Lawmakers, advocates await details on environmental bond act

Politico: Although they don't know exactly how Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration wants to spend $3 billion for environmental projects, lawmakers and advocates are supportive of the governor’s proposed bond act — but they have questions and suggestions.

Some want to ensure regional equity, focus on resiliency and community input or bolster electric vehicle infrastructure. Cuomo is expected to release details of his “Restore Mother Nature” bond act proposal with the executive budget due by Jan. 21.

The specifics will create a starting point for legislators and advocates to begin pressing for their priorities. For now, the concept of the bond act has broad support because it can be all things to all people.

“We did revolutionary climate change legislation so we’re certainly interested in those kinds of activities but again the devil is always in the details, and we haven’t begun to flesh out the details,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

Cuomo announced the proposal, which he hopes lawmakers will agree to put to voters in November, during his State of the State address last week. Broadly speaking, the bond act proceeds would be invested in wetland and freshwater habitat restoration, shellfish planting, restoring natural floodplains, right-sizing culverts, repairing or removing dams, fish stocking and fishing access and other priorities.

“The way the measure was framed was very exciting and we’re really interested in seeing legislation,” said The Nature Conservancy’s Jessica Ottney Mahar.

Lawmakers want to ensure that their constituents and regions get a slice of funding.

“Regional equity is paramount in the decisions that we make,” said Sen. Tim Kennedy (D-Buffalo). “At the end of the day, we are one state and we need to ensure everyone is treated fairly especially when it relates to how funding is distributed. So we will certainly be fighting for our fair share in upstate and in western New York.”

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Nassau), who chairs the chamber's Environmental Conservation Committee, brought up equity when asked what he wanted to see in the bond act.

“I’d love to make sure there’s regional balance. Long Island has lots of needs, especially with water quality and we’re on the front lines of severe weather and there’s lots of storm resiliency projects and marsh restoration that we could use,” Kaminsky said.

Kaminsky said he has questions about the financing and procedures, although he added that is supportive of issuing debt for critical investments in the environment.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Suffolk) said he welcomes the idea of the bond act but thinks it could support electric vehicle infrastructure and hard infrastructure to protect against storm surges and a rise in sea levels.

“I’d like to see it expanded upon to specifically include infrastructure for climate resiliency and necessary adjustments that relate to climate change,” he said.

Englebright said Cuomo had spoken to the traditional needs of a bond act of ”pure air and water and land."

“Our needs are greater and I think a bond act should be enlarged to include the obvious nexus between traditional environmental bond act parameters and what the climate change challenge presents,” he said.

Kaminsky said he also believes investments in hard infrastructure should be included. He added that the money could also be used to help municipalities deal with recycling and solid waste disposal.

Ottney Mahar said the plan should consider the best solution for flooding risks, whether it's natural or hard infrastructure. “Where built solutions are necessary, they’ll need to be put in place,” she said. “It will be some combination in all likelihood but the most important thing is that communities will be involved in understanding the flood risk.”

Amy Chester with Rebuild by Design said her group’s focus is on ensuring that every project helps restore natural habitat and provides resiliency benefits. She also said communities should be involved in selecting projects to limit local opposition.

“Bond acts by nature tend to be lists of projects … however, I believe that having a transparent and equitable process for deciding what projects get built would be a major step forward,” she said. “Having communities up front designing their projects make a huge difference.”

Rebuild by Design previously proposed a bond act to address growing flooding risks across New York. The group, which has broad backing from labor, business and the environmental community, is still examining the idea of an insurance surcharge to also provide resilient infrastructure funds.

Chester also suggested funding should be available to help people move if the risk of rising seas is too dangerous or costly. The State of the State book does mention that possibility.

"Restore Mother Nature will provide funds to upgrade flood control infrastructure, protect critical facilities, and move people and homes out of harm's way," the book states.

Basil Seggos, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom with Dave Lombardo on Friday that the bond act would seek to address some of the biggest problems facing the state — particularly flooding.

“We made so many mistakes over the last 150 years of how we built our cities up, built our towns up. We’ve been clawing that back over the last 10 years,” Seggos said. “The governor wants to take this to the next level and make significant investments that change the fortunes of communities.”

Seggos also said that the bond act would be a complementary program and wouldn’t take away from existing commitments to the Environmental Protection Fund or water infrastructure.

While the State of the State briefing briefly mentioned “renewable energy” being funded, its not a focus for the projects described thus far.

Seggos said that the bond money could potentially be used for capital investments in renewables, noting that the focus was on “mitigation” as well as “adaptation.”

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