Reject shady environmental funding trick

If Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants more money for a particular state agency, then he should put more money for it in his budget proposal.

It’s really that simple. There’s no need for cloak-and-dagger games.

We have often urged state leaders to spend more money on staffing for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, specifically to boost the ranks of forest rangers and land planners. Here in the Adirondacks, we see the consequences of keeping the rangers understaffed, and the same goes for the foresters who write unit management plans for the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Yet DEC staffing remains stagnant year after year, including in the governor’s 2019-20 budget proposal.

Nevertheless, Cuomo is hinting that he may want the DEC to get more money for staffing. But apparently this is so uncool in Albany that he’s too embarrassed to ask for the funding outright.

Instead, he’s setting up a covert way for the DEC to raid the Environmental Protection Fund.

The EPF is fed primarily by real estate transfer taxes. It began in 1994 at $31 million and has recently hovered at its peak of $300 million a year. It’s dedicated specifically for “capital projects that protect the environment and enhance communities,” to quote the DEC website. These can include buying land for the Adirondack or Catskill Forest Preserve, upgrading sewage treatment plants, conserving farmland, controlling invasive species, building parks and developing recycling programs.

While many things can fall under its mission, one thing it was not supposed to be used for is state agency operations.

But very quietly in Cuomo’s state budget proposal, he has slipped in a rules rewrite that would let the DEC use the EPF like a slush fund.

When DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos was confronted about this in a state Assembly hearing, he said his department would only dip into the EPF minimally. But the language Cuomo is proposing would not set any cap on how much the DEC could take from the EPF. It also wouldn’t limit what the department could use the money for. This sets the stage for unlimited pillaging.

Why wouldn’t the governor just budget more money for DEC and less for the EPF? We can’t read his mind, but maybe the reason is that the EPF is often the only environmental aspect of the budget that gets much notice statewide. Cut it, and you’ll get lambasted by environmental advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers. DEC funding seems to get much less notice, strange as that may seem. Cuomo makes a point every year of saying he’s keeping the EPF at a record levels. Maybe he figured that if he technically allocates that money to the EPF, people wouldn’t notice money getting siphoned off.

It’s important to note that this money would be still be used to protect New York’s environment, and as we have said, we think more DEC spending is necessary.

But this budgeting trick is not honest or transparent, and it breeds distrust in government. We urge the state Legislature not to stand for it.

Budgets say a lot about those who make them, both in their priorities and their methods.