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2011 Green Priorities for Albany

By: Marcia Bystryn

December 15, 2010

There's no question that times are tough for New York State. When Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo unveils his first proposed budget In January 2011, the question is not whether there will be cuts; the questions are which cuts and how deep they will run.

But the forthcoming shift in Albany's political dynamic, coupled with fiscal realities, creates an opportunity to redefine New York's priorities from a 21st century perspective. State dollars and political capital should be invested smartly to create jobs and strengthen the economy. As important, those efforts should be aligned with a broad sustainability vision that will restore New York's position as an environmental leader among the 50 states.

That's why the New York League of Conservation Voters, along with our environmental and advocacy partners, will be pursuing a state agenda for 2011 that focuses tightly on clean energy and sustainable economic development to meet the twin objectives of a robust economy and a healthy environment.

One of the environmental community's top priorities for Albany next year will be the New York Solar Industry and Jobs Act. The centerpiece of this legislation is the creation of tradable Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) to overcome the traditional financial barriers to solar energy. The legislation would require that utilities and other retail electric suppliers acquire SRECs — representing the "solar" attributes of one megawatt hour of electricity with qualified solar generation — to vastly expand installed photovoltaic systems. This legislation would create 5,000 MW of solar capacity in New York by 2025, create $20 billion in economic activity and result in 22,000 new, long-term jobs.

Improving the effectiveness of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is another clean-energy priority. Launched in 2009, this 10-state pact established a regional cap on carbon dioxide to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage a companion program on the federal level. The ensuing years have seen no carbon-trading progress in Washington while revealing some concerns with RGGI — the initial carbon cap was set too high and auction proceeds intended for clean-energy innovation have been siphoned off (New York swept $90 million into its general fund). In 2011, New York state leaders will need to re-examine RGGI and make changes that ensure tangible emissions reductions and proper investment of the carbon-auction proceeds.

Other important clean-energy issues awaiting the next legislative session are reforming the Public Service Commission to give greater weight to clean-energy and environmental goals; ensuring the necessary infrastructure for use and distribution of renewable energy; and developing a comprehensive energy plan that is environmentally sound.

As for sustainable economic development, there are a number of steps the Cuomo administration and Legislature should take next year. In 2010, Governor David Paterson signed the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act, which mitigates sprawl by instructing state agencies and authorities to align their infrastructure planning and spending with smart-growth criteria. To build on that success in 2011, the state should adopt legislation that establishes smart growth as a state priority. Doing so would ensure that economic development, land use, transportation and housing planning are mutually supportive and help achieve the state's climate change goals.

Making sure that state agencies responsible for protecting the environment have the necessary resources to fulfill their core missions will be critical. That means committing adequate staffing to the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Health and so on. Necessary resources are also critical for the Environmental Protection Fund and the Farmland Protection Program — both need adequate, dedicated and stable support for the long term.

Finally, transportation must be front and center in 2011. Dedicated funding for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the nation's largest transit system, which powers the economy of the entire state — must be used for transportation purposes and not diverted to the general fund. New revenues will need to be identified for the MTA's 2012-2014 capital plan, and the state's economic development plan must include strategies that reduce carbon emissions and improve the efficiency of moving goods and people.

Without question, there are difficult choices ahead. The Office of New York State Comptroller estimates that the 2011 budget deficit could be $11 billion or more, putting intense pressure on agencies to cut positions and costs. DEC, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and all state-funded entities will need to clearly identify their core missions and optimize their limited budgets.

Nonetheless, it is clear that sustainability ranks high among Governor-elect Cuomo's priorities, as evidenced by his Cleaner Greener NY, Power NY, Farm NY and Urban Agenda proposals. We look forward to working with his administration — as well as leaders in both houses and both parties in the state Legislature - on these goals in 2011.

Marcia Bystryn joined the New York League of Conservation Voters in 1999 and was named President in 2008. Previously, she served as Senior Corporate Policy Manager for the Environment and later as Senior Business Manager for Economic Development at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. She is a former Assistant Commissioner for Recycling at New York City's Department of Sanitation, where she designed and implemented New York City's recycling program.

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