June 07, 2006

Enviro-Fund A Political Football

It's part of the annual budget battle in Albany and at first Assemblyman Fred Thiele wasn't terribly worried.

But now, with less than three weeks left in session, he's growing concerned. The Environmental Protection Fund is caught in the middle of political haggling, and if it doesn't get passed this year, it could mean New York State's ability to move forward with open space acquisitions could be seriously limited.

Just in the last year, state EPF money has been used on such acquisitions as Amsterdam Beach in Montauk and the WJF property in Westhampton. Thiele estimated that between $12 and $15 million has been spent on acquisitions alone in the last year. The fund also underwrites estuary programs and local waterfront revitalization initiatives.

On Monday Adrienne Esposito was enroute to Albany when she spoke to The Independent. The executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment planned to spend yesterday lobbying Albany lawmakers to adopt the fund immediately. Beyond open space and farmland acquisitions, the EPF completely underwrites implementation of the South Shore Estuary program. "The EPF is a necessary revenue stream for the most important environmental projects throughout New York," she pointed out. "It's not a luxury item, it is a necessity."

The state budget has already been passed, vetoed, and the vetoes overridden. According to Thiele, last year state lawmakers also passed the EPF separately from the budget. But, he noted, there wasn't the same level of political squabbling involved. "It's never been like this before," Esposito agreed.

This year, it seems each side Ė the Democrats, the Republicans and the governor - are all holding out for disparate issues within the adopted budget. The debate is over whether Governor Pataki will actually implement programs in the budget. And while the political deal-making ensues, the EPF hangs in the balance.

According to Esposito, the senate leadership wants to see education programs fully funded. The Assembly is looking to restore health care cuts. All those programs are important, Esposito said, "But when they use the EPF as a political football, everybody loses. This is one program the senate, the assembly and the governor all agree on. There's no real substantive disagreement and yet they still refuse to pass it."

One of two things could happen now. Thiele said he's "modestly optimistic" that the EPF will be passed within the coming weeks. "It would be hard to believe our leaders would send everybody home without resolving this important issue," he said.

If lawmakers can't reach an agreement, the legislature could approve the EPF when it reconvenes after summer break. By then, however, the campaign season will be in full swing. Esposito derided the notion of a fall vote as pie in the sky. "They've got to get this done now," she declared.

Delay would be a problem, Thiele opined, because there's already a backlog of projects and applications that need funding.

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