Feb 18 2014
News Analysis: It’s Worth Paying Attention to Albany Right Now
Photo credit: Wally Gobetz  via Creative Commons
February 18, 2014
News Analysis: It’s Worth Paying Attention to Albany Right Now

Category

Government
There are all sorts of interesting things happening at the state level—big and small—that will impact environmental protection and sustainability going forward.

While there has been a general perception that the state is in a better position financially, the Governor is proposing multi-year tax cuts which impacts any discussion about spending priorities.

State Budget Negotiations and Why They Matter

Later this week, we’ll take a deeper look at a couple of issues that have attracted concern from environmental groups and lawmakers. First, we have updated analysis on the Governor’s proposed allocations for the state’s lead environmental agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Environmental Protection Fund, both of which, we argue, are critical to New York’s response to climate change.

Advocates say that the Governor will be proposing changes to his draft budget this week.

Watch the DEC State Budget Hearing

The January 29th legislative hearing on the state budget for the DEC provides a interesting window on the environmental concerns of legislators throughout New York, and the DEC’s ability to work with limited resources.

Topics discussed ranged from the need to plug “hundreds, if not thousands” of abandoned gas wells in upstate New York to the DEC’s successful efforts to obtain funding for a new shellfish laboratory on Long Island.

The DEC monitors the safety of shellfish growing areas along the New York coastline, and DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens noted the need for a new lab had been “desperate.”

Cuts to the MTA

Environmental and sustainability advocates are preparing to fight Albany’s plans to “divert dedicated mass transit funds to plug holes in the state budget.”

The New York League of Conservation Voters reports that Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget would cut $40 million from the MTA. These funds currently help to cover the operations, service and maintenance of the transit system.

And, the League adds, “Governor Cuomo is planning to divert these funds not just in 2014, but in 2015, 2016 and beyond. In total, nearly $350 million could be siphoned away from transit.”

Useful Background on the State Budget—Flat Spending and Tax Cuts

Budget analysts point out that the governor’s budget adheres to a 2-percent cap on spending statewide. Most state agencies are seeing reductions or flat funding, Carolyn Boldiston, a senior analyst at the Fiscal Policy Institute, told NYER.

The FPI notes that, in its entirety, the state budget calls for $1.7 billion in spending cuts this year, and much deeper cuts in the years to come. The governor’s office has also called for a steady increase in tax cuts over the next four years, including a proposal to reduce the estate tax by 40 percent. FPI says the reduction in the estate tax alone would cost the state almost $800 million annually.

Taking Environmental Funding to the Voters

The state has experienced nine federally declared disasters since 2011. As Governor Cuomo said at a news conference immediately after Superstorm Sandy, “climate change, extreme weather…and our vulnerability to it…is undeniable today.”

And the state is responding; it says it has embarked on a multi-billion dollar effort to protect its infrastructure, transportation networks, energy supply, coastline, and residents from extreme weather. A significant portion of that work will be federally funded.

But major environmental infrastructure projects, which are critical to public health and sustainability –like smarter wastewater treatment- also need significantly more support than the Governor has proposed, say legislators and advocates.

The chairs of the state assembly and senate Environmental Conservation committees, Robert Sweeney, D-Long Island and Mark Grisanti, R.-Buffalo, introduced legislation last fall calling for a $5 million environmental bond act. The bond act has been described as the largest in the state’s history.

Work is needed on both our wastewater and drinking water systems. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, New York State has reported the need for almost $60 billion worth of drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects over the next 20 years.

In Rockland County, an insufficient supply of surface drinking water has led to proposals ranging from water recycling to a de-salination plant, which would treat water from the Hudson River. And the quality of the aquifer that supplies Long Island’s drinking water is deteriorating as well, said Assemblyman Sweeney.

Revenue from such a bond act could also help to support the state DEC’s enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act.

Dan Hendrick at the NYLCV told NYER he was unsure that the Cuomo administration would support putting the bond act forward to voters, but agreed that a “broader discussion [is] brewing in the background” regarding how the state can fully fund its environmental programs

“Clearly the infrastructure needs are pretty massive…[but there’s] no thinking outside of the box this year,” Hendrick said.

New Questions about Gas Drilling

This week, we’ll also examine the state’s use of “produced water”, which is a by-product of gas drilling, for de-icing on upstate roads. The practice has attracted considerable attention, and questions from state legislators.

And, it’s worth seeing the testimony earlier this month of State Department of Health Commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, regarding the state’s ongoing review of the public health impacts of high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

Will New York Move Full-Force Toward Clean Energy?

The state will hold public hearings on its voluminous draft energy plan this week in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The state says that the draft 2014 Energy Plan “sets forth a vision for New York’s energy future that connects a vibrant private sector market with communities and individual customers to create a dynamic, affordable clean energy economy.”

According to the state, New York has “already made great strides toward this goal.” They add that renewable power sources—hydro, solar, wind, and other carbon-free solutions—continue to grow as a share of the total energy produced in New York.

As we reported last week, environmental groups are saying that the state needs to put forward actual clean energy targets for its fuel mix in 2030 and 2050.

The state’s plan projects a 50% reduction in carbon emissions from New York State by 2030, and an ambitious 80% reduction in overall green house gas emissions by 2050.

Photo credit: Wally Gobetz  via Creative Commons