Inside the Sausage Maker II: Final 2017 Budget

The State Budget is the single greatest responsibility that the Governor and state lawmakers have, as their negotiations set forth New York’s priorities and values for at least the next 12 months. This year’s budget came at a unique time as President Trump began the widespread dismantling of many of the health and environmental protections New Yorkers depend on, including attacks on air and water quality. Proposed federal budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could further endanger New Yorkers, as fewer resources means fewer environmental “cops on the beat”. This is a problem we already have here in New York due to years of flat budgets proposed by the Governor which have reduced the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) ability to carry out its growing responsibilities.

There was reason to believe that this year, Governor Cuomo and lawmakers would rise to the occasion. In several ways, they did, particularly in the Assembly. In the end, Environmental Advocates’ campaigns have led to increased protections against chemical contamination, the greatest investment in clean water infrastructure in decades, and an Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) positioned to get even bigger next year. Several other matters were kicked down the road, and our public officials must commit to action before legislators leave Albany for the year this June. Here’s an overview:

Protecting Against Chemical Contamination

There are more than 80,000 unregulated chemicals on the market today. It’s so bad that when one chemical – say, BPA – is banned due to health risks, another chemical similar to BPA , which may have equally disastrous impacts, replaces it. The chemical industry has successfully fought regulations (which are more accurately described as public protections) for decades. This year was no different – as the finalization of the budget was coming down to the wire, it looked like a weaker proposal was more likely to be agreed upon. But, we are very proud to note that we notched an important victory as legislators enacted the first comprehensive plan to consistently regulate and/or ban “emerging contaminants” in New York. It also implements increased water testing for communities to ensure people aren’t drinking water that is making them sick. There are a lot of details left to sort out. However, this is a turning point that proves the deep-pocketed chemical lobby is beginning to lose its tight-fisted control over government.

An Historic Investment in Water

We all know that people take clean water for granted until there is a crisis. Just look at the history. Three years ago, we successfully fought Governor Cuomo’s attempts to raid clean water funds for bridge construction. Now, after exceptional coalition building, member activation, and education of legislators and the press, New York has delivered the most significant clean water investment in modern history with $2.5 billion over five years, about $1.1 billion of which will specifically help communities #FixOurPipes. It’s taken an enormous amount of work to reach this point, and we’re getting closer and closer to the $800 million annual investment that is needed. A proposed clean water bond act fell off the table this year, but with more than $80 billion in infrastructure needs alone, it will surely be back on the table in the future.

An EPF Built to Take Trump On

We helped secure another major victory this year with an EPF that has once again received a historic level of investment: $300 million. The EPF is one of the most impactful programs in almost every community statewide, preserving land, helping recycling centers, ensuring communities have the resources they need to fight climate change, and much more. With federal assaults happening across-the-board, next year, the EPF will take on even greater importance, which is why we’re laying the groundwork for a game-changing ask of an annual investment of $1 billion. In a budget of $152+ billion, $1 billion for environmental protections is the least New York can do.

Kids Health & Environmental Factors Harming Them

The common thread through all of these victories is that the programs we secured impact public health. Often times, cleaner air, water, and communities, means the difference between life and death for many people, particularly children. This makes our next victory particularly heartening, as our partnership with Mount Sinai has secured a multi-year investment for the Centers for Children’s Environmental Health within the EPF. The centers do visionary medical work, connecting the dots between sick children and the environmental factors contributing to their ailments. This has been a grossly overlooked area of medical research and we are so proud to be a part of this life-saving program.

What Climate Change?

All that glitters is not gold. Despite Governor Cuomo touting the budget as one that protects New Yorkers from the Trump Administration’s rollbacks, it remarkably includes very little on the climate action, clean energy, or environmental justice front. We say “remarkably” because the budget is not insignificant, totaling more than $152 billion. The state Assembly placed important policy on the negotiating table. It appears however, that despite President Trump announcing the dismantling of climate action on the federal level just as negotiations were ongoing, Governor Cuomo sided with the state Senate and chose not to use the budget to make New York a true climate leader. The budget also continued the short-sighted policy of raiding the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). We need the Governor and Senate to view climate change with the same urgency as everyone else. You can expect the NY Renews coalition to be a constant presence at the Capitol until legislators leave for the year in June.

Leaving Hoosick Falls Behind

One of the most inspiring experiences we’ve had at Environmental Advocates is witnessing the residents of Hoosick Falls who, despite dealing with their own water contamination crisis, have relentlessly fought for new protections, not only for their community, but all New Yorkers. That’s what makes one glaring omission in the State Budget a painful one. While their advocacy helped secure the chemical oversight program discussed above, Governor Cuomo and state legislators failed to invest even $1 to help secure a new, safe water source for the community, many of whom, after a year and a half, still live off bottled water. This is unacceptable and their representatives, particularly Senator Kathy Marchione, have some explaining to do for failing constituents for the second budget in a row.

Two-Faced on Kids with Asthma

One of the most egregious examples of politicians saying one thing to constituents but doing another inside the Capitol is the constant delay of the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) of 2006. Many of the very same state legislators who hold press conferences decrying air pollution contributing to asthma in their communities have supported delays of full compliance of this life-saving law every year since 2010. This year, Environmental Advocates was told that the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which actually proposed its own DERA delay, would not allow it to happen again. Yet, they and most of their colleagues in both houses voted for another year of kids breathing dirty diesel fumes. The next time your state legislator touts efforts to fight asthma, we encourage you to ask them, “did you vote to delay the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act?”