Setting the 2014 Environmental Agenda

The following editorial appeared in the September 12, 2013 issue of City and State.

Unlike years past when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Dean Skelos and Shelly Silver exchanged high-fives in the Red Room on the last day of session, this year’s silence spoke volumes about the quality of their work together.

On the legislative front, green issue after green issue fell to political gamesmanship, particularly in the Senate. Using his administrative and budget powers, Cuomo delivered a mixed environmental bag; he had great initiatives like lowering the carbon cap for dirty power plants and secured more funding for recycling, conservation and parks projects. He’s also proceeding cautiously on fracking, which is responsible public policy.

But these gains were offset by some rollbacks to environmental protections. In 2014 Cuomo must focus his attention on the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

Years of budget cuts have meant a retreat from enforcing our state’s laws. The DEC now relies heavily on polluters to enforce the federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts—but polluters have not earned the public’s trust, and the fox is indeed guarding the henhouse. If the governor wants the public to believe government is working for our environment again, he should fully fund the state’s environmental cop in his next budget and emphasize proper DEC enforcement.

Cuomo should also use his next budget to fix the broken Brownfields Cleanup Program. The state has cut checks totaling more than one billion dollars to clean up about 130 sites, many in places like midtown Manhattan that would have been developed anyway. The current program disproportionately casts aside communities upstate and neighborhoods statewide with high unemployment and poverty rates. The Brownfields program is in desperate need of an overhaul. Doing what Albany does and waiting until the last possible minute to pass a straight extension would be a colossal and costly failure.

Legislators should demand reform from the governor’s budget. Given the Legislature’s inability to get things done, all eyes will be on Cuomo to deliver the green goods in 2014.