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How big will NY's environmental bond act be?

New York State lawmakers are moving closer to a final budget. Both the state Senate and state Assembly have separately advanced budget plans as countermeasures to Governor Hochul’s proposed budget. Last week, both houses began the process of harmonizing their plans in order to meet the March 31st deadline for a final agreement.

One of the interesting debates between the houses (and the governor) focuses on the size of an environmental bond act to be placed on the ballot this November.

Under the New York State Constitution, any direct borrowing by the state must be approved by the voters. The Constitution states that “no debt shall be hereafter contracted … unless such debt shall be authorized by law . . . No such law shall take effect until it shall, at a general election … have received a majority of all the votes cast.”

For the last few years, lawmakers have debated whether to put such a proposal before the voters. The focus of their plans has been the environment, specifically the costs the state faces from a planet that is rapidly heating due to climate change.

Last year, lawmakers agreed to a $3 billion environmental bond act and put it to a vote this November. At that time the former governor said the bond act would “fund critical environmental restoration projects in every corner of the state to ensure New York is able to withstand the threat of more intense and frequent storms fueled by climate change.”

Since New York will be facing billions of dollars in costs to adapt to global warming and mitigate its damage, lawmakers were correct that revenues would be needed. Yet, the price tag for these costs will run into the billions annually and a $3 billion bond act, while helpful, is not enough.

Recognizing that, current Governor Hochul advanced a budget plan to increase the amount of the bond act from $3 billion in borrowing to $4 billion. Her plan closely follows last year’s and finances environmental improvements that reduce the impact of climate change by funding projects that restore habitats and reduce flood risk, improve water quality, and expand the use of renewable energy.

The Senate has advanced its own plan that would increase the bond act proposal to $6 billion. The additional monies would fund renewable heating and cooling, weatherization of low-to-moderate income households, funds for electric school buses and transit buses, as well as the installation of bus and passenger car electric-charging infrastructure.

The Assembly landed right between the governor and senate proposals with a plan that pegs the future environmental bond act borrowing at $5 billion. The Assembly offered a detailed proposal that earmarks revenues for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, measures to address air and water pollution threats to low-income communities, and $450 million for climate adaptation and mitigation projects, including land acquisition and wetland protection.

There is no doubt that the funding is needed, but the state of the economy is far less certain.

Inflation and the Ukraine crisis are forcing up interest rates. Those interest rates could have an impact of the costs of state borrowing for the bond act, impacting voters’ view of the proposal.

One way to enhance the public appeal of whatever environmental bond act is on the ballot is to make sure that it contains items that have broad support. For example, the $450 million that the Assembly has included for land acquisition and wetlands protection would be a real boost in efforts to protect freshwater and drinking water supplies.

Another way boost public approval is to put the oil and gas companies more on the hook for covering the costs of climate change. As mentioned earlier, the state may well need to spend more than $6 billion per year to deal with the costs of climate change.

The responsible parties for the climate crisis are the oil, gas, and coal industries. Those industries knew for decades the dangers of global warming from the burning of fossil fuels. Those industries spent money on a disinformation campaign to combat measures to curb greenhouses gas emissions that form the “blanket” contributing to the heating up of the earth. And now we’re paying the price.

As state lawmakers and Governor Hochul cobble together a final budget plan, an environmental bond act is a good idea and worthy of support. It will be far more popular when it goes before voters if it contains clear, identifiable project spending. That plan will be even stronger if it ensures that the oil, gas, and coal industries are on the financial hook, not just taxpayers, for the looming climate catastrophe.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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