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The New York state Capitol in Albany

ALBANY — A $3 billion environmental bond act that would have offered new environmental protections for drinking water, air quality and the Adirondacks has been scratched from the November ballot, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday.

"The financial situation right now is unstable," Cuomo said in punting on a measure that he himself had proposed in January.

Environmental groups expressed disappointment, suggesting the state's bleak finances aren't sufficient reason to call off the bond act.

"The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't stopped the climate crisis," said Liz Moran, environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a watchdog organization. "We are facing massive destruction of our environment and we have to act now."

In January, Cuomo began the push for the Restore Mother Nature Bond, a measure that would have allowed voters to authorize $3 billion in borrowing to pay for improvements needed to make natural systems more resilient to climate change.

The last such referendum was promoted in 1996 by then-Gov. George Pataki, a Republican who became known for his aggressive environmental agenda. But this year the path to getting such a measure approved was clouded by fiscal worries that loomed even before the pandemic reached New York.

“We believe it would have helped to spur economic growth while it benefited the environment," said Rocci Aguirre, deputy director of the Adirondack Council, an advocacy group.

The council is advocating for public ownership of the Whitney Estate in the Adirondacks. The 36,000-acre tract in Long Lake, inherited by John Hendrickson, widower of the late Saratoga Spring socialite MaryLou Whitney, is now being offered for $180 million.

A bond act, Aguirre noted, could have also been tapped to relieve local taxpayers of shouldering the costs of projects such as new wastewater treatment plants.

But some had strong reservations about the bond act from the beginning, questioning whether it could deliver meaningful environmental benefits as it promised to deepen New York's level of indebtedness.

Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, questioned whether any climate change initiative can yield the intended results if other developed nations are not on board.

"The focus should be on getting the world involved so everybody is on the same page," he said. "If China and Japan are not buying into it, it is not going to do any good. In this instance, I'm supportive of the governor's realization that we're being crushed by this downturn."

PENSION FUND LOSS

The economic turbulence driven by the pandemic is also taking a toll on the performance of New York's state retirement fund.

The value of the fund stood at $194.3 billion March 31, the last day of the last state fiscal year, reflecting a decline of nearly 2.7% One year earlier, the fund's portfolio was worth $210.5 billion.

The drop could force increases in contributions to the fund from local municipal and county governments, potentially increasing the burden on local taxpayers.

E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, noted that before the public health crisis impacted the economy, it was projected that the employer contribution rate would increase by 17% over the next three years for members of the Employee Retirement System and 9% for members of the Police and Fire Retirement System.

Some economists are suggesting it may take years for the U.S. economy to recover from the damage wrought during the pandemic. The government reported this week that gross domestic product in the second quarter plunged by an annual rate of 32.9% in the second quarter, an unprecedented level in the more than 70 years such records have been kept.

Meanwhile, environmentalist groups are already pressuring Cuomo to ensure the proposal gets on the ballot in 2021.

"The question is not, ‘can we afford to spend this money?’ It is ‘can we not afford to do so?’" said Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, a group that seeks clean water in the Hudson River and its tributaries.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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