ALBANY – In the largest bond act ever proposed for approval by New York voters, State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti introduced legislation Wednesday for Albany to borrow $5 billion for a range of environmental infrastructure improvements across the state.
The bill was quietly introduced Wednesday afternoon by Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican who is chairman of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee. Grisanti said the same bill is being submitted by Long Island Democratic Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, his committee counterpart in the Assembly.
The borrowed money could be used for everything from improving a community’s air quality to replacing aging underground water pipeline systems to strengthening areas susceptible to flooding.
A legislative memo accompanying the new bill calls for voters to consider the $5 billion bond act in November 2014, the same time Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and all lawmakers will be up for re-election. The legislation, the memo states, fills a void from the money that has run out from the 1996 Clean Water, Clean Air Bond Act, in which voters approved a $1.75 billion borrowing.
“In all honesty, I think it’s actually going to cost more,” Grisanti said of the infrastructure needs across the state for sewer, water and other systems.
“We have a crumbling infrastructure above and below ground,” the lawmaker said in an interview.
Introducing the bill now, with the Legislature out of session, will enable all sides, including Cuomo’s office, to get engaged in talks over the plan before a new session begins in January, Grisanti said.
While the price tag is huge even by Albany standards, it does seek permission from voters, a rare thing for New York State government, which has become so accustomed to backdoor borrowing done every year in the budget process.
The Clean Water/Clean Air/Green Jobs Bond Act of 2014 would provide funds for the “preservation, enhancement, restoration and improvement of the state’s environment,” states the bill memo accompanying the legislation.
The bill memo states that a 2008 study found the amount of money needed to repair or replace wastewater and water systems throughout New York would approach nearly $80 billion over a 20-year period.
The Buffalo Niagara region is plagued with century-old sewer infrastructure, which is overstressed and in many cases failing.
It is often cited as one of the chief reasons why more than a billion gallons of raw sewage overflow annually into area creeks, streams, Lakes Erie and Ontario and other waterways, often polluting them during and following wet weather periods and storms.
Those overflows then contribute directly to the frequent closings of area beaches and recreational areas along the water because of high levels of bacteria and other microbes harmful to human health.
The $5 billion sought by the new legislation would not include interest costs.
Under the proposal, money would be made available for projects done by the state, local governments, not-for-profit corporations, school districts and Native American tribes for improving drinking water quality, purchase of open space and farmland preservation, “climate change adaptation” and habitat restoration, the bill states.
It would earmark $2 billion of the $5 billion to protect water resources, through programs such as flood mitigation and water quality research. The bill envisions $2 billion for infrastructure projects, such as building new municipal sewer lines. The remaining $1 billion would be set aside for air quality and other programs, including pollution mitigation efforts in urban areas, community gardens and cleaning up contaminated lands for re-use.
Grisanti said Sweeney approached him about introducing the bill in the Senate. “It would alleviate a lot of problems,” Grisanti said of the proposal.
A fiscal watchdog group condemned the borrowing idea, calling it bloated and insisting there are needs, such as roads, highways and bridges, that should be put in front of the environmental borrowing. “It is excessive just on the face of it,” said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank.
“To put it mildly, there are other needs in front of land acquisition and habitat restoration,” he said of a borrowing plan in which he said there is “enough to butter everybody’s bread.” He noted the state already has $2.5 billion in outstanding debt for environmental projects.
The largest bond act in New York history was the 2000 transportation improvement program, a $3.8 billion borrowing that was defeated, largely by upstate voters.
Why Cuomo, who has sought to portray himself as a fiscal pragmatist, would want to run for re-election next year with a $5 billion borrowing plan on the same ballot is uncertain. A spokesman for the governor did not immediately comment on the new borrowing plan.
But an environmental group hailed the idea as necessary and said the $5 billion bond plan fits in with Cuomo’s calls to improve the state’s infrastructure and to create jobs that would come from the different projects envisioned by the bill’s authors. “The way the governor supports it is by showing New Yorkers how this will turn into jobs and everyday benefits for every one of us,” said Katherine Nadeau, policy director at Environmental Advocates of New York.
Nadeau noted the borrowing idea has been kicked around by Sweeney and environmental groups for several years. She noted aging municipal treatment plants around the state are overflowing with untreated sewage waters. “It would be really hard to argue against clean water,” she said of criticism raised by the conservative fiscal group.
“This is critically important for New York on every level right now,’’ she said.