Back in February, I was interviewed on American Public Media's "Marketplace" to provide commentary on how environmental programs are being slashed nationwide to reduce states' huge budget deficits. The damage of such cuts can be severe. California officials were considering rollbacks in critical emissions regulations, while Florida was contemplating relaxation of rules permitting new development -- described recently in Time magazine as a "planning-nightmare sprawl of golf courses, strip malls and cookie-cutter subdivisions named after the plants and animals they replaced."
Here in New York, Gov. David Paterson was faced with making extremely tough decisions to close the biggest budget gap in state history. During the "Marketplace" interview, I spoke about how one casualty would likely be the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), New York's $250 million fund that provides much-needed dollars annually to communities and organizations for new parks creation, waterfront revitalization, recycling programs, pollution-abatement initiatives and farmland preservation. I doubt there's a municipality in the Empire State that hasn't benefited from the EPF -- both economically and environmentally. Ironically, it was established during the recession of the early 1990s to ensure money would be available to protect New York's chief asset -- our environment -- regardless of the economy.
The EPF already took a hit in the state's recently concluded fiscal year, when $50 million was "swept" from it into the general budget. For the new fiscal year, the governor proposed an additional 30 percent cut and replacement of the EPF's secure funding source, a modest tax on real estate transactions, with deposits from an expanded bottle recycling bill. The only hitch was that this "Bigger, Better Bottle Bill" -- long championed by environmental groups like the one I head, Scenic Hudson -- had stalled in the Legislature for two decades. Even if it garnered enough votes this year, it would bring in less than half the amount the EPF was mandated to receive from the real estate tax in 2008.
As uphill battles go, this was an Everest, hence my pessimism on "Marketplace." The only hope was convincing the Governor and legislators that the lives of their constituents would be vastly improved by projects receiving EPF funds and that New York's stalled economy could be stimulated into action by hundreds of "shovel-ready" environmental projects across the state. To be effective, this message had to come from the voters themselves.
At Scenic Hudson, mobilizing citizens is one of the most effective tools for fulfilling our mission: protecting the irreplaceable landscapes along the historic and majestic Hudson River. So is keeping those citizen activists fully informed. Here in the Hudson Valley, we encourage citizens to speak out at public meetings as well as to bombard legislators with letters or e-mails. In this case, their "ask" was to save the EPF and pass the bottle bill. Through a series of cogent e-mails, we'd made it clear what was at stake in this year's budget.
As usual, Scenic Hudson's members really came through, as did supporters of many other environmental groups across the state. More than 1,300 people responded to our e-communications, letting their legislators know that slashing the EPF would do far more harm than good. One of the themes that citizens stressed was that so many state environmental-protection programs not only make communities cleaner and healthier but create enormous economic stimulus, attracting as much as $40 in private investment for every $1 of public funds. Letter-writers also argued that an expanded bottle bill made sense economically and environmentally.
The result was nothing short of astonishing. EPF funding still was reduced, but by a third less than first proposed, meaning $222 million is available to protect and restore New York's environment this year. Just as important, the new budget keeps the EPF's funding source intact and prohibits the state from "sweeping" money out of it. What's more, the Legislature passed a bill requiring deposits on water bottles. While not as comprehensive as we hoped, projections suggest the number of drink containers littering roadways and shorelines and winding up in landfills could drop by 30 percent. (Also saved was the Greenway, a critical regional-planning agency that looks after the Hudson Valley and was slated for abolition in the governor's original budget.)
Big kudos definitely go to Gov. Paterson and legislative leaders for listening to their constituents when it came time to make the ultimate budget decisions. In a year where bad news is the norm, these are important and uplifting victories -- for the people and by the people.
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