Governor Cuomo was emboldened recently when his raid on federal dollars dedicated for our communities clean water infrastructure was approved by the obscure Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), even as one member who voted yes continued to express criticisms and disapproval.
In short, the PACB approved half of the loan ($256 million) that was sought, which will cover costs already incurred by the state, while the Thruway Authority intends to come back for the other half in 2016.
Since the federal government made it clear they can – and will – claw back any misused Clean Water Act funds, Governor Cuomo’s move is a risky one that also sets a dangerous precedent for what executives in New York and nationwide can do with allocations they wish to repurpose.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, 10 editorial boards and several columnists slammed the raid. The Buffalo News called it “pilfering”, while the Poughkeepsie Journal noted that Governor Cuomo has failed to present “a clear, unambiguous and transparent funding plan” for the Tappan Zee. The Middletown Times Herald Record said it was a move by “a couple of bureaucrats who should know better”, with even the New York Post siding with environmentalists calling the raid a “switcheroo” and “dubious”.
“Gov. Andrew Cuomo owes New Yorkers some answers. How much will tolls rise? How are taxpayers going to pay for the rest of the bridge? Is the loan from EFC the first of many schemes to come up with the money from other corners of state government? Is this any way to execute a major infrastructure project?”
While the Journal News, whose readership covers a large swatch of Tappan Zee commuters, took its criticism a step further:
“…the continued cloudy financial picture — and a loan-seeking process that's akin to the Thruway seeking cash under the state's couch cushions — is a disservice to the New Yorkers who will have to pay off the borrowing with their tolls.”
Our communities are grappling with more than $36 billion in unmet clean water infrastructure needs. This isn’t a theoretical problem: the very same day Senator DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) voted to allow this raid, two water mains blew in downtown Syracuse, keeping clean water from residents and adding significant headaches for local commuters. Another one blew just days later.
After promising to use this process to get answers for New Yorkers who have been left in the dark on how Tappan Zee and Thruway tolls will be impacted statewide by this project, Senator DeFranciso caved. The Assembly Speaker engaged the administration to draw out more details, but ultimately acquiesced to the Governor's raid.
Due to the Administration’s secrecy, the Thruway Authority's unwillingness to disclose their application, and state laws likely being violated by the Environmental Facilities Corporation, 12 organizations are now calling on the Budget Authorities Office to undertake a formal investigation.
The Cuomo Administration knows there are other – better – ways to pay for this bridge. But if they get their way, the Governor also knows a dangerous precedent will be set allowing him to circumvent the public, the Legislature and due process; it’s not a fight they’re going to back down from. Nonetheless, with the federal government openly criticizing their raid, undertaking their own aggressive review, and possibly pulling millions from state coffers – as well as the threat of litigation looming – it would serve Governor Cuomo well to figure out how he’s going to pay for this bridge and have an honest conversation with the taxpayers footing the bill.