By Gwendolyn Craig
Mother Nature is back on New York’s ballot, though voters will have to wait till next year to render judgment on the environmental resilience spending.
The $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, which was passed by the state Legislature last year but pulled from the November ballot by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, has survived in both name and content in the state’s $212 billion budget. To become effective, the act will have to be approved by New York voters in November 2022.
Details of how the money would be spent are slim, but in broad strokes the Legislature and Cuomo administration have it funding the following:
- Not less than $1 billion for restoration and flood risk reduction projects;
- Up to $550 million for open space land conservation and recreation;
- Up to $700 million for climate change mitigation;
- Not less than $550 million for water-quality improvements and resilient infrastructure projects.
On the November 2022 ballot, voters will read, “To address and combat the impact of climate change and damage to the environment, the Environmental Bond Act of 2022, ‘Restore Mother Nature’ authorizes the sale of state bonds up to three billion dollars to fund environmental protection, natural restoration, resiliency, and clean energy projects. Shall the Environmental Bond Act of 2022 be approved?”
The Cuomo administration had pulled the bond act last year due to the state’s dire finances, and Cuomo cited a similar reason for delaying the vote another year this time.
“I had proposed the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act—something I’m very excited about—a $3 billion, the largest bond act ever for restoring the environment,” Cuomo said in a press briefing on April 7. “This year is also an economically difficult year, so we’ll put it on the ballot for next year.”
Environmental advocates had been calling the bond act by a new name after the governor nixed it last year, and even formed a coalition after the rebrand called “Clean Water and Jobs.” The focus turned more toward the number of jobs such a bond act could create. A report by AECOM, an infrastructure consultant and Rebuild by a Design, an advocacy group focused on infrastructure, released a report that said the bond act would support 65,000 jobs and result in $6.7 billion in project spending.
Even though their rebranded name didn’t stick, advocates praised its second passage in the state budget’s revenue bill.
Mike Elmendorf, president and CEO of the Associated General Contractors of New York State, was part of the Clean Water and Jobs Coalition. He said the reauthorization of the bond act, as well as other budgetary commitments to water infrastructure and parks, are “forward-looking investments.”
Elmendorf said contractors “are ready to get to work to rebuild New York’s aging environmental infrastructure and drive economic recovery.”
State Assemblyman Steve Englebright, chair of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee and a Long Island Democrat, said part of the negotiations with Cuomo’s office was to keep his original name, “Restore Mother Nature.” Another negotiation was removing the governor’s ability to pull the bond act from the ballot, in lieu of giving voters another year to decide.
“I think it will be approved,” Englebright said.
“We’ll be standing for re-election,” he added about state lawmakers, “and we’ll be saying to our public, the bond act is along the ballot with us.” He said he would pitch it as “security for your family and yourself through investments into our economy and our environment.”
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, who was outspoken about being against the overall state budget, stayed in the middle of the road when it came to the bond act.
“There are a lot of projects small, rural communities would like to do to protect water quality but simply can’t because their tax bases are so small,” Stec wrote in an email. “Which is what makes a bond act attractive because it makes funds available. Before I voted for something that was going to require years and years of financing to pay off, I would, however, want to know the likely benefit for those I represent and I don’t have those details yet.”
Similarly concerned about financing of the bond act was the New York Public Interest Research Group. NYPIRG has always supported the environmental bond act, but has pushed for oil companies to pay for it. They’re not, though, and NYPIRG noted that “New Yorkers will foot the bill unless lawmakers develop a new funding stream.”
Water infrastructure funds
Aside from the bond act, the 2022 state budget includes $500 million for water infrastructure upgrades. This and the bond act could be good coffers for Lake George to dip into. The village is on the hook for a $24 million upgrade to a wastewater treatment that is more than 85 years old. The state awarded the village $9.4 million last year, but village taxpayers still had to bond for $17 million.
Englebright said he doesn’t have the power to allocate funds to Lake George specifically, but he will advocate for the village to get more help financing that project.
“There is some movement in the direction of making those kinds of investments as well for wastewater and source water infrastructure,” Englebright said. “I’m ready to speak in strong support of that for our more popular destinations in the Adirondacks.”
The budget had a number of other highlights for the Adirondacks, but Stec and many of his Republican colleagues voted against it as a whole, citing excessive spending and an increase in taxes for some residents, among other issues.
“High taxes and a very challenging business environment, not the weather, has chased a lot of people out of New York State,” Stec said, in a news release. “Rather than improve our competitiveness, this budget will likely hasten the exodus of residents, particularly professionals who have found this past year that they can do business in New York, but remotely and much more affordably.”
Stec was also not happy with how the budget process went. The budget was due April 1 and as of April 9, Cuomo had yet to sign off on the bills senators and assembly members passed. Generally the public is also supposed to have a few days to review the bills once they’re released, but instead lawmakers chose to rely on a “message of necessity” tactic that allows bills to be passed without that time to review. Part of the rush for lawmakers was that thousands of state employees were going to have delayed paychecks if they continued to wait to pass the budget.
Stec said the rush to pass, though, made the budget “far from transparent,” and that passing bills late in the “night continues to reflect badly on a budget process that is anything but ‘good government.’”
Will Barclay, the state Assembly’s minority leader, called the budget a “high-priced liberal wish list that throws all fiscal responsibility out the window,” but “with a budget of this size, there are obviously positive outcomes.”
“With a $12.6 billion federal bailout and incoming state revenues exceeding expectations, Democrats crafted their backroom deals, took advantage of a compromised governor and went on a spending spree,” Barclay added, in a news release. “By doing so, they have handed a $212 billion invoice to New York’s taxpayers, who are now expected to settle the bill.”
That contrasts with Cuomo’s comment that the state had “strong fiscal management.”
Tom DiNapoli, the state’s comptroller, also cautioned after the budget was passed by both houses that “the state must plan for the end of emergency federal aid and use new tax resources to fund essential services, to once again begin contributing to rainy day funds.”
Other highlights in the budget include a $300 million environmental protection fund, which will include $1.55 million for addressing visitor use in the Adirondacks and Catskills. Of that funding, Essex County will get up to $800,000 to address overuse.
Shaun Gillilland, chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors, has said that funding will go toward a new shuttle system for transporting hikers. It’s not clear yet whether that will be able to operate this season, due to the pandemic and other logistical questions.
Gillilland hopes that the state may install more pull-offs or reduce parking at some of the trailheads so the buses can operate more safely.
Another part of the $1.55 million will go toward hiring a third party to create a visitor management framework. That was a recommendation from the state-appointed High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group.
“We are excited to see that legislative leaders took Adirondack community needs seriously and worked to address them while keeping environmental protection at the forefront of Adirondack policy,” Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, said in a news release.
Broadband internet also got attention in the state budget. That’s something Stec said he was pleased about. There is $1 million devoted to creating a map of availability, affordability and reliability of service. There is also a new mandate for internet service providers to provide low-cost internet to low-income families.
“While I am very pleased funding and language for a comprehensive broadband study is in the budget, they also put in the budget a laudable but costly and unfunded mandate for low-cost broadband that may put small providers of broadband services out of business,” Stec said.