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Bond could set off a feeding frenzy

Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his State of the

Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his State of the State address at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany on Jan. 8, 2020. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Daily Point

Who gets a piece of the action?

Perhaps the surest bet regarding Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s State of the State and budget proposal for a $3 billion environmental bond act to go before voters in the fall is that it will set off a feeding frenzy.

What gets included and what not? Will money be allotted per region (some Long Island leaders hope so) or for specific projects or for general categories? Or for some combination of the above?

Officials from the governor’s office and the state Department of Environmental Conservation have called environmental groups around the state to ask for suggestions but also to convey a message: The bond act is for big projects that might not otherwise get done, it’s focused on climate change and clean water, and it’s meant to be “additive” — in other words, it’s for new initiatives, not proposals for which funding already has been committed.

If true, that last assurance should alleviate worries that in a very difficult budget year a voter-approved bond act might be used to provide funding for previously announced initiatives — like the $2.5 billion over five years for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure approved in the 2017 budget, or the $500 million for clean water initiatives with a promise of $500 million more each of the next two years approved in 2019.

One other local concern has to do with timing. With a big state bond act on the ballot in November, is this the best year for local environmentalists to be pushing, for example, a referendum in Suffolk County asking voters whether they would be willing to pay a fee on water to help get nitrogen out of groundwater and drinking water?

Some advocates say, emphatically, yes.

“Because the state will be launching an environmental bond act, this is the ideal time for Suffolk to launch a complementary environmental bond act,” Citizens Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito told The Point. 

For evidence, Esposito and others point to 1996, when Suffolk voters supported Gov. George E. Pataki’s state $1.75 billion environmental bond act, while also approving a local proposal to buy land in the pine barrens using $55 million in surplus money in a county drinking water program financed by a 0.25 percent tax on real estate sales, as well as bond acts for farmland preservation and open space purchases in four of the five East End towns.

But history also provides a note of caution. In 1990, six years before Pataki’s success, a $1.975 billion state environmental bond act was narrowly rejected. It also was pitched during tough financial times with the state trying to close a budget deficit. And it also was proposed by Gov. Cuomo — Mario M. Cuomo.

Will his son’s act fare better?

—Michael Dobie @mwdobie

Talking Point

A blow for affordable housing

Fred Thiele has been in the State Assembly since 1995 but the veteran lawmaker admits he was surprised last month when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed his bill to fund affordable housing projects on the East End.

Thiele, an Independence Party member from Sag Harbor, borrowed the strategy he used in setting up the Community Preservation Fund for preserving open space — a tax on real estate transfers on the East End, in this case a half-percent, which he estimated could raise as much as $20 million for badly needed affordable housing. The bill had bipartisan support from town and village officials on the East End.

Cuomo’s veto message noted the “laudable” intent of the bill but said that “the imposition of additional taxes on current residents should be considered in the context of the state budget.”

That seemed to ignore the bill’s requirement that voters in each of the five towns approve of taxing themselves, but Cuomo might have had a bigger target in mind.

The state budget he referenced is extremely stressed this year and its $6 billion deficit figures to be the dominant influence on the upcoming legislative session. Assembly Democrats have said that new taxes or tax hikes should be on the table, a proposition Cuomo rejects.

Asked by The Point whether Cuomo might have been sending a message to lawmakers about this year’s budget talks, Thiele said, “It’s a difficult budget that’s upcoming and I think it’s very possible with the vetoes of these tax bills he was trying to set the mood for the upcoming budget negotiations.”

“I understand the issues that the governor raised, none of them seem to be insurmountable,” Thiele said. “It certainly is a tax but it’s authority for a tax. It’s one of the few times voters get to make the decision. If they have ideas about the mechanics of how to implement the program to address their concerns, we’ll certainly be all ears.”

—Michael Dobie @mwdobie

Pencil Point

Different meanings

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Final Point

Eng sounds off on the LIRR

This week, as he does each month, Long Island Rail Road president Phillip Eng is navigating the traditional gauntlet of Metropolitan Transportation Authority committee and board meetings, answering board members’ questions and trumpeting the LIRR’s improving performance.

While it’s a familiar scene for Eng, he had a bit of a practice run for the maze of questions and answers when he paid a visit earlier this month to Newsday’s editorial board. There, he discussed a range of issues, from the railroad’s performance and overtime costs to ongoing expansion efforts, like the East Side Access connection to Grand Central Terminal.

Eng said he hopes to find ways to improve service and address the LIRR’s needs, including accessibility and electrification, in cost-effective and creative ways. That could include utilizing the private sector and thinking differently about how to address everything from electrification to accessibility. 

And he noted that he’s looking to employees and riders to contribute their own ideas on what the LIRR should focus on and what it can do differently. Eng pointed to the LIRR’s new laser train that this fall helped improve the railroad’s ability to clean up the slimy residue from leaves as an example of what can happen with employee input. After a staff meeting early in Eng’s tenure in which Eng conveyed the message that all ideas were welcome, his chief mechanical officer sent Eng an email suggesting that Eng look into the laser train idea.

It made a difference.

Now Eng is looking for your help, too. Readers of The Point can contribute their ideas by emailing thepoint@newsday.com

Watch and listen to Eng here.

—Randi F. Marshall @RandiMarshall

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