It was Cuomo’s “biggest environmental initiative.” Then he slashed it from the ballot.

A $3 billion green bond was set to be on New Yorker’s ballots this week, before Governor Cuomo’s budget office cancelled the vote.

Atman Mehta   ·   November 3, 2020
The postponed green bond was "probably the biggest environmental initiative that the governor had this year, Amy Chester said. | Marc Hermann

New York’s progressive lawmakers are cautiously optimistic about what today's election spells for climate. If Democrats flip just two seats in the State Senate, the party will gain a veto-proof majority, potentially giving progressives more leverage to push for new green infrastructure.

But one thing doesn't appear on New Yorkers’ ballots: a measure that would have poured billions of dollars into climate resiliency and mitigation projects.

If you don't save the planet, everything else is irrelevant,” Governor Cuomo declared when he proposed the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, which would have borrowed $3 billion to invest in flood-resilience infrastructure, habitat conservation, and clean energy projects.

The legislature approved the measure in April, despite some lawmakers pushing for a larger expenditure and more specifics on how it would be spent, and it was set to appear on voters’ ballots this week. But Robert Mujica, Cuomo’s budget director, pulled the bond from the ballot in July, citing fiscal stress caused by the pandemic.

The bond act was the only significant source of new funding for environmental initiatives in this year’s budget. Without it, environmental advocates say, New York is even less likely to meet its statutory emissions reduction commitments.

“I really hope we don’t miss another climate deadline,” John Sheehan, a member of the Adirondack Council, told New York Focus. The decision to pull the bond act from the ballot, Sheehan added, means that the state is now at least a year behind schedule to meet its climate commitments.

“We felt that this bond could have put a lot of people to work who are out of work right now. The investment, which would pay for itself over a long period of time, would help the economy, not hurt,” Sheehan said.

A soon-to-be-published study commissioned by the urban development project Rebuild by Design, said Amy Chester, director of that organization, has found that the bond would have created tens of thousands of jobs.

“It’s absolutely a time to build infrastructure, in times that are tighter around the belt,” Chester said.

Far from sufficient, but a start

The bond would have financed a host of measures to blunt the effects of climate change, allocating $1 billion to restoration and flood risk reduction, $550 million to water quality and infrastructure improvements, and $500 million to the conservation of open space land.

Environmental activists say that these expenditures are far from sufficient, but would have been a start towards mitigating the environmental and economic costs that climate change will impose on New York.

At least 431,000 New Yorkers are currently at risk of coastal flooding, a number expected to rise to well over 650,000 by 2050, according to States at Risk, a project aimed at demonstrating the climate change-related risks faced by each state in the US.

And as Governor Cuomo noted when he proposed the bond, scientists estimate that flooding in New York will cause $50 billion in damages over the next decade.

In addition to these adaptation measures, the bond would have invested $700 million in climate mitigation like renewable energy expansion. This investment would have worked towards goals set out in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), the 2019 legislation that commits the state to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 85% by 2050.

Governor Cuomo announced the CLCPA as a $33 billion initiative—but more than $28 billion of that sum referred to already-existing programs, rather than new revenue sources. The bond would have been the only significant new funding stream allocated to implement the CLCPA, according to the State Assembly's Yellow Book.

Bonds are essentially IOUs—financial instruments used to rapidly raise funds for a particular form of spending, with a long period of repayment that can run to decades. Green bonds are IOUs earmarked for new or ongoing projects deemed to be environmentally beneficial.

Although green bonds have lately gained momentum in Europe, where a wider green banking movement seeks to lower the cost of environmental projects, the United States movement has trailed overseas efforts.

They were once a much more common fundraising tool in New York, but the last environmental bond issued by New York state was adopted in 1996.

“A very, very good time to issue debt”

Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the budget office, said that the bond was slashed because the state could no longer afford to issue debt amid a “four-year, $62 billion revenue loss as a result of a worldwide pandemic.”

“States cannot run up a deficit like the federal government. Once we have clarity from Washington on how much funding, if any, the State will receive to offset these devastating revenue losses, we will revisit the bond act,” Klopott said.

But progressive advocates say it makes little financial sense to cancel a bond which would have mitigated future spending outlays on climate disasters and created jobs during a recession.

“It’s actually a very, very good time to issue debt. Interest rates are at incredible, historic lows,” Michael Kink, the director of the labor coalition Strong Economy for All, told New York Focus. “It’s true that it requires a revenue stream to fund bonds. And it’s also true that if Andrew Cuomo was willing to tax the rich, he’d have plenty of revenue to pay for investments in our future, like green bonds.”

Every dollar invested in land or water conservation generates at least $7 in return for local businesses, a study by Trust for Public Land, an organization working to create parks and protect land, found.

Investing in climate resiliency infrastructure today also reduces the economic costs of climate disasters tomorrow, said Steve Cohen, an environmental policy expert at Columbia University who previously worked at the EPA.

“Green projects make the economy more efficient by reducing energy consumption, combined sewer overflow, flooding and damage to natural resources. These investments tend to pay off far more than they cost,” Cohen said.

Cuomo has said that the “environmental bond issue” has only been delayed for a year. Chester said she is confident it will be put on next year’s ballot, partly because “this was probably the biggest environmental initiative that the governor had this year.”

Analysts had projected that the bond was likely to be approved: more than 70% of New Yorkers supported the act, a Siena College poll in January 2020 found.

But the measure may be less likely to pass during a non-presidential election year, when the electorate tends to be more conservative. Chester says that she is still optimistic about the bond’s prospects if it is included on next year’s ballot, though, since voters in liberal New York City will turn out for the mayoral election.

Kink suggested that lawmakers are now waiting on the federal funding expected from a Biden administration as an alternative to state debt issuance. But instead of viewing federal funding as an alternative to state revenue, Kink said, “they should complement each other.”

“The fact is, we’ve got to do stuff in New York, using the resources we have. Whatever the federal government gives us is not going to be enough to deal with our historic levels of inequality, and with the tremendous risk New York is facing due to catastrophic climate change.”

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