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Lawmakers line up behind $3B environment bond act

ALBANY — New Yorkers will get to vote on a $3 billion environmental bond act this fall and polystyrene products will be banned in January 2022 as a result of state budget legislation supported by lawmakers Wednesday.

Budget measures agreed upon by lawmakers would also speed up the review of power generation stations using wind or solar power by placing that authority with a state agency controlled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and diminishing input from local governments.

Overshadowed

While the state spending plan is typically the most important legislation of the Albany calendar, it has been overshadowed this year by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic damage it has done to the state treasury. In just one month, revenue estimates for New York have dropped by as much as $15 billion, according to the Cuomo administration.

The fallout minimized increases to education aid, the biggest chunk of overall spending outside of health care.

“Given the grim condition of state finances, the budget for education exceeds our expectations,” said Bob Lowry of the New York State School Superintendents Association.

Lawmakers held Foundation Aid flat — a move Lowry said will “fall hardest on poor, heavily state aid dependent school districts.”

“We did not scale back”

In an unusual maneuver corresponding to the economic uncertainties, lawmakers passed legislation giving Cuomo wiggle room to adjust spending based on fluctuations in revenue.

The possibility of subsequent cuts is “worrisome,” Lowry said, because “no one wants to contemplate laying off teachers and reconfiguring classes part way through the school year, if state aid comes up short.”

The governor described the spending blueprint as a “robust budget.”

“With everything going on we did not scale back our efforts or ambitions,” Cuomo said.

Bail legislation

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A contentious battle over whether to revise the controversial bail legislation that greatly limited judicial discretion in detention decisions helped to prolong the budget debate.

While a final bill had not been approved late Wednesday, supporters of ending cash bail for most crimes decried the measure that was under consideration. They contended it was too soon to allow bail to be set again for a host of crimes. On the other side of the argument were prosecutors and police associations who maintained the new approach has created grave public safety risks.

Mother Nature act

Advocates for strengthening environmental protections, such as Peter Iwanowicz, director of Environmental Advocates, and Liz Moran of the New York Public Interest Research Group, were generally pleased with the outcome.

“Even in this time of crisis that we’re in, we’re happy that the Legislature and the governor has seen the need to protect the environment and provide more capital going into projects that will help us fight climate change and other environmental problems,” Iwanowicz said.

What Cuomo has dubbed the “Mother Nature Bond Act” will be on the statewide ballot as a referendum in November.

Lawmakers clamped a ban on vaping products other than e-cigarettes that have the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s stamp of approval.

Fourth stimulus

While budget bills were still being debated, the New York State Association of Counties said they feared the emerging legislation could force counties to either raise taxes or make painful cuts to public safety, health care and other services.

NYSAC’s president, Jack Marren, urged the Senate and Assembly to accept the $6.7 billion in new federal healthcare funding included in the first federal stimulus package aimed at providing assistance through the COVID-19 crisis.

“As we enter this crucial time for our state and nation, counties stand ready to partner with state leaders to call on congress to pass a fourth federal stimulus bill designed to help states and local governments weather the steep drops in revenues,” Marren said in a statement.

“Special interests”

The business lobby, meanwhile, was dealt a setback when lawmakers embraced a measure that expanded prevailing wage requirements on construction projects. Michael Kracker, director of Unshackle Upstate, said the measure is destined to boost project costs while trimming jobs in the upstate region, “This is a stunning example of Albany rewarding special interests at the expense of workers, taxpayers and job creators,” Kracker said.

“On the right path”

Lawmakers also passed legislation enshrining New York’s 5-year-old fracking ban into law, backing a measure introduced by Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale and Assemblyman Steve Englebright, D-Long Island.

“The bill I introduced in December would have also banned fracking with gelled propane, and while the budget language doesn’t quite get us there, it puts us on the right path and would effectively head off any industry stampede for permits to use this destructive process,” Metzger said.

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