By: Denis Slattery | NY Daily News
ALBANY — Green-minded groups are calling on New York lawmakers to protect funding for critical programs they say will create jobs, help address climate change and advance environmental justice amid the coronavirus crisis.
More than 125 advocacy groups are holding a virtual lobbying effort Tuesday as they push elected officials in the Empire State to put a stalled $3 billion Environmental Bond Act on the 2021 ballot and maintain funding for several green initiatives that could spark an economic recovery.
Gov. Cuomo unveiled the Mother Nature Bond Act in his budget proposal earlier this year, but postponed the plan in July due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“The financial situation now is unstable,” he said when announcing the delay. “I don’t think it would be financially prudent to do it at this time.”
In addition to the bond, the advocates want the state to ensure funds are secured for the Environmental Protection Fund, Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, Parks 2020 and Department of Environmental Conservation Capital Programs. They are also urging funds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative be spent on intended projects to tackle climate change.
“Through these programs, we can put people back to work in good-paying jobs and ensure New Yorkers have clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and local parks to enjoy,” said Bill Ulfelder, New York executive director of The Nature Conservancy. “That is why we are calling on state leaders to support environmental funding as a clear pathway to our economic and public health recovery.”
The coalition believes the time is ripe to advance an environmentally-friendly agenda despite New York’s economic woes. Ulfelder and others point to several initiatives approved by voters last week across the nation, including an expansion of state park funding in Michigan that passed with an 84% margin.
In Hays County, Texas, voters chose to invest in parks and open spaces and protect clean drinking water with a measure that was approved by 69.5%.
Advocates also pointed to upstate New Paltz, where more than 70% of voters supported an environmental preservation measure, known as Local Law One, meant to safeguard clean drinking water and protect outdoor recreation, family farms and wildlife habitats.
The fate of the environmental measures remains unclear as New York faces a coronavirus-created fiscal crisis. Cuomo has repeatedly said the state will need federal help in the near future to close a $50 billion budget gap that includes debt from the state, local governments, counties, New York City and the MTA.
Budget Division spokesman Freeman Klopott said the state is taking steps toward addressing climate change, noting the recent passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the Cuomo administration’s investment in the Environmental Protection Fund, and the state’s backing of the largest off-shore wind farm in U.S. history off the shore of Long Island.
But, he said, the massive budget gap made the bond act an impossibility at the moment.
“We will continue to review our finances and the availability of funding from Washington to offset these devastating revenue losses, and will make a determination on revisiting the bond act accordingly,” Klopott said. “New York’s families are struggling from the impacts of the pandemic, and these organizations should join us in getting the federal government to provide aid so the state can make the investments that will help the national economy recover and protect our environment.”
Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), likewise said the state needs to look to Washington, as well as President-elect Joe Biden, for help.
“We look forward to working with President-elect Biden to repair the damage that has been done by the Trump administration over the last four years,” he said. “It is important for the federal government to step up and help our states and local governments so we can meet all our priorities.”