Election Day 2022: NYS Climate Bill

Election Day 2022: NYS Climate Bill

by Timothy Kunken

Election day is quickly approaching. This election day, however, is turning out to be very important. For many, this election season presents a unique opportunity for them to vote for their congressional Representatives and Senators.

While this is definitely true, many forget that this is also an opportunity to vote for their desired candidates on the state or local levels – governors, state representatives, state senators, attorney generals, comptrollers, and many other positions that aren’t on the federal level are on the ballot.

While candidates can attract many to the ballot box, it isn’t the only thing you will be voting for. In the state of New York, you have the chance to vote for one of the most important environmental programs in the state’s history. “New York Proposal 1,” known as the “Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act (2022),” is a bond measure that will give $4.2 billion towards climate-related projects in the form of general obligation bonds. 

Confused? Don’t worry. If you want the short version, here’s how “Prop 1” will appear on your ballot:

CLEAN WATER, CLEAN AIR, AND GREEN JOBS Environmental Bond Act of 2022

To address and combat the impact of climate change and damage to the environment, the “Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act of 2022” authorizes the sale of state bonds up to four billion two hundred million dollars to fund environmental protection, natural restoration, resiliency, and clean energy projects. Shall the Environmental Bond Act of 2022 be approved?

What Does Prop. 1 Do?

$4.2 billion is a hard number to fully wrap your head around. How exactly is this money going to be used? To put it briefly, the money will be split and allocated for different kinds of projects. At least $1.5 billion will be allocated to climate change mitigation.  $1.1 billion will be used for “restoration and flood risk prevention.” $650 million goes towards “open space land conservation and recreation.” Another $650 million goes towards “water quality improvement and resilient infrastructure.” The last $300 million remains unallocated. Overall, the bill also requires that up to 35% of the funding should be used to benefit “disadvantaged communities.” 

This explanation of the budget may still be too vague to fully understand. Here’s an even more thorough breakdown of how each clump of cash gets used:

(Click here to read the full legislation:)

$1.5 Billion — Climate Change Mitigation

“Climate Change Mitigation” is the largest slice of funding used in the bill, and arguably its most important. Out of this section, $400 million is used towards funding “green buildings projects.” These are projects that convert public buildings —  like SUNY/CUNY facilities, public colleges and schools, state-owned properties, etc. — into becoming more energy efficient and running on green-energy sources. This can mean installing renewable heating systems, retrofitting buildings with solar panels, reducing emissions, and upgrading or replacing any preexisting renewable sources. 

$100 million goes towards “climate mitigation and adaptation” projects. This refers to relocating and retrofitting public buildings to protect them from flooding, wetland protection, reducing greenhouse gas emissions outside of the power sector, land acquisition, funding projects for renewables, etc. 

At least $200 million is being spent on reducing or eliminating water and air pollution affecting the state’s “disadvantaged communities.” “Disadvantaged communities” is an important term in this bill. New York State partnered with the Climate Justice Working Group to create the criteria for what is considered a disadvantaged community.

You can read more about their criteria here: 

Lastly, up to $500 million will be spent on “the purchase of or conversion to zero emission school buses and supporting infrastructure.” This means replacing old school buses — which currently run on diesel or other forms of gas — and making them electric. This alone may sound easy, but it also requires setting up the “supporting infrastructure” that is mentioned in the bill. Specifically, electric charging stations for school buses will be built with this money.

The rest of the funding, $300 million, remains unallocated. While this could be used to cover any additional costs of the previous projects, it can also have alternative uses. This extra spending could be used for the following: “projects that reduce urban heat island effect, such as installation of green roofs, open space protection, community gardens, cool pavement projects, projects that create or upgrade community cooling centers, and the installation of reflective roofs where installation of green roofs is not possible; urban forestry projects such as forest and habitat restoration, for purchase and planting of street trees and for projects to expand the existing tree canopy and bolster community health; projects that utilize natural and working lands to sequester carbon and mitigate methane emissions from agricultural sources, such as manure storage through cover and methane reduction technologies; etc.” 

$1.1 Billion — Restoration and Flood-Risk Prevention

The next lineup of projects comes in the form of flood-risk prevention and restoration. From this, up to $250 million goes towards voluntary buyout and restoration projects. This is when the state buys out land in order to restore and maintain the natural landscape within it.

$100 million gets spent for “coastal rehabilitation and shoreline restoration projects.” This refers to the restoration of or preserving coastal land. After this, an additional $100 million goes towards projects that address inland flooding, while revitalizing waterfronts.

The last $650 million remains unallocated. This allows for more flexibility in the potential projects that can be implemented. Potential projects can include: relocating or repairing flood-prone areas; upgrading or replacing dams or bridges; wildlife habitat restoration; etc. 

$650 Million — Water Quality Improvement and Resilient Infrastructure

Out of the $650 million, at least $200 million will be put towards wastewater infrastructure repairs and improvements. This would mean repairing or upgrading sewer systems and water treatment plants. Improvements like these are important to maintain a safe and reliable amount of drinking water and the reduction of waste.

Another $250 million goes towards municipal stormwater projects. In recent years, many storms and floods that have hit New York have made these improvements increasingly necessary. The NY Department of Environmental Conservation further explains the importance of stormwater projects

The last $200 million remains unallocated, meaning that there are many potential projects for water quality improvement. These can range from: reducing algae bloom and nutrient pollution; reducing lead exposure with water system repairs; reducing runoff from farmlands or improving soil conditions for agriculture; etc. 

$650 Million — Open Space Land Conservation and Recreation

The final $650 will be used to conserve land, both for nature reserves to preserve local ecosystems and for parks and recreation. Of this amount, at least $300 million will be put directly towards open space land conservation. In New York’s previous program regarding open space in 2016, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation defines “open space” as “land or water that is undeveloped (free from residential, commercial, industrial, or institutional use)” They also stated that open space often “includes areas such as forests, agricultural field, public parks and preserves, and coastal lands.” 

Another $150 million will be used for “farmland protection.” This means that funds will be put towards maintaining and running existing farmland for agricultural use. The New York Department of Agriculture and Markets further elaborates on this idea and provides various programs to do so.

The last $75 million is to be used for fish hatchery creation, improvement, and repairs. A fish hatchery is a facility where fish are bred, raised, and released into local rivers and lakes in order to maintain a steady population of fish species. The NY Department of Environmental Conservation currently operates 12 hatcheries throughout the state.

Where Does the Money Come From?

While $4.2 billion dollars is a lot of spending to be appreciated, what’s less clear for many is where that money comes from. Prop. 1 is listed as a “general bond measure,” which means that it is a general obligation bond (GO bond) and is passed with enough votes in a statewide election. But what’s a general obligation bond? 

According to Investopedia, a GO bond is “a type of municipal bond that is backed entirely by the issuers’ creditworthiness and ability to levy taxes on its residents” and is also “not backed by collateral.” Any municipality — which can be a city, county, or state government — can use “all available resources” to repay its debts to bondholders. This means that the state can repay it by any means, whether it’s by using taxpayer money or using the revenue raised from previous unrelated projects. The most common method for municipal governments, especially locally, is increasing property taxes for the area.

Most municipalities issue GO bonds to build public infrastructure such as roads, bridges, or parks when they don’t have enough funds to spend on these projects at a given moment. In general, these bonds are seen as a public good as they are a way for governments to deliver on public works for their communities even if they do not generate immediate revenue. For bond holders, they are seen as reliable investments due to how consistently the funds arrive from local and state governments, especially when they come from property taxes. New York State, for example, is given high credit ratings such as AA+ by Fitch Ratings; Aa2 by Moody’s Investors Service; and AA+ by Standard & Poor’s (S&P) Rating Services, according to New York’s 2022 Financial Report

For New York State, selling a direct bond needs the support of voters. This is required as a part of the state’s constitution, which 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.”

According to the official ballot summary, the bond act also “[allows] the State to refund the debt to take advantage of lower interest rates if the opportunity arises.” This is important when viewed in the context of the economic environment nationwide. In recent months, the U.S. Federal Reserve has resorted to raising interest rates as a way to combat economic inflation. These hikes have made it more costly for borrowers of all kinds to take out loans. In this case, states take greater risks when making direct loans themselves. This bill, however, allows for some flexibility down the road. It ensures that the state can adapt to favorable conditions when interest rates begin to decrease as inflation slows down, (fingers crossed).

“GO bonds” do not add to the state’s budget. Regardless, despite economic uncertainty, there is certainly optimism to be had budget-wise. In a message accompanying the 2022 Fiscal Report, NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has said that the budget is on “stable ground.” He elaborates by saying, “Historic federal financial assistance and improved tax revenues transformed an anticipated budget gap into surplus.” This means that there is clear hope for Prop. 1, which the 2022 Fiscal Report calls “the largest General Obligation bond act in State history.”

How Will This Bill Affect New York?

Prop. 1 will undoubtedly cause economic impacts over the years if implemented. An analysis conducted by AECOM, a construction consulting firm, stated that $4 billion in direct bonds would lead to the creation of 38,000 jobs. “Given New York State’s goal of engaging Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) in 30% of all state contracts,” the report states, “it is assumed that the New York State Environmental Bond Act will create more opportunities for MWBEs.”

Analysts have stated that the costs of implementing the bond act are far outweighed by the current costs of facing the damage of climate change. In a report conducted by Rebuild By Design in collaboration with AECOM, the costs of complete inaction are estimated to reach “$55 billion in the next decade for coastal storm and flood-event-related damages.” In a study conducted by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), climate change related damages and effects will cost “$10 billion annually by midcentury” if unaddressed. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that flooding from unmitigated climate change would result in up to $100 billion in New York’s property values by the end of the century.

While the Environmental Bond Act is certainly a step forward for climate legislation in New York State, it doesn’t go far enough in combating its challenges. While $200 million is a lot of funds to send towards repairing and replacing wastewater infrastructure, it doesn’t compare to the $36.2 billion that the NY Department of Environmental Conservation estimates is needed to fully repair the state’s wastewater systems. The NY Department of Health estimates that $38.7 billion is needed to repair New York’s drinking water systems, rather than the $250 million that the bond act provides. Nevertheless, small progress is still progress. 

Who Supports/Opposes This Bill?

Prop. 1 has countless supporters across the state government. Governor Kathy Hochul enthusiastically signed off on the bill, and she has since touted it as a staple of environmental legislation. “This moment demands historic investments in renewable energy and environmental protection to bring us closer to a brighter, greener future,” she remarked. “Our unprecedented commitment to the pursuit of clean-energy alternatives and green infrastructure will supercharge our economy and advance our climate goals.” 

This sentiment has been shared by many of her Democratic colleagues in the state legislature, but it has found some Republican support as well. When asked about the bill’s passage, Republican State Senator Mario Mattera told CBS News “It wasn’t [difficult for both sides to come together]. It’s getting bipartisan because everybody cares about the environment.”

This doesn’t mean that the bond act hasn’t encountered resistance. Gerard Kassar, the leader of the New York Conservative Party, has expressed criticisms of the bill’s financial obligations. “The New York State Conservative Party cares about environmental conservation, but it also cares about working- and middle-class families that are having trouble making ends meet,” he said. “Almost a million and a half financially beleaguered New York families have fled the state for friendlier tax climes over the past dozen years, and Albany Democrats still don’t get it. The Conservative Party does because it is rooted in reality.”

Prop. 1 nevertheless has its fair share of supporters outside of the government. New Yorkers For Clean Water & Jobs is an umbrella organization encompassing all of the groups and charities that have expressed their support for the bond act. Countless groups — such as environmental organizations ranging from the Environmental Advocates of New York and The Nature Conservancy; to unions like the NYS Laborers’ Organizing Fund and the New York AFL-CIO — have thrown their support behind it. Even municipal governments are included under their umbrella.

Support among New York voters remains on stable ground. In a poll conducted by the Siena College Research Institute, upwards of 54% of NY voters intend on voting “Yes” to the environmental bond act compared to only 26% voting “No.” The poll shows partisan swing in polled preferences with 76% of registered Democrats declaring their support while only 24% of registered Republicans supported it.

Throughout New York State history, environmental bond measures have been largely popular among voters. According to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, “all of but one of the 11 environmental bond acts to make it on the ballot in New York have been approved by voters,” and each have largely succeeded on “more than a 10 point difference.” If successfully voted on, the 2022 Environmental Bond Act would be the first environmental bond measure enacted in 26 years.

As November 8 is getting closer, the election season is unfolding before our very eyes. This is the opportunity for voters of all shapes and sizes to influence the political environment around them. Whether it means voting for one candidate over another or voting to pass or reject a new law, the ballot box is the final destination for every stage of political evolution.

Here, New Yorkers are able to decide for themselves how they want their state to look and act. After the last environmental bond measure passed in 26 years, this election day presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Whether or not this bond measure passes is the ultimate litmus test in figuring out how far New York residents are willing to go in addressing the current demands presented by climate change and environmental degradation. To those previously unwilling or uninformed to vote, this choice should persuade many to make their appearance at their nearest polling station or the mailbox.

If you want to learn more about voting, Ballotpedia has many resources about how to vote in New York State. This includes registration, in-person voting details, absentee voting details, election administration, and much more. See you at the polls! 

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