Restore Mother Nature Bond Act: Awaiting Voter Approval
On April 2nd, 2020, the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act was passed as part of the NYS 2020-2021 Budget. The $3 billion legislation is the largest environmental bond act in state history and is part of a broader 5-year plan to invest $33 billion to fight climate change. The goal of the Act is to “fund environmental restoration projects in every corner of the state to ensure New York is able to withstand the threat of more intense and frequent storms fueled by climate change.” Unlike the other pieces of environmental legislation that were passed in the Budget, the Act only authorizes the use of monies for specified purposes and must be passed as a ballot measure first to take any effect. The aims of the Bond Act are to:
- reduce flood risk for vulnerable communities
- invest in resilient infrastructure
- restore fish and wildlife habitats
- preserve open space and enhance recreational opportunities
- prepare New York for the impact of climate change
- ensure transformational projects, especially in disadvantaged communities
Article VII, Section 11 of the New York Constitution permits public borrowing when the debt is authorized by law and approved by voters in a general election. Bond acts serve as that authorization and allow the state to obtain debt securities to fund day–to–day obligations and capital projects. In most cases, the bond money is expected to last for the duration of the borrow term or longer. The debt is repaid through revenues and interest from bond sales.
Environmental bond acts are nothing new. Dating back to 1960, New York voters have approved bond acts to support environmental programs for a range of issues from municipal landfill restoration to land preservation. The last approved environmental bond was the Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act of 1996. N.Y. Environmental Conservation Law §§ 56-0101 to 56-0611. Generally, the public pays back the costs of borrowing for the bond through general revenues. However, in some instances, such as the Environmental Bond Act of 1986, the monies raised were offset by charging responsible parties for cleanups. N.Y. Envtl. Conserv. Law § 56-0507.
The NYS Department of Environment Conservation (DEC) will oversee the Act’s implementation but other state entities and municipalities will carry out many of the details on planning, infrastructure updates, and more. The Act received widespread support from environmental groups. Currently, the state’s budget director is assessing the economic outlook for implementation. Voters will decide this November if the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act becomes a reality.