New York State Lawmakers Strike a Budget Deal That Champions the Environment

Last weekend, the New York State Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo finalized a progressive state budget for Fiscal Year 2020, establishing several important environmental policies including congestion pricing in Manhattan, a ban on carry-out plastic bags, and legislation to reduce food waste in New York.

This year’s budget negotiations were as intense as always as lawmakers and the governor worked through disagreements, but in the wee hours of last Sunday morning, all parties announced a budget deal that will lower the state’s carbon emissions, reduce solid waste pollution, and protect the state’s environment. Below is a breakdown of the most important environmental policies in the 2019-2020 New York State Budget.

Congestion Pricing

The budget’s most significant victory for the environment is congestion pricing, a plan that will charge cars and trucks a fee to drive into the most traffic-heavy areas of Manhattan.

Congestion pricing will substantially decrease the number of cars driving through New York City on a daily basis, which will improve public health by reducing air pollution in the city. Lessening car and truck exhaust is particularly important for fighting childhood asthma, an epidemic that is one of the leading causes of school absences in New York City, and one that is particularly harmful in several predominantly low-income neighborhoods in the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn. The plan will also reduce New York’s contribution to climate change, as transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

Furthermore, the congestion pricing program will be a major source of revenue for the MTA, which is in desperate need of funding for maintenance and repairs on the ailing subway system and regional commuter rail. Once the program is fully implemented in 2021, it will generate an estimated $1 billion per year, which will be used to secure $15 billion in bonds. Under the plan, the Long Island Railroad and Metro North will each receive 10% of the revenue, and the remaining 80% will go towards the subway and New York City buses. The budget did not establish what the fee to enter the Central Business District will be, but it is expected that it will cost about $12 for cars and $25 for trucks to enter Manhattan below 60th Street.

This is the first congestion pricing plan in the nation, setting the stage for other cities to follow New York’s lead and further reduce car use and carbon emissions across the country.

Plastic Bag Ban

With the passage of the budget, New York becomes the second state in the U.S. to ban carry-out plastic bags.

The bag ban will reduce the immense amount of plastic pollution on both land and in the state’s waterways, protecting wildlife. Even when plastic bags are properly disposed of, they often jam municipal recycling systems, so the ban will save taxpayer money. The ban will also conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions associated with the production of plastic bags.

The ban has several exemptions, such as bags used for wrapping deli counter products, food takeout bags at restaurants, and trash bags sold in bulk, but the new law will still eliminate millions of plastic bags. On top of banning most plastic bags, the new law also contains a provision that allows local governments to opt into a five-cent fee for single use paper bags. NYLCV will immediately begin advocating for New York City and county governments to opt into the fee, in order to further reduce solid waste pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Food Donation and Food Scrap Recycling Act

The budget takes action to substantially reduce food waste in New York, redirecting healthy food to food insecure New Yorkers and reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, food waste is responsible for an astounding 8% of global greenhouse emissions, as it emits high concentrations of methane when it decomposes in landfills. Food waste currently makes up 18% of the solid waste stream in New York, and the Food Donation and Food Scrap Recycling Act included in the budget takes action on this alarming problem by requiring that large generators of food waste such as restaurants, supermarkets, and sports stadiums donate wholesome food waste to food banks, and donate their food scraps to organics recycling facilities.

While thousands of perfectly edible meals are thrown out every day, nearly two and a half million New Yorkers are food insecure, according to the Food Bank for New York City. Diverting wholesome food to food banks is a practical and effective step for fighting food insecurity, as food banks would increase their supply of food by 20 percent if a mere 5 percent of the state’s wasted food material were donated.

Sustaining the Environmental Protection Fund

Like last year’s budget, the deal that was stuck last weekend allocates $300 Million for New York State’s Environmental Protection Fund (EPF). This money will be used to provide grants for many capital projects that will control invasive species, improve recycling and sewage treatment, and protect forests, parks, historic sites and farmland.

This announcement is a major win for environmentalists, as the guaranteed money for capital grants was in danger of being lost. The executive budget proposal allowed both capital grants and staff and administrative costs to be funded through the EPF, meaning that far less money would be available for directly funding projects. Last month, many activists and legislators like Senators Todd Kaminsky and Brian Kavanagh rallied to stop this raid of the EPF. Thanks to that effort New York State will spend $300 million on a wide range of capital projects that are critical for protecting public health, fighting climate change, and conserving New York’s vast natural environment.

Funding for Clean Water Infrastructure

The FY 2020 budget allocates $500 Million for the Clean Water Infrastructure Act, adding to $2.5 billion that the state appropriated in 2017. The funding will be used to build new sewer systems, support local governments as they improve their water infrastructure, provide money for homeowners and businesses to improve their septic systems, and fund many other projects that are critical for protecting public health. New York State has some of the oldest water infrastructure in the nation, and it is ridden with problems such as water main breaks, deteriorating pipes, outdated wastewater treatment plants, and drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals such as lead and 1,4 Dioxane.

Lowering the Acceptable Blood Lead Level

Finally, the budget takes an overdue action to curb lead poisoning by changing the state’s definition of an elevated blood lead level from 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood to 5 micrograms, a change made by the CDC in 2012. While no amount of lead exposure is safe, public health experts now believe that 5 micrograms is the level at which action is required to prevent permanent damage.

The FY 2020 budget is a big win for the environment, and NYLCV will be working with the State and with local governments to help implement these policies as effectively as possible. NYLCV applauds Governor Cuomo, Speaker Heastie, and Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins for a strong pro-environment budget and looks forward to working with legislators to go even further during the remainder of the legislative session.