Environmental Issues in the NYS 2017 Budget

The New York state budget negotiations, vintage 2017, were volatile, hard-fought, moody and now famously, late. Near the end of the process the late nights merged with early mornings and unappetizingly, the lines at the Capitol insulin shock factory otherwise known as Dunkin Donuts got longer and longer. But there was a fair amount of good news for the environment as the sausage finally got made.

A brief review of the programs NRDC supported most vigorously this year:

Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) – Last year Gov. Cuomo just about doubled the EPF, a hodgepodge of land preservation, ocean conservation, clean water, park improvements and other programs, increasing the fund to $300 million. This year the EPF will be funded at the same level, including:

  • Ocean and Great Lakes – which will again receive $15 million (this program started in 2006 at $2 million). These funds will help sustain the state’s cutting edge ocean and Great Lakes conservation work and advance important scientific research, management planning and restoration projects, including those found in the state’s new Ocean Action Plan.
  • Catskills – in the EPF Land Acquisition and the Stewardship lines, the Catskills will receive $5 million for a variety of projects including trail maintenance and infrastructure upgrades, much needed now that the Catskill trail sites have became explosively popular with downstate hikers in the era of social media.
  • Pollinator Protection Plan implementation—$500,000 from the EPF will be provided to improve pollinator habitat across the state and research the impacts of the neonicotinoid class of pesticides on pollinators. Both loss of habitat and neonicotinoid pesticides have been linked to dramatic declines in bee populations nationwide.

Beyond the EPF and speaking of upgrades, this year’s budget is highlighted by a $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act that will provide funding for municipalities throughout the state to upgrade their drinking and wastewater facilities over five years. A broad coalition of environmentalists, labor unions, construction firms and business organizations have been successfully advocating for substantial funding for these projects. This is a dramatic leap forward from previous years. Undoubtedly part of the drive to get more dollars into these upgrades is the looming prospect of dramatic cuts to these programs at the federal level. Some of the projects which will be funded from the Act include:

  • $1 billion for grants to localities for water infrastructure improvements
  • $200 million for New York City for projects located in the New York City watershed, some amount of which presumably will assist in further funding for the Catskills
  • $110 million for land acquisition for source water protections
  • $75 million for upgrades and replacements for septic systems and cesspools
  • $20 million for replacement of lead drinking water service lines
  • $50 million for Green Infrastructure grants, an item that was aggressively sought by the environmental community with some pushback in the budget-making process. In the end, more money came into this line than had initially been proposed.

Empire State Trail – The Cuomo Administration also got $77 million for the initial phase of his Empire State Trail into this year’s budget deal. The Trail will run 750 miles, from Battery Park to Canada and east-west along the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany (there was much consternation among legislators that the trail didn’t reach even more communities, though some concern over the final cost, estimated at $200 million, was also expressed).

Climate & Clean Energy – Building on his recent strong joint statement with California Governor Jerry Brown pushing back on the Trump administration’s attempts to roll back progress on climate and clean energy at the federal level, Governor Cuomo stood strong in budget negotiations to ensure that Clean Energy Standard implementation stays on track. New York’s continued leadership in this space is now more important than ever, including pushing for a stronger RGGI program to continue cutting carbon from the region’s power plants, aggressively scaling up renewable energy from sources such as solar, land-based, and offshore wind, and helping to build clean energy capacity in New York’s local jurisdictions.    

Two other important environmental policy matters were decided at the end of the budget cycle, one inside the budget, one out:

Farm to Food Bank Tax Credit – While 14% of the state’s population lack access to adequate food options, over 100 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables go unharvested annually. New York farmers sell over $750 million worth of edible food annually, but most of the state’s small farmers earn little or no income. The Farm to Food Bank Tax Credit, included in this year’s budget, will reimburse farmers for 25% of the wholesale cost of their contribution up to a maximum $5,000 tax credit to help alleviate expenses for labor, transportation and other costs of donating food. Since each maximum credit equals $20,000 of fresh produce, a state expenditure of $1 million would result in $4 million worth of food going to New York’s emergency food programs. The Governor’s proposed Food Recycling and Recovery Act did not make it into the final budget but we will continue to advocate for its passage as a critical step in addressing food waste across New York. The Food Recovery and Recycling Act would require the state’s largest food waste generators to donate excess edible food to local food rescue organizations and to recycle food scraps, rather than sending them to pollution-generating landfills.

A crucial decision was made by the Cuomo Administration this week outside the hectoring budget process. On April 7, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) declined to grant a 401 water quality certification to the Northern Access Pipeline. This gas infrastructure project put several dozen DEC-designated protected trout streams at risk, largely endangering trout populations and general water quality in upstate New York. This is an important and much appreciated show of leadership by Gov. Cuomo and Commissioner Seggos.

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