peaks, Barrett sounded somewhat confident at the end of May that the fund would remain intact.
“I feel like we’re stuck between trying to be good partners and our obligation to protect programs like the EPF,” Barrett said. “I don’t envy the decision makers.”
The state Division of Budget didn’t provide the Adirondack Explorer with any promises about the state budget review process, though it touted the state’s environmental missions.
“This administration has provided record levels of investment in the Environmental Protection Fund and is leading the nation in combatting climate change as we implement the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act and advance the $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the Division of Budget. The reality, he added, is that the state is dealing with a 14% drop in revenues.
The Adirondack Council and other environmental groups have continued to lobby for the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act. But critics have said one of the failing points of the bond act is its lack of specificity, and that could weaken voter support even if it gets past the budget gatekeeper and onto the ballot.
Generally, state documents have shown the bond act funding would go toward improving infrastructure, restoring critical fish and wildlife habitats, preserving and conserving forest and open space, reducing storm-water runoff, restoring wetlands and jump-starting renewable energy projects.
“Think about how excited the public is going to get over storm-water management,” Dominic Jacangelo deadpanned.
Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, was once on the executive team for the state Parks Department and assisted in writing the first failed environmental bond act in the early 1990s. He also worked on the second attempt, the $1.75 billion Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act, which passed in 1996.
“I wish it was a nice, clean picture where we did not have the virus destroying state revenues, but we do, so I just have my doubts at this point where it will go,” Jacangelo added.
To continue rallying public support, environmental groups have put out press releases for what the bond act could fund, but the key word is still “could.” Jacangelo said the snowmobile association has not taken an official position on the bond act, in part because it lacks specific projects. The act appears to have the potential to accelerate the rail trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, for example, or other trail projects, but he said it’s anyone’s guess.
Peter Bauer, of the nonprofit Protect the Adirondacks, said he thinks the budget director will go ahead and bring the bond act to a vote, based on the timing of it all. According to the bond act’s exit clause, Mujica has until the fall to potentially pull it.
“I don’t know that the budget director can say in August or September, ‘Things look really grim, I’m going to pull this,’ because I think the ballots will already be printed,” Bauer said. “There is a point of no return, just from a practical standpoint.”