New York’s Environmental Bond Acts

By Sydney Julien & Laura Rabinow

In November 2022, New Yorkers will vote in a public referendum on an environmental bond act for the first time in over 25 years. Bond acts generally allow the state to take on debt to fund projects for a specific purpose. They authorize the state comptroller to sell state bonds up to a certain amount and are voted on by the public as a ballot initiative following their passage in the legislature. An earlier version of what was to become The Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act of 2022 (the 2022 Bond Act) was proposed by Governor Cuomo in 2019. But, due to the pandemic, it has had a longer journey to the ballot box than most such acts. In its current and final form, the 2022 Bond Act would provide $4.2 billion in funding for climate and environmental projects across the state.

This post will explore the longer history of environmental bond acts in New York State and what they can tell us about how this ballot measure may fare. It will also recap how the 2022 Bond Act came to be and what the funding will support if passed this fall.

New York State Environmental Bond Acts Over Time

All of but one of the 11 environmental bond acts to make it on the ballot in New York have been approved by voters by more than a 10-percentage point difference. According to available elections data, there have been 10 environmental bond acts enacted by voters in New York State since the early 20th century. In total, the previous bond acts have obligated nearly $5.7 billion, roughly $30 billion in adjusted 2020 dollars, towards environmental programs and projects. Just one that reached the ballot was not approved by voters (in 1990), while another relatively recent bond act proposal that passed the legislature failed to make it to the ballot (in 2014). That proposal, The Clean Water/Clean Air/Green Jobs Bond Act of 2014 was approved the same year as The New York Bonds for School Technology Act, supported by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo,  and only one bond measure is allowed to appear on the ballot in a general election.

Despite their seeming popularity and support by both Republican and Democratic governors over time, state environmental bond acts have not occurred at consistent intervals. Instead, many of them appear to coincide with public attention to waves of environmental movements in New York and across the United States over time and the related legislative and regulatory responses to those movements.

Creation of State Parks and Preserves

The conservation movement of the late 19th and early 20th century was a response to vast deforestation, natural resource depletion, and industrialization. Conservationists, such as John Muir, saw the protection of natural resources as necessary for their sustainable use and enjoyment. Early environmental bond acts in New York followed this rise of conservationism, and the establishment of the first state and national preserves and parks.

SOURCE: William B. Greely, US Forest Service.

Among states, New York and Pennsylvania are regarded as having been at the “vanguard of the state park movement” at that time. Niagara Falls State Park in Western New York, for example, was established in 1885 and is considered the first state park in the country. The Adirondack Park followed soon thereafter in 1892, and the “forever wild” clause was enacted in 1894 to enshrine the protection of lands in the Adirondacks and Catskills in the New York State constitution.

It was in that context that state authorities began to be organized around conservationist concerns. In 1911, the Forest, Fish and Game Commission was reconstituted as the Conservation Commission, which oversaw forest preserve lands, and in 1924, the New York State Council of Parks was established under its first commissioner, Robert Moses. The first environmental bond acts in New York occurred alongside this organization of state authorities to manage public lands and natural resources. In 1910, voters passed a bond act for $2.5 million; in 1916, for $10 million; and in 1924, for $15 million—all for the purposes of land acquisition and the establishment of parks.

Environmental Bond Acts in New York State

Addressing Pollution and Wastewater

It would be another 34 years before the next bond acts would follow. Amidst a new wave of the environmental movement during the 1960s and 1970s, the public expressed a broader concern for industrial pollution, air, and water quality. This second wave resulted in the passage of landmark federal legislation that established current federal environmental regulatory structures, as well as the reorganization of state environmental authorities. In 1970, New York reconstituted the Conservation Commission as today’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and the New York State Council of Parks became the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

Between 1960 and 1972, New York passed five environmental bond acts. The bond acts during this period echoed the new concerns and new lenses through which people were viewing their relationship to “the environment” and environmental issues. Consequently, two of the later acts during this period—the Pure Waters Bond Act of 1965 and the Environmental Quality Bond Act of 1972—not only allocated funding towards land conservation and recreation, but to address the impacts of pollution and the protection of public health. The bond acts of 1965 and 1972 represented a significant increase in the amount of funding dedicated towards these issues and remain the most significant dedication of funds through environmental bond acts in New York State history (in adjusted dollars).

The 1965 Bond Act, proposed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, followed a few years of drought and low water levels that made all the more apparent the impacts of pollution on state waterways, particularly the Hudson River. The Act funded local wastewater infrastructure to limit the flow and mitigate the impact of wastewater into rivers, streams, and other waterbodies from untreated sewage overflows. It is both the highest funded bond act when adjusting for inflation, at nearly $8.2 billion (in 2020 dollars), and the most popular at the ballot box, with over 80 percent of voters approving the measure. The bulk of the 1972 Bond Act funds, $1.15 billion or approximately $7.1 billion in adjusted 2020 dollars, were also dedicated to wastewater infrastructure, with other allocations for land preservation and parks and improving air quality. These funds enabled critical upgrades to wastewater systems like the Buffalo Sewer Authority (BSA), which has historically impacted the Niagara River’s health. As a result, the BSA completed the installation of a secondary treatment system to the Bird Island Wastewater Treatment Plant in 1981 in order to remove most of the organic matter. The plant serves the larger Buffalo area and treats tens of billions of gallons of wastewater annually.

Since that time, just three further environmental bond acts have been voted on in New York. The two in 1986 and 1996 were approved, while the one in 1990 was not.

The bond acts of 1965 and 1972… remain the most significant dedication of funds through environmental bond acts in New York State history.

Hazardous Waste and Water Quality

In the late 1970s to mid 1980s, the attention of state and federal policymakers was galvanized by the community of Love Canal, New York, a white working-class neighborhood near Niagara Falls that was the site of thousands of tons of toxic waste from the Hooker Chemical Company. Similarly, residents in primarily Black communities in Warren County, North Carolina, organized opposition to the siting of a hazardous waste landfill and the dumping of PCBs. In response to the activism of these residents and what became the broader environmental health and environmental justice movements, policymakers in the United States established hazardous waste regulatory systems.

New York established a state Superfund program in 1979 to remediate hazardous waste sites under the Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site Law. The state subsequently brought its regulations in line with new federal laws establishing a national Superfund program in 1980 under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and amending the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to address hazardous and solid waste in 1984. The majority of the funding from the Environmental Quality Bond Act of 1986 that followed went towards the management of such hazardous wastes with $1.2 billion of the total $1.45 billion going to the state’s Hazardous Waste Remedial Fund to address sites under the State Superfund program.

The Twenty-first Century Environmental Quality Bond Act in 1990 would have allocated $1,975,000,000 towards the purchase and conservation of land (in part to protect drinking water sources), landfill closings and recycling, and improving wastewater treatment systems. At the time, early reporting on the vote noted strong results in favor of the measure in New York City precincts, with less support upstate. Opposition concerns were noted with respect to the government purchase of private land and recent significant land purchases in the Adirondacks, and the fiscal state of the state with respect to further borrowing. Saliently, this vote took place in the broader contexts of a national recession, that particularly impacted New York State.

The measure was supported by the incumbent Governor Mario Cuomo, who had likewise supported the previous bond measure. While the Governor won reelection that year, it was with much a smaller majority than in 1986—roughly 53 percent in 1990 versus nearly 65 percent four years prior. Similarly, the 1990 Bond Act failed by 3 percentage points with roughly 48.5 percent of the vote affirming the measure versus 67 percent for the 1986 Bond Act. Polls also reportedly showed that most voters were not aware of the environmental bond measure during the gubernatorial election year. This may reflect that a lack of awareness about the bond act, alongside less favorable turnout, coupled with broader financial concerns influenced the failure of the bill.

The most recent environmental bond act, The Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act of 1996 proposed by Governor George Pataki, was passed amidst the third wave of the environmental movement in the United States, which took a more expert, economic, and market-based lens towards environmental issues. The 1996 Bond Act did not pass public referendum by as wide a margin as its predecessors. The vote reflected some “sharp regional differences” between upstate voters who were less likely to support it and downstate voters who more resoundingly did so. Just prior to its passage by voters, the 1996 Bond Act’s constitutionality was challenged by opponents on the basis that its implementing legislation did not adhere to a “single work or purpose” as bond acts are required to do. Ultimately, however, the state courts found that the Act was constitutional as it “authorize[d] the creation of State indebtedness for projects in a number of subcategories, all of which are directly related to the single categorical purpose of improving the State’s environment.” Despite such opposition, the 1996 Bond Act generally enjoyed broad support across stakeholder groups in New York State. These included not only environmental advocates but municipal and business leaders represented by the Conference of Mayors and the Business Council. It allocated the bulk of its $1.75 billion in funding to clean water ($790 million) and safe drinking water ($355 million), with allocations for air quality ($230 million), environmental restoration ($200 million), and solid waste ($175 million). This funding supported, for example, the state’s first brownfield remediation project which created the 12-acre Scenic Hudson Park in Irvington.

The (2020) 2022 Bond Act

It has been 26 years since the last environmental bond act was enacted. Reports from state agencies as early as 2008 outlined the need for “substantial” changes to water infrastructure in some parts of the state. In a 2008 report, the state Department of Health (DOH) estimated that $38.7 billion would be needed over the next 20 years for drinking water infrastructure. It noted that some critical water infrastructure (such as aqueducts and dams) in New York was approaching or over 100 years old with many more over 50 years old. It also noted that many components of New York City’s water system, which supplies water to approximately 40 percent of New York State’s population, had already exceeded their intended lifespan. And, that rural communities likewise faced challenges in addressing aging infrastructure as they had fewer resources to spend on large-scale infrastructure projects. The same year, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued a report that estimating $36.2 billion would be needed for municipal wastewater infrastructure over the next 20 years. The DEC report warned that climate change would soon worsen flooding and urged the state to improve and secure infrastructure in flood prone areas like New York City.

In 2017, the state legislature then passed the Clean Water Infrastructure Act and began putting more significant funding towards these needs beginning with an initial allocation of $2.5 billion, and in 2019 passed the landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, establishing statewide goals for emissions reductions and clean energy.

The latest iteration of state environmental bond acts builds on the trajectory of these goals and investments. The 2022 Bond Act is a remonikered and expanded version of the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act of 2020 (the 2020 Bond Act). The 2020 Bond Act made it through the state budget process after being included in former Governor Cuomo’s executive budget proposal and was supposed to go to a public vote in November of 2020. The Act outlined $3 billion dollars intended to “preserve, enhance, and restore New York’s natural resources and reduce the impact of climate change.” Out of this $3 billion, $1 billion was allocated towards flood restoration and risk reduction, $700 million for climate change mitigation, $550 million for open space land conservation, and $550 million for clean water infrastructure.

While this level of funding was higher in current dollars than any previous bond acts (if not in adjusted dollars), looking at the estimated climate and infrastructure needs, some environmental groups and lawmakers pushed for further funding. Assemblymember Patricia Fahy (D-Albany) proposed a $5.5 billion version of the bill, that included additional funding for energy projects and clean water programs. Meanwhile, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), a policy advocacy group, proposed that oil and gas companies should foot the bill instead of the public—supporting a “polluter pays” principal.

It has been 26 years since the last environmental bond act was enacted.

Due to uncertainty regarding the fiscal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, former Governor Cuomo removed the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act from the ballot in 2020. This decision to delay the act’s vote was a disappointment for some supporters of the bill. The executive director of The Nature Conservancy in New York, Bill Ulfelder, called the decision a “missed opportunity.” He continued, “while it is clear that the pandemic has had a serious impact on the economy of our state and the nation, this measure was an opportunity to create jobs and conserve the clean water, clean air, and natural resources our children and grandchildren depend on.” Likewise, Senator Todd Kaminsky (D- Rockville Centre), who chairs the State Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, said there was “no excuse” for this action, as it would have long-term negative consequences on the state’s ability to combat climate change and create jobs.

During the most recent budget season, Governor Hochul revived the bond act with a new name and more funding. The executive budget proposal released in January included the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act of 2022. While similar to its predecessor, it raised the bond act to $4 billion. The assembly and senate versions included in their one-house budget proposals further increased the 2022 Bond Act to $5 billion and $6 billion, respectively.

2022 Bond Act Proposal Allocations
Executive Proposed Assembly Proposed Senate Proposed
Total Funding
At least 35% of the total funding must be spent in environmental justice communities.
$4 billion $5 billion $6 billion
Open Space Land Conservation and Recreation $650 million $650 million $650 million
Water Quality Improvement and Resilient Infrastructure $650 million $650 million $650 million
Climate Change Mitigation $1.1 billion $2.7 billion $1.1 billion
Restoration and Flood Risk Reduction $1.2 billion $1 billion $1.2 billion
Renewable Energy Systems, Microgrids and Urban Heat $400 million
Renewable Heating and Cooling for LMI Households $1 billion
Zero emission buses and EV charging infrastructure $1 billion
Unallocated $400 million $0 $0

SOURCE: The Nature Conservancy, 2022

The three proposed versions differed not only in amount but in focus and scope. The assembly put the bulk of their proposal’s funds towards climate change mitigation, allocating $2.7 billion for that category, while the executive and senate versions allocated $1.1 billion to that category. These adjustments accounted for all of the increase from the executive’s proposal. The increase in the senate’s version was due to the inclusion of three new categories of funding for: renewable energy systems, microgrids, and urban heat; renewable heating and cooling for low- and middle-income (LMI) households; and zero emission busses and electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure.

The final version, which was passed as part of the FY 2022-23 state budget, totaled $4.2 billion and is most similar to the executive’s proposal (see table below). Overall, there’s an additional $200 million in funding, and another $200 million shifted from flood reduction and unallocated funds and added to climate change mitigation. This increased funding towards climate change mitigation, from $1.1 billion in the executive’s proposal to $1.5 billion, reflects some of the priorities in the senate’s version, as it includes a suballocation of $500 million towards electrifying school buses across the state, and makes climate change mitigation the largest category of funding in the 2022 Bond Act. The Act also designates that a portion of the total funding must be allocated to disadvantaged communities that bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences.

2022 Final Bond Act Allocations
Total Funding
At least 35% of the total funding must be spent in disadvantaged communities, with a goal of reaching 40%.
$4.2 billion
Climate Change Mitigation (including $ for electrifying school buses) $1.5 billion
Restoration and Flood Risk Reduction $1.1 billion
Open Space Land Conservation and Recreation $650 million
Water Quality Improvement and Resilient Infrastructure $650 million
Unallocated $300 million

SOURCE: The Nature Conservancy, 2022

Stay Tuned?

The last hurdle this legislation needs to clear before being enacted is a vote during statewide elections this November. Once votes are cast, we’ll be sure to look back at how it fared compared to other environmental bond acts in New York State’s history.

Correction: August 16, 2022
This analysis has been updated to include information on the 1990 Bond Act.


Sydney Julien is a graduate research assistant at the Rockefeller Institute of Government
Laura Rabinow is deputy director of research at the Rockefeller Institute of Government