Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recently released draft budget for 2019-2020 is disappointing because it misses some major priorities for the Adirondack environment and communities.
Major issues across the Adirondacks, such as increased funding for the High Peaks Wilderness to build a sustainable trail network, more Forest Rangers, or a larger Environmental Protection Fund to meet major challenges of climate change, were all ignored in this budget.
Funding for state agencies was also mostly flat. The Adirondack Park Agency was funded at 54 positions, the same number for the past several years. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) created five new positions, but these were all for the Frontier Town Campground and day use area. The campground was built for $9 million in 2018. No new Forest Rangers were approved in this budget, though empty positions from retirements will be filled. The budget did not include funding for the High Peaks Wilderness, which is seeing record numbers of public use, but has scores of miles of trails in need of upgrades and repairs to protect hiker safety and natural resources. The failure of the Cuomo Administration to invest in the High Peaks Wilderness is mind-boggling.
The Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) was funded flat at $300 million, where it has been capped in recent years. The EPF does not come close to meeting the immense environmental challenges across New York or the Adirondacks for climate change and community protection and resiliency.
The EPF account for land protection was funded at $32.3 million, down from $35 million last year. Invasive species management and control is funded at $13.2 million, but this is inadequate as across the Adirondacks and New York we need to build a mandatory Lake-George-type boat inspection, cleaning and certification program. State Land Stewardship was increased to $33.7 million, with $1 million earmarked for ORDA. The two Visitor Interpretive Centers at Paul Smith’s and Newcomb were funded at $180,000 and $120,000 respectively; both should be funded at $250,000. $450,000 was provided for Hamilton and Essex Counties for solid waste management as part of the agreement that prohibited Essex County from selling its landfill more than 20 years ago to create Freshkills Landfill North. The newest program area in the EPF is “Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation” which has grown to $21.5 million, highlighted with $5 million for climate resilient farms and $10 million for climate smart communities. The EPF should be funded to grow steadily to $1 billion annually to increase environmental spending across the Board, but also fund climate change work at a serious level and fund environmental research across New York, among other things.
The Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) was funded at $70 million, up by $20 million over last year. This increase is for various upgrades at ORDA’s ski areas that have been recently approved, many to promote summer tourism. Is summer tourism at a ski area a smart investment of millions of dollars?
The Governor’s clean water program, which helps municipalities upgrade public drinking water and sewer systems, in scheduled to see an increase of funding by $500 million. This program now approaches $1 billion a year, but will be hard-pressed to actually get a lot of that money out the door. While this sounds like a lot of money, the backlog of needed upgrades to public water systems across New York is in far north of $100 billion. Right now, the Village of Lake George needs $22 million for its failing system.
Governor Cuomo also used his State of the State and budget address to pronounce that he was launching the “Green New Deal” right here in New York. The Green New Deal was championed in political campaigns in the last year by many progressives, led by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez from the Bronx and Queens, to confront the realities of climate change and rebuild the American economy that is free of fossil fuels and based on economic justice and equality. Count me in as a skeptic of Governor Cuomo’s commitment to the Green New Deal. Remember that Cuomo spent his first term refusing to utter the words “climate change,” preferring to talk in terms of extreme weather. Remember that across the Adirondacks he has commanded state agencies to build road-like 12-20 foot wide snowmobile “trails” that require cutting of over 1,000 trees a miles and inflict immense environmental destruction as the forest understory is flattened. The Governor continues to build these destructive “trails” on the public “forever wild” Forest Preserve even though snowfall is declining and unreliable. Cuomo is also working right now to have his state agencies build 4 miles of a new snowmobile trail through a Wilderness area.
The Green New Deal proposal talks about the importance of a national plan that would be implemented to accomplish its goals. The Governor said he’s going to convert New York’s energy system to 100% renewable energy by 2040. Where’s the plan for how he’s going to do that? Where’s the schedule? What are the costs? Where in the Governor’s budget is the part about making homes and buildings energy efficient and 100% greenhouse gas neutral? Where is the part about de-carbonizing New York’s economy? How will the Governor de-carbonize transportation in New York? Besides being short on details, there are also important parts of the Green New Deal that Cuomo somehow missed, like not taking political contributions from the fossil fuel industry or its lobbyists.
On the economic development front, the Governor is proposing to continue the Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC) with a new allocation of $750 million. The 2018 North Country REDC purportedly awarded $64.8 million in funding in December. A reading of the awards shows that $36 million was in tax credits or funding for local Industrial Development Agencies (IDAs) to offer low interest loans. Of the $28.8 million in supposed actual awards $2.9 million went to private businesses, $11.7 million went local governments for salt sheds or upgrades to municipal water and sewage systems, and the remaining $14.2 million went to a variety of local governments and non-profits for an assortment of projects.
While the State of New York should certainly help North Country communities with a variety of infrastructure improvements and help non-profits to deliver services, these are not investments that are going to create or sustain jobs and build the local economy. Very few permanent jobs will be produced from this purported $64.8 million in funding for the North Country. Moreover, it’s a good bet that the North Country will never see a lot of that $64.8 million as projects will fail to come together and much of the $36 million in tax credits and low interest loans will not be utilized. The REDCs have been criticized as high style political performance art that net few genuine jobs for a region despite billions of dollars awarded. The recent round of funding for the North Country shows the shortcomings of the REDC approach. The Legislature needs to look at alternatives for economic development in Upstate New York that actually invest in businesses and job creation. (In another failing of the REDC approach, it cuts the Adirondack Park into three different regional councils, hence failing to provide a strategic focus on Adirondack communities.)
It’s a certainty that the newly emboldened Legislature, now unified under Democratic control, will move ahead promptly with budget hearings and then pass their own draft budgets to answer the Governor’s. After that, three-way negotiations will set in between the Senate, Assembly and Governor, as the April 1st deadline for the budget adoption looms. While I expect these negotiations to be secretive and led by the legislative leaders, I am heartened that three men in a room has been broken up at least for now as the new Senate Majority Leader is Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Despite that step forward, the budget process should be more far open and far more transparent in New York.
For the Adirondacks, the Governor’s proposed budget missed the marks for important issues. Protect the Adirondacks will lobby for a major investment in the High Peaks Wilderness to build sustainable trails, for more Forest Rangers, for an expanded Environmental Protection Fund, for serious investment in climate change programs, and smarter economic development investments by the State of New York.
Photo of Andrew Cuomo snowmobiling.