The centerpiece of Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address was the call for voters to approve an environmental bond act. Dubbed the “Restore Mother Nature Bond Act,” the governor’s plan proposes that the state borrow $3 billion to address serious environmental problems tied to global warming.
Under New York’s Constitution, the state can only undertake direct borrowing if the question is put to the voters for approval. Thus, the governor’s proposal would have to be first approved by lawmakers this legislative session and then placed on the ballot for voter approval this November.
The governor’s plan, details of which are expected to be released in this week’s budget address, would address environmental problems such as restoring wetlands, fighting algal blooms, repairing dams, restoring footpaths in the state parks, increasing the use of electric vehicles and expanding recycling programs. These are areas that are sorely in need of additional funding. If the Bond Act is done right, the $3 billion in funding can go a long way toward improving New York’s environment.
There are two big questions that New Yorkers should expect to have answered before any Bond Act should be approved.
Question #1: How will the money be spent?
Bond Act proposals rarely are detailed in how they will spend the money. Usually accompanying a Bond Act plan is an agreement – in law or a legislative understanding with the governor – that offers a list of programs that would qualify for funding. But sometimes, the projects turn out to be the result of deal making and have little to do with the purported goal of the Bond Act.
In order to ensure that Bond Act spending goes towards the most critical environmental needs, plans for spending should be approved in a transparent manner and should rely on objective, independent, scientific criteria based on the climate crisis needs of the state, not simply because it is a pet project of some powerful elected official or special interest.
When it comes to New York managing big pots of money, we have seen bad outcomes in the past. When the state received billions of dollars resulting from litigation with tobacco companies, some local governments spent the money on purchasing golf carts – not efforts to curb smoking. That should not be allowed to happen with the Bond Act.
Question #2: Who will pay?
A Bond Act is a way for the state to borrow a large amount of money to meet pressing needs. The borrowed money should be used for projects that are expected to last at least the lifetime of the borrowing – usually 30 years. Thus, spending makes sense for state projects that would protect water supplies. However, it shouldn’t be used in ways that enrich real estate developers, for example, at the expense of the natural environment.
No matter what, the Bond Act will have to be paid back.
Right now, the assumption is that all New Yorkers will pay the Bond Act back. But why should they? After all, the looming climate catastrophe that created the need to borrow in the first place is the result of the corruption of American politics by oil, coal and gas interests.
Big oil companies have known since the 1970s of the problems associated with the burning of fossil fuels. They knew it would heat up the planet and cause dire change in the environment. They accurately predicted the timetable in which those changes would occur.
But instead of being responsible, they used their considerable clout to lie about the evidence to the public, undermine the science, hire consultants and lobbyists to derail pro-health and environment reforms, and shower campaign contributions on those candidates who would do their bidding.
And they were so successful that the world is on the precipice of global environmental catastrophe. It was their deliberate campaign to corrupt our democracy. Why should we get stuck with the tab?
The governor and state lawmakers must adhere to the principle that the polluter is responsible for the mess they created. Governor Mario Cuomo stuck to that principle with the Environmental Bond Act of 1986, which relied heavily on polluters to pay for the hazardous waste cleanups that were the target of that effort. That formulation was so successful that the 1986 Bond Act was overwhelmingly approved by voters. New Yorkers should hope the same is true in 2020: that it will be the oil, gas and coal interests that are on the hook to pay for the mess that they made.
How those two questions are answered should guide voters on how to vote this November.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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