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Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act of 1996 Latest in a Proud Tradition of Environmental Investment in NYS

By Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff

Environmental bond acts in New York State have a long history of success. New Yorkers should be proud of their far-sighted investments in the environment.
As early as 1910, New Yorkers voted 55% in favor of $2.5 million bond act to expand Palisades Interstate Park. Of the ten environmental bond acts over more than eighty years, only one was defeated -- a $1.975 billion land acquisition bill in 1990.

As a result of these investments, New York State has a park system that competes with the wide open spaces of the West, one of the best drinking water supplies in the country and a state Superfund program that, although there is more to do, has cleaned up a significant number of sites.

Together, our political leaders and the people of New York State have had the foresight to make substantial capital investments that have saved us money and improved the quality of our lives.

This year, an initiative sponsored by Governor George Pataki and supported by a bipartisan majority in the NYS Legislature as well as a coalition of the largest and most respected environmental groups in the state, will place a $1.75 billion Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act on the ballot in November.

This Bond Act will fund programs that have been designed by scientists and planners, ratified by elected officials and supported by community leaders but that require large infusions of cash. The Long Island Sound, the Hudson River, the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, Onondaga Lake, New York Harbor, the Finger Lakes, and Peconic and South Shore Estuaries will get some $790 million in funds to implement preexisting plans for improving water quality. The upgrading of sewage treatment plants in these areas is one way in which the Bond Act funds will be used.

Regrettably, although many states have, New York has never funded a safe drinking water program to help municipalities to improve and construct safe drinking water supply systems. This Bond Act would provide $355 million for a revolving drinking water fund as well as grants for municipalities.

Other initiatives funded by the Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act include: $150 million for open space acquisition to protect drinking water; $100 million for state and municipal parks and historic preservation projects; $175 million for land fill closures and building recycling infrastructure; $200 million for cleaning up mildly contaminated sites; and $230 million for clean transportation initiatives such as conversion of diesel buses and coal-burning school furnaces to healthier alternatives.

The 1996 Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act makes good economic sense. At an estimated cost of $5 per family per year over the life of the bond, the Bond represents a sound investment in our future. Running up an environmental deficit is just as detrimental as running up a fiscal deficit. With the help of the Bond Act we can stop borrowing from our environmental resources and fix some of the environmental problems that are costing our businesses and our citizens money, and denying our state economic opportunity.

Some critics of the bond act ask: Why not pay as you go, rather than issue bonds? First, funds considered available for environmental projects (proceeds from the real estate transfer tax) only amount to $90 million a year. Bonding allows larger cash infusions earlier; the state legislature has already appropriated $275 million for 1997, assuming the Bond Act is passed. Second, given the multitude of demands on the state budget, there is no reason to believe that legislators will indeed decide to allocate the $90 million for clean water and clean air every year. As a matter of fact, for years that money has been spent for general fund purposes.

In 1965, 81 percent of New Yorkers voted in favor of a $1 billion Pure Waters Bond Act that paid for needed sewage treatment facility construction. As a result. today's New Yorkers enjoy the cleanest water in decades. Our generation has the opportunity and the duty to make a similar investment on behalf of our children