Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing controversial changes to the way the state’s Environmental Protection Fund works. For 30 years, the EPF has served as an investment fund for environmental projects, everything from sewer systems in small towns to historic land purchases in the Adirondacks. Now state officials want to divert part of the fund to pay the salaries of employees. Critics hope to block the move.
There is a fair argument to be made that the fund, established in the 1990s, changed Adirondack Park more than any other single policy idea. The EPF funded a massive expansion of the state forest preserve - everything from Boreas Ponds and the Essex Chain Lakes to the former International Paper timber lands.
The capital fund, which averages hundreds of millions of dollars each year, also pays for clean water infrastructure and other green initiatives. But this year, Cuomo’s staff is proposing something new - diverting money to pay for annual salaries.
"The EPF was created to help with capital costs and it has performed very well in that capacity for a long time," said Steve Engelbright who chairs the Assembly’s most important environmental committee. He spoke at a hearing late last month. "Why does language in the executive budget propose to reverse this longstanding position and allow EPF money to be used for personnel services?"
He put that question to state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, who described the change as a modest one.
"We're proposing a very nominal ability for us to direct EPF dollars to personnel services specifically for positions within the EPF. Not unlike how we operate the Clean Water Infrastructure Act or other laws within the state," Seggos said.
But environmental groups hate this idea. Neil Woodworth, head of the Adirondack Mountain Club, testified in front of Engelbright’s committee.
"We worked with you to create the Environmental Protection Fund in 1993 and one of the most important principles was that we would not allow state agency staffing to be taken out of the EPF," Woodworth said.
Green groups say there is a huge list of projects that already need EPF funding, everything from trail building to a new sewage treatment plant. Diverting money now, they argue, would set an irreversible precedent.
"If we allow that language to stand, that Environmental Protection Fund will be reduced each and every year as more and more employees who should be on the general fund are put against the Environmental Protection Fund," Woodworth said. "So I cannot ask you for anything more important than that."
Assemblymember Steven Engelbright seemed to agree.
"Some have thought of that as grand theft," he said. "We're concerned that the camel's nose under the tent might bring in a whole herd of camels in the future."
But New York faces a budget shortfall that could top $2 billion, so the Environmental Protection Fund with a couple hundred million dollars might be a tempting prize.
"It's a concept we'd be happy to work with the Division of Budget and you [lawmakers] to provide further refinement on that," respponded Seggos.
So it is unclear whether the Cuomo administration is serious about this proposal or just floating it as a trial balloon or putting a bargaining chip on the table for budget negotiations with newly empowered Democrats in the legislature.