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Saving New York’s $3 Billion Environmental Bond

Last winter, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a $3 billion environmental bond to fund critical infrastructure and other measures to protect New York from the impacts of pollution, irresponsible development and climate change. The legislature approved the bond act in the spring and in November it should appear on the ballot for our vote. There is a chance it could be kept from the ballot if the state’s budget director, Robert Mujica, decides the state can’t afford the additional borrowing. It has been a quarter-century since the state’s last major environmental capital initiative, the $1.75 billion Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act, enacted in 1996. The need for environmental funding is clear and long overdue, but our ability to afford this initiative depends in part on federal funding of New York’s COVID-19 fiscal impact. And we have seen messaging in the U.S. Senate and the right-wing media, that the fiscal impact of the pandemic could have been lower if Democratic governors like Cuomo had moderated their shutdowns.

No one is contesting that COVID-19 has had an enormous health and economic impact on New York State in 2020. But last week, the Wall Street Journal attacked Governor Cuomo for combatting the virus at the expense of New York’s economy. According to the Journal’s editorial board:

“New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo claims to have crushed the coronavirus curve, and we’ll leave that debate for another time. But he didn’t have to crush his state’s economy at the same time. That’s one takeaway from last week’s Labor Department state employment report for June, which shows how many states have managed to keep the virus more or less under control while doing far less economic damage. Job losses in Northeastern states have been more severe than in the rest of the country. But New York stands out even in the Northeast for the size and scope of job losses, which have resulted from Mr. Cuomo’s reluctance to ease his lockdown orders even now that new infections are under control. Over the last year employment has declined by 15.3% in New York compared to 14.4% in Massachusetts, 13.4% in New Jersey, 11.8% in Rhode Island and 10.3% in Connecticut.”

The Journal editorial conveniently omits the greater severity of New York’s health crisis, particularly in the dense and highly globalized City of New York. Perhaps those health impacts justified the shutdowns that nearby states managed to implement with less stringency. During the height of the pandemic, the sounds of the shutdown on the west side of Manhattan were birds venturing forth from nearby parks competing with the near-constant sounds of sirens. New York City was hit hard, and the shutdown was not a PR stunt. Nevertheless, the Journal editors conclude their piece by observing that:

All of this is playing well with a press corps that can work from home and is happy to stay locked down until there’s a Covid-19 vaccine. But New York’s job losses compared to those of even neighboring states show that Mr. Cuomo’s virus triumphalism has come at a frightful economic price…

The Journal narrative that the shutdown was a political maneuver or that the governor had more latitude than he actually had, feeds into the mindset that shutdowns, masks, social distancing, testing, tracing, and isolation are functions of liberal ideology rather than prudent steps required to assure public health. Therefore, the huge economic hit that state and local governments have taken due to COVID-19 do not require federal resources, since they were matters of state and local choice. It is legitimate to argue the trade-off choices between public and economic health, but let’s use comparable data and not attribute that choice to political posturing or media preference. Do the Journal editors really think that anyone, including the media, prefers this lockdown to normal life? Can New York City really be compared to New Haven or even Boston?

With the epicenter of the virus now shifting to Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, the south and the Midwest, we are seeing the pressure on Republican governors growing. This virus may have started in areas controlled by Democrats, but it is now shifting to places with less density, less global influence and governed by conservatives. The benefits of New York’s caution are becoming more obvious. Perhaps the shift of the disease’s location will reopen the possibility of some federal resources directed toward hard-hit state and local governments that do not have the federal government’s capacity to incur debt. If that happens, there would be no reason to exclude New York’s Restore Mother Nature Bond Act from the November ballot.

In an excellent piece published in both the Adirondack Explorer and the Albany Times Union, Gwendolyn Craig observed that the state’s conservation budget and the Bond Act was at risk due to the pandemic. She notes that Governor Cuomo’s January budget briefing presented:

“…larger-than-life slides showed sweeping vistas of New York, including the North Country, with promises to protect the environment. One of Cuomo’s highlights was a proposed 30-year, $3 billion environmental bond act and a 5-year, $33 billion plan to combat climate change…On closer examination, that $33 billion climate fund wasn’t necessarily a new initiative, but a totaling of the state’s climate expenditures. The Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, however, was new… Essex County Supervisor Shaun Gilliland is among the skeptics who expect the bond act to fail.”

According to Craig’s reporting, Gilliland believes that voters seeing the state’s fiscal crisis will vote against the bond act. There are others who also believe that more urgent issues such as education and health care will drive out luxuries like clean air, clean water and climate resiliency. Given the state of our planet, I think it may be time to start considering breathing clean air, drinking clean water and being able to congregate without catching a disease as necessities rather than luxuries. It is true that a federal subsidy to state and local governments would make the trade-off decisions less difficult. But hasn’t this pandemic taught us anything about the costs of ignoring scientific projections of possible negative impacts? Nature has a way of extracting a price. Leak oil in the Gulf of Mexico and billions of dollars are required to clean up the mess. Leak chemicals into groundwater and the costs of remediation must be paid. Ignore scientific warnings of a highly contagious disease and the resulting shut down can lead to huge economic costs. Reductions in biodiversity, destruction of forests, reductions in public health budgets — all have real economic costs. This pandemic is costing trillions of dollars. Sea level rise will cost more.

Even if the federal government doesn’t get its act together on state aid and even if New York does not receive the federal funding it needs, the Bond Act should be enacted anyway. With any luck, the state funds will be combined in 2021 with federal capital spending on some version of the Green New Deal. These state funds can be used to accelerate New York’s economic recovery. They can also address the inequitable distribution of environmental benefits that have traditionally favored wealthy communities over low-income communities. Green infrastructure can be built that would put New Yorkers to work and add to the state’s economic efficiency. Natural resources and urban parks can be built or restored to help upstate ecotourism and urban communities in the years to come.

The bond act can be an important tool in rebuilding our economy. Cutting it will send the signal that we continue to believe in the false trade-off between economic development and environmental protection. If we believe in our future and in our ability to come back from this catastrophe, the environmental bond act deserves our continued support.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Gary nelson
Gary nelson
3 years ago

Like most of the NYS bonds, the promises are made, the actual projects unspecified. From my reading of any of the statements, the bond will use debt for construction projects with various outcomes, including more traffic capacity. I see nothing to reduce GHG emissions. If we got a proper emission taxing policy we could get the funds and impact we want without another debt package.

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