Environment Tops List of NY Budget Negotiations

As the Cuomo administration and tireless public servants work ‘round the clock to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health of New Yorkers, particularly in the face of the Trump administration’s devastating foibles, lawmakers are still hard at work hammering out the details of the State Budget. Part of these discussions include a series of vital environmental proposals, most of which have now even more critical public health benefits—everything from banning fracking waste to bolstering renewable energy to investing in clean air and clean water for decades to come.

In February, Governor Cuomo announced a campaign to pass a once-in-a generation environmental bond act that would help protect New Yorkers from the palpable dangers of the climate crisis and more powerful and frequent storms. The $3 billion “Restore Mother Nature Bond Act” has the potential to safeguard the things we cherish most, like the air we breathe and water we drink, and help harden our infrastructure and communities from floods and intense storms.

Mechanically, the Bond Act has to first be passed by state legislators, signed by the Governor into law and then put to New York State voters in November for final approval. Now more than ever, it’s critical that New Yorkers get up to speed on the merits of passing an environmental bond act—there’s no doubt that the havoc wrought by Hurricane Sandy is still cemented into every New Yorker’s mind, and the intensity and regularity of such storms is projected to increase, as sea levels rise and urban heat effects become more severe.

It’s been 25 years since New York passed an environmental bond act, but the urgency has only become more pronounced ever since. The Governor’s proposal has the ability to unlock billions of critical funding to protect New Yorkers. We know now with a certain knowledge that we need to grab any and every opportunity to protect the health of our communities. We can't have any regrets—this is the opportunity we desperately need to ensure that we don’t.

The ’96 Clean Water Clean Air Bond Act

This is the first environmental bond act proposed in New York State since 1996. Governor George Pataki campaigned for the $1.75 billion Clean Water Clean Air Bond Act throughout that year, signing it in August of ’96. He helped build a coalition of labor unions, business groups (including the not-always enviro-friendly New York State Business Council) and several dozen environmental organizations. In addition, the campaign won support from the Associations of Mayors and also of Counties, two powerful political forces in the state.

The bond act was presented to the state legislature, and ultimately to voters, as an investment in broad categories that included improving air and water pollution, purchasing clean vehicles for the state fleet, closing targeted landfills (especially Fresh Kills on Staten Island), cleaning up brownfields, expanding municipal recycling programs and investing in drinking water infrastructure improvements. Not quite something for everyone but close—environmentalists liked the air, water and land protections, unions liked the jobs and the business community liked the enhanced commercial activity sparked by carefully targeted, long-term public investments. As a result, New York had over 20 years of substantial funding for key environmental protections.

Governor Cuomo’s 2020 Environmental Bond Act

During his State of State address in January, Governor Cuomo rightly affirmed that “It's our responsibility and challenge to leave our planet cleaner, and greener, and more sustainable for our future generations.” We can help uphold that most sacred responsibility, the Governor avowed, by aggressively restoring natural ecosystems, investing in flood control infrastructure, revitalizing fish and wildlife habitats, reducing contamination from stormwater runoff, expanding wind and solar energy, and most importantly, moving New Yorkers and their homes out of harm’s way.

The Governor’s nascent push for a bond act, reflective of the sobering reality of the climate crisis today, is a sweeping opportunity to put the money on the table for these and additional programs, an investment more crucial now than in the seemingly halcyon ‘90s. Afterall, time is not on our side, and New Yorkers in every corner of the state, many still reeling from unprecedented damage to roads, homes and businesses, know viscerally the pain of natural disasters.

The Environmental Bond Act is not about pet projects. It’s about putting communities and families first, taking action now to help mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis, protecting our most precious natural assets, like clean air and clean water, giving relief to our farmers and fisheries, and ensuring that New Yorkers are well equipped to weather the storm.

Now is the time to act, and NRDC will be there every step of the way, as we have been time and again, to get this nation-leading proposal across the finish line.

About the Authors

Rich Schrader

New York Political Director, NY Regional, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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