November 3, 2022
By: Joseph Ostapiuk | Staten Island Advance
Staten Islanders heading to the polling booths to vote will have a say in the state’s ability to borrow millions of dollars to enhance climate change infrastructure, bolster community protections and fund a healthy environment.
The $4.2 billion “Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act,” introduced in a budget proposal by Gov. Kathy Hochul and passed after a negotiation with the state legislature, will be up for a vote on the back of the ballot.
The act is the only statewide measure for voters, who will be able to choose a simple “yes” or “no” response to authorize the financing of projects aimed at addressing a litany of environmental and health concerns.
Here’s what you need to know:
WHAT IS THE 2022 ENVIRONMENTAL BOND ACT?
A bond act is an authorization to borrow money to finance capital projects. This year’s proposition includes four major programs, explains Jessica Ottney-Mahar, director of policy and strategy at The Nature Conservancy.
A total of $650 million is set aside for water quality and resilient infrastructure, $650 million for open space conservation and recreation, $1.1 billion for flood risk reduction and $1.5 billion for climate change mitigation.
At least 35% of the total is required to go toward areas deemed disproportionately impacted by environmental burden, an ongoing effort under the state’s climate law that has preliminarily identified, among other areas throughout New York, portions of Staten Island at greater risk.
Ottney-Mahar said the measure would support specific projects that fall under major issues of concern throughout the state.
Two-hundred million dollars of the act, for example, would be earmarked for wastewater infrastructure, while $250 million would be used to improve stormwater infrastructure experts say will need to expand to meet the growing risk caused by more extreme storms fueled by human-induced climate change.
“It could be something like restoring our waterfront and coastal wetlands to make sure that they’re there to buffer us from storms, but it might also be raising infrastructure or clearing out culverts in our roadways to make sure they’re not blowing out during storms and cutting people off from school and work,” said Ottney-Mahar.
Other projects that could benefit from the funding include new cooling centers for communities to avoid the impacts of severe heat and the expansion of zero emission school buses and green roofs — working to mitigate the negative effects of pollution.
The funding would also provide a unique opportunity for New York State to receive even more fiscal allocation for infrastructure projects.
Programs within the recently-passed bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act require local funds to match federal dollars, and the passage of the state’s bond act would provide New York with the funding to receive even more money for projects in New York.
HOW DID THE ACT GET ON THE BALLOT?
The last time New York State passed an environmental bond act was in 1996, when $1.75 billion in spending was passed under former Republican Gov. George Pataki.
The most recent measure was initially proposed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2019 (though under a $3 million price tag), but it was later pulled from the budget during the struggles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hochul boosted the act’s cost, making it the largest in the state’s history. And now, legislators and a large coalition of advocates have made a significant push to get the measure passed.
“It’s really focused on addressing some of the key environmental challenges facing our communities,” said Ottney-Mahar. “Providing clean drinking water and dealing with the impacts of climate change and extreme weather — things like flooding and urban heat, as well as conserving natural resources that we depend on.”
A simple “yes” or “no” choice, if the majority of voters agree to approve the funding, it will then be implemented.
STRONG APPROVAL, LIMITED PUSHBACK ON MEASURE
The organized effort supporting the measure has been met with limited — though still existent — pushback.
A wide range of environmental organizations, including local groups, support the act’s passage, and there has been concerted efforts to disengage the measure from political affiliation.
“These are issues that are pervasive across our state and they hit everyone equally no matter what political affiliation they are,” said Ottney-Mahar. “This is not a political measure.”
A Siena College poll in October found support for the bond act “remains strong,” with 54% of voters approving the measure and just 26% opposing it. The remaining 20% were either undecided or did not plan to vote on it.
The New York State Conservative Party has been the most vocal detractor of the referendum, stating that it would expand the state’s debt.
“New Yorkers do not need another $4.2 billion in public debt,” said New York State Conservative Party Chairman Gerard Kassar in a statement.
Despite noting that the act and arguments in favor of the proposal “reference a number of projects that appear to warrant consideration,” the party maintained the perspective that a “full review and application of all funds that remains from previous state actions should be used before an additional $4.2 billion is incurred.
Those previous state actions include the 1996 bond act, which still has some remaining funds that Ottney-Mahar said have been stymied by previous memorandums of understanding that gridlocked the negotiation process.
The difference with the current bond act, Ottney-Mahar added, is that no such provisions exist.
“We’re hopeful that with what we’ve learned since the last bond act and also the alignment between this bond act with other state or federal programs, there’ll be a lot of efficiencies in place to help move this money into communities for these specific purposes with great efficiency,” she said.
Hochul, who is running for her first full term as governor, has outwardly called on voters to vote “yes” on the bond act, calling it a “game-changing investment in our infrastructure for our clean energy future.”
“I need to have everybody who cares about human life on this planet and lives in the state of New York to mobilize to make sure the vote gets out in support of this bond act,” Hochul said during a Sept. 21, press conference.
Her opponent, Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, did not respond for a request to comment on his position on the measure. He has not taken a public stance on the act.
“With the Environmental Bond Act on the ballot, voters have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the quality of life on Staten Island and in every corner of the state,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “From shoring up our infrastructure so we are more resilient to storm surge and flooding, to replacing lead service lines so our drinking water is safe, to making our schools and buildings more energy efficient — all while supporting thousands of good-paying union jobs — the Environmental Bond Act will make for a safer, healthier, and more prosperous future for Staten Island and all New Yorkers.”