Although expectations are lower in this challenging budget year than in the past two budget cycles, there is a great deal for environmentalists to like in Governor Cuomo’s 2018-2019 Executive Budget. Previously, the Environmental Protection Fund was one of the first targets for austerity cuts. This year, Governor Cuomo has left it at its historic level of $300 million. Similarly, the spend down of the $2.5 billion promised for clean water promised last year will remain in place. While it is easy to take these funding levels for granted, they are important to applaud. We sincerely look forward to spending the next ten weeks pushing for progress rather than trying to undo painful cuts. We are also pleased to see funding for fixing our parks, building the Empire State Trail, finally finishing Hudson River Park, combatting algal blooms in our waterways, and remediating the Grumman contamination in Bethpage.
Two long-discussed new programs made it into the Governor’s budget and they rank high on our priority list. For the second consecutive year, Governor Cuomo included a proposal requiring large generators of food waste to donate edible food and recycle the rest. Similarly, after years of behind-the-scenes efforts, a plan to reform the forestry tax credit to encourage owners of private forests not to develop the land was included for the first time. Both of these proposals have well-resourced opponents and it will take significant advocacy for them to reach the finish line. Along with our partners, we are gearing up for a serious push. We hope that both the Governor and our legislative allies join us in this effort.
We are also pleased to see the Governor include a proposed compromise solution to the expansion of the Pine Barrens he vetoed in December. The Governor’s version would not include the Mastic Woods, allowing a solar farm to move forward, and replaces this land with state and county lands not in the original plan. We hope that all parties come to the table to agree on a reasonable solution that does not pit land preservation against renewable energy.
The Governor’s embracing of a fee on all vehicles entering the central business district in his speech today is a step in the right direction on congestion pricing. We need to hear more details and look forward to the report of the Fix NYC panel later this week. Time is short for such a major proposal and we are concerned it is already starting from behind by not being included in the Executive Budget. Inaction, however, is not an option since the long-term consequences pose a major threat to our climate goals and to the Downstate economy. We are hopeful that the unusually high stakes will bring all of the relevant players to the table to get something done before April.
Of course, we cannot agree with the Governor on everything and we strongly believe that leaving a solution to single-use bag waste out of the budget was a serious oversight. Last year, when Governor Cuomo overturned New York City’s attempt to deal with the problem, he promised a statewide solution. We are still waiting for it after a disappointing Plastic Bag Taskforce report was released on Saturday night over the holiday weekend. Instead what we are left with is an inconsistent and inadequate patchwork of local laws. When Governor Cuomo wants to get something done, few can rival his rate of success. If he is serious about making good on his pledge, we expect that he will include a plan to either institute a ban on plastic bags and a fee on paper bags, or a fee on both in his 30 Day Amendments or through a program bill.