New Yorkers largely agreed on at least one thing this Election Day and overwhelmingly voted to pass the Environmental Bond Act.
The state will borrow $4.2 billion in bonds for clean-energy projects to upgrade water infrastructure, reduce the risk of floods and preserve parks, open space and more.
Voters passed the Clean Air, Clean Water and Green Jobs Bond Act — the only statewide ballot proposal this election — with more than 59% of the vote, or a two-to-one margin, according to the state Board of Elections.
Those numbers will continue to rise as ballots are finalized in the coming days.
"The champagne bottles are still on the table — just not here in my office," state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said with a smile Wednesday.
The bond act will fund more than $1 billion for flood reduction, fixing dams and culverts for aquatic life; $650 million for wastewater and stormwater upgrades; $650 million to preserve parks, open space and farmland; and up to $1.5 billion for green infrastructure and renewable energy projects to fight climate change.
"The best time to do these things is actually a few decades ago," said Jessica Ottney Mahar, Nature Conservancy's New York policy and strategy director. "We have pipes in the ground delivering water to New Yorkers that are 100 years old."
The investments are estimated to create nearly 100,000 jobs for projects to protect the state's natural resources and upgrade aging infrastructure.
The ballot proposal had little pushback, but some voters already perplexed by the economy and rising inflation balked at the price tag.
"Given the state's overall indebtedness right now, which is very high, and the spending spree that the state Legislature went on this past legislative session ... is the state really able to afford this right now?" said James Hanley, a research fellow at the Empire Center. "...A lot of the infrastructural stuff in it is very valuable and will ultimately pay for itself, but it's still the reality that taxpayers will have to pay for this."
But the $4.2 billion in debt payments associated with the bonds will come from the state's general fund, and were legislated in the state's long-term financial plans in 2019.
"Accordingly, taxpayers will not see an increase in their state taxes as result of the environmental bond act moving forward," according to the governor's office.
The vote to borrow billions of dollars for environmental projects was delayed in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seggos echoed the bond will not increase taxes once expended, and stressed a government that invests in its environment is stronger economically.
"It's like taking your vitamins now to stave off problems in the future," the commissioner told Capital Tonight.
He cited recent natural disasters across the state and nation, and the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy that passed at the end of October.
"You make these investments to shore up the state, ultimately save many, many billions more in the future in avoided response costs," Seggos added.
Each section in the act details how funds should be used and invested.
At least $1.5 billion will be committed to disadvantaged communities. State officials will define those neighborhoods, often hit hardest by climate change with the fewest resources.
The projects will help the state toward its lofty goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
"There's carve-outs in the Bond Act for climate mitigation, investing in green buildings, energy efficiency, electric school buses, helping state school districts around the state convert their diesel fleets into electric..." Seggos said.
The state's Climate Action Council continues to work with state officials, experts and review hours of public comment to finalize its Scoping Plan and framework for New York to meet its net-zero emissions and greenhouse gas reduction goals set under the CLCPA over the next few decades.
The DEC will use the Scoping Plan, to be adopted in late December, when recommending department priorities to Gov. Kathy Hochul before her State of the State address in January and budget negotiations this winter.
"New York voters came out in full force this election to show their overwhelming support for the $4.2 billion Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act, which Governor Hochul bolstered with an additional $1.2 billion earlier this year," a spokesperson with Gov. Hochul's office said in a statement. "With our state and local partners we will protect water quality, help communities adapt to climate change, improve wildlife habitats and create green jobs. The Bond Act also centers equity and justice by committing significant resources directly to communities most affected by pollution and climate change. We are confident that this historic investment will create a better New York for future generations."
The Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Act is the first environmental bond on the ballot in New York since 1996 and at $4.2 billion, is the largest in state history. Its passage places the state in a better position to apply for federal dollars available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act passed in Congress earlier this year.