Cuomo’s school bond would stall environmental measure

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ALBANY—Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed education bond act might put an iPad in the hands of every student, but a chance to fix the state's leaky sewage infrastructure would go down the drain.

The $2 billion education bond act floated by Cuomo in Wednesday's State of the State speech would get computers, tablets and high-speed broadband into every school across the state. But it will also effectively kill off any chance of a $5 billion environmental bond that would pay for sewer upgrades, drinking water protection, climate change adaptation, improved air quality and farmland protection.

Only one bond plan can be put to voters statewide vote a year and it must be for a single purpose, according to the state Budget Office.

Cuomo made it clear Wednesday that he'll put his weight behind the education initiative, not environmental improvements, on the same ballot where his name will appear in November.

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“Let's invest in the future, let's re-imagine our classrooms for the next generation, let’s have the smartest classrooms in the nation because our children deserve nothing less than the best,” Cuomo said. “Let’s go to the people of this state, let’s be bold, let’s go to them in November with a bond referendum with a smart schools initiative lets invest $2 billion in providing the technology of tomorrow today to bring our classrooms up to speed.”

The Clean Water/Clean Air/Green Jobs Bond Act of 2014 was introduced by Republican state senator Mark Grisanti of Buffalo and Democratic assemblyman Robert Sweeney of Long Island in August. The largest bond ever put before voters, it would designate about $2 billion for infrastructure upgrades, $2 billion for natural resource protection, including water quality, watershed protection and park restoration, and $1 billion for air quality initiatives as well as community gardens and the cleanup of polluted Brownfield sites.

On Thursday, Sweeney said he thought it would be a challenge to get Cuomo to agree to the concept of a bond in an election year, the first during his tenure as governor. Now that he knows that's not a problem, he said he will continue to push for his environmental bond. He said local government officials testified at state hearings that they were “desperate” for sewer upgrade money, which would crush their budgets.

“I don't see what the alternative is to addressing these issues, other than a bond act,” he said. “The longer we wait, the worse it gets.”

A memo accompanying the Gristanti-Sweeney bill notes a 2008 study that concluded the state needs to spend $80 billion to replace aging sewer and water pipes in the next two decades.

E.J. McMahon, executive director of the fiscally-conservative Empire Center, noted that statewide bond acts are often rejected by voters and he said the education bond proposed by Cuomo seems to rely on an arbitrary number and would pay for technology that will be outdated and useless before it's even paid off.

“My concern is that it was pulled out of thin air and it was used to fill space in the State of the State that was thin on education stuff,” he said

Sewer and infrastructure upgrades are a significant expense faced by many municipalities, including some that still directly discharge waste into the Hudson River during storms. Beaches in communities along Lake Erie are regularly closed during summer months because of sewer discharge into the water. Old pipes, decaying electrical systems and other infrastructure problems have stalled private development in many upstate cities, McMahon said.

While McMahon said he didn't support the whole environmental bond, the $2 billion directed toward infrastructure is increasingly necessary, but gets little notice during an election year.

“It's the non-sexy, really important thing that seems like it won't happen while we're paying for iPads and technology for schools,” he said.