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November 16, 2008

The Daily Gazette

Bottle bill may support green efforts
Paterson seeks to cut state fund

NEW YORK STATE — Environmentalists are angry about Gov. David Paterson’s plan to cut funding for the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, which funds one-time environmental purchases such as land conservation, landfill closures and new recycling facilities.

Paterson’s plan would cut $50 million in the current year’s Environmental Protection Fund, reducing the $225 million fund to $205 million. The cuts proposed for next year would remove an additional $89 million from the Environmental Protection Fund, for a total of $139 million over the next two years. The proposed cuts come on top of last April’s “sweep” of $125 million in unspent funds from the Environmental Protection Fund to the state’s general fund to help balance the 2008-09 budget.

“There are people counting on this money,” said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “We’re hopeful that this can be pushed back.”

Matt Anderson, a spokesman for the New York State Division of Budget, said these sorts of cuts are necessary during tough fiscal times.

“All areas of state spending are going to experience reductions,” he said.

This year’s deficit is $1.5 billion; it is expected to balloon to $12.5 billion next year.

“That’s a very significant deficit,” Anderson said.

Putting in his 5 cents

But Paterson has promised to do something environmentalists have long supported: get an expanded bottle bill passed.

Under his proposal, the revenue generated through this expansion would be used to fund the Environmental Protection Fund. Right now, the state’s bottle law only applies to carbonated beverages; if the bottle bill passes, it would also cover water, juice, iced tea and sports drinks.

The Environmental Protection Fund has always been funded through the Real Estate Transfer Tax, but Paterson’s proposal would end that practice and have bottle bill revenue fund it instead. If the bottle bill passes, it is projected to generate $118 million in revenue next year, although environmentalists predict that it will generate much more than that — possibly more than $200 million.

With Democrats poised to take over the state Senate, many believe that the bill stands a good chance of passing. But they’re also concerned about swapping the Real Estate Transfer Tax revenue for bottle bill revenue. Haight said the bottle bill revenue was viewed as a way to grow the fund and enhance the revenue from the Real Estate Transfer Tax. Still, right now, the primary goal is getting the bottle bill passed.

“Since we don’t even have the bottle bill money yet, let’s get the money and then discuss how it should be allocated,” Haight said. The bigger issue, she said, is the funding cut to the Environmental Protection Fund.

Funding fears

John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, said he is concerned about what will happen if the bottle bill doesn’t pass and the Legislature reduces the Environmental Protection Fund.

“All but $80 million would be taken out of the fund,” he said. “That’s not enough to fund one category of the Environmental Protection Fund, let alone three.”

Those three categories are landfill closures, recycling facilities and open space acquisition.

“All three categories provide enormous opportunities for places that would otherwise not be able to afford to do these things,” Sheehan said. “Before 1992, we didn’t have an Environmental Protection Fund, and the state allowed environmental priorities to languish. Every 20 years, they would pass a bond act to catch up. We don’t want to go back to being in a position where we have to borrow a lot of money to catch up.”

Sheehan said the Senate Republicans seem unlikely to pass Paterson’s proposals but predicted that they would pass easily next year, when Democrats control both houses.

Passage of an expanded bottle bill “is going to be an important step for environmental protection,” Anderson said, because all of the revenue will be used to support the Environmental Protection Fund and because it will provide an incentive to recycle.

In 1986, the state passed a bond act to fund big environmental projects, such as the acquisition of open space. But by 1989, the money was running out. Another bond act was proposed in 1990, but this one failed. As a result, the state decided to create the Environmental Protection Fund, a permanent fund that would provide steady funding for environmental projects in good economic times as well as bad.

In 2002, when the state struggled to recover from 9/11, former Gov. George Pataki, citing the poor national economy, proposed moving $100 million from the Environmental Protection Fund to the general fund. In five of Pataki’s last six years, similar sweeps occurred, totaling $322 million.

Since 2002, the Environmental Protection Fund has lost $447 million through “raids,” according to the Adirondack Council. If Paterson’s proposal goes through, that amount would rise to $586 million.


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