As New York State skates ever closer to the edge of the rink, Gov. David Paterson, unelected (and terminally unhappy these days) has pushed the panic button. Over and over. He's called the state legislature into special session all through the fall; after a while, they stopped showing up.
Because they had their own problems. The 2009 session was marked, not just by severe budget constraints but by some high (comic) drama in which two Senate Democrats waltzed over to the Republican side, thereby overthrowing their own Senate leader. This unprecedented turmoil lead to the Senate majority switching twice during the session, placing the whole legislative branch in gridlock throughout the summer and into the fall. Leaderships came and went (and may go again) but NRDC and environmentalists achieved three important environmental wins in the state capitol:
- A strong defensive campaign kept the $250 million Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) largely intact.
- After a long-fought and multi-year effort, we saw the first major reform to the state’s Bottle Bill in more than 20 years.
- Near the end of the session, after the second change in Senate leadership, environmentalists and labor unions gained another victory in passing the Green Jobs bill.
Preserving the EPF, doesn't sound sexy (ugh, another Fund?), but it is vital: the EPF is the financial backbone for a set of critical environmental programs in New York State - including the zoos, Jones Beach State Park (your reporter grew up about 8 miles away from Parking Lot 4), dozens of community gardens, and environmental education centers. The EPF has, since its creation in 1993, contributed significantly to environmental conservation in New York:
- Protecting 26,500 acres in the Adirondack Park (including 85 miles of rivers and streams and 16 lakes and ponds)
- Improving 580 acres of productive farmland in Upstate New York
- Restoring 60 acres in a National Wildlife Refuge
- Recycling 1 million pounds of electronic-waste and 40,000 tons of newspapers, cans, and plastics
So maintaining this fund continues to be a top priority for environmentalist across the state.
From inception, the EPF and all of its programs have been funded by a portion of the state’s real estate transfer tax (RETT). And from 2006 to the end of 2008, the RETT generated nearly $1 billion a year. In 2009, after the financial and housing markets collapsed, the revenue stream declined by 20-25%. As a result, the Governor proposed removing the real estate tax as the main source of funding of the EPF and replacing it with revenues (unclaimed deposits) from an expanded state Bottle Bill. NRDC and other EPF advocates successfully opposed this replacement since the size of the Bottle Bill’s revenues was not easily projected and reducing the Fund so severely in one budget year could endanger existing programs and add a burden to local governments.
In addition to retaining the funding source, we also battled this past session over the total amount of funding appropriated to the EPF. Initially, Governor Paterson proposed $205 million, which was a 20% reduction of funding from FY 08-09. But the EPF coalition built broad support in both houses and parties and preserved the Fund at $222 million with a separate bonded fund of $25 million for Parks restoration and capital improvements. For this year's budget, Paterson has only placed $143 million in the fund, and zero for any new land purchases. No one but the bean counters are happy with that -- the preservation of the EPF is a constant battle, and I will be blogging updates on its status periodically.
Over the next few weeks, I will also be blogging on the other two important environmental victories of this session -- the expanded Bottle Bill and Green Jobs legislation -- as well as describing our legislative goals for the upcoming year. Stay tuned!