On Tuesday, voters in New York overwhelmingly approved the $4.2 billion Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Bond Act. On today’s episode, we invite New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Executive Deputy Commissioner Sean Mahar to discuss what this support means and what comes next for the environmental bond act. The conversation provides an overview of how funding will be prioritized and highlights the anticipated environmental and economic impacts of this investment.

Guests:

Sean Mahar, executive deputy commissioner, Department of Environmental Conservation

Environmental Bond Act Voting—Breakdown by County
(Preliminary Results)

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.

    Alexander Morse

    Hi there and welcome to Policy Outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Alex Morse. I have a question for New Yorkers. Did you vote in the 2022 general election? Did you flip the ballot over? If you did, you have seen a statewide ballot proposal for the clean air clean water and green jobs environmental bond act, which authorizes a $4.2 billion bond to fund a series of environmental initiatives. The environmental bond act passed resoundingly, and, to help us make sense of the importance of this bond and detail how the money is going to be spent to improve environmental infrastructure, as well as dedicate resources to help disadvantaged communities throughout the state. We have Department of Environmental Conservation Executive Deputy Commissioner Sean Mahar. Joining us on today’s episode. It’s a great conversation and I learned a lot about the history of environmental bond acts in New York, and how the recently passed bond act will continue New York’s leading efforts to protect environmental conservation and mitigate climate change. I hope you’ll learn a lot, too. Coming up next. Today, I’m joined by Executive Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Sean Mahar, who’s with us to talk about the environmental bond act that just passed. Sean, thanks for being here today.

    Sean Mahar

    Thanks for having us, Alex.

    Alexander Morse

    Sure. Again, we’re delighted to have you here, because as I just mentioned, the environmental Bond Act, the clean air, clean water and green jobs act $4.2 billion bond just passed in New York state. And so we thought it’d be really great to talk to you about what’s going on in the environmental sphere about what this funding means, where it’s going to be allocated, and why it’s so important to get funding this way for the DEC’s programs and initiatives.

    Sean Mahar

    Sure, Alex want to take a step back first. So we’re super excited to be here today, especially the day after the election. And this historic vote of what we saw the voters really tell New York State that they care about their environment and want to see it protected. And that’s really what we’re taking away from this bond act here today. And, you know, we’re feeling very emboldened to really get to work and move forward on the projects that the voters want to see us undertake, to protect their water, protect their air and protect their open space. So bond acts traditionally, in New York, there have been several of them over time, starting in the 1900s, early 1900s, they really looked to finance projects that tackle many of the environmental threats that were facing the state at the time. So early on, they were really looking at preserving parkland and open space, since deforestation, you know, pre Adirondack Park creation really looked, you know, it was having detrimental impacts, and people were seeing that very visually. And they recognized that they needed to protect more of that open space and create those recreational opportunities through creation of parks. So those earlier bond acts really tackled that. In the mid 1950s 1960s 1970s, environmental quality issues were really forefront of the voters minds and really threatening the state’s water quality and air quality. So bond acts in that timeframe really looked at making sure that we were investing in larger scale infrastructure projects to upgrade our wastewater infrastructure or clean up environmentally degraded sites from hazardous pollution and things like that. So generally, the bond acts are a really important tool that the state can use to finance larger scale projects. And it has to go before the voters to get that authorization because the voters have to authorize the sale of bonds and the taking on of debt for the state to finance these projects. So fast forward to today. You know, this is our first environmental bond act in 26 years 1996 was the last one prior to the one that just passed yesterday. And we’re really super excited to get to work on advancing the major categories of this new Bond Act.

    Alexander Morse

    us use the term emboldened earlier, and I think that’s a really great term because the vote tally, I think it was 60% passage rate, right. So and there was just about 28-29% voted no and about 12% voted, didn’t vote at all. So that really suggests that New Yorkers really do prioritize or want to prioritize environmental initiatives.

    Sean Mahar

    Definitely, it takes a lot to because you think about it, this question was on the backside of the ballot. So first, you have to tell voters to flip their ballot and for many, they’re not used to that they go in, they look at the ballot, they check the boxes. I think that’s why you saw such a large percentage of undecided or no votes because people just physically didn’t flip their ballot. So that was a hurdle that we had to overcome just to really educate the voters that there is this important question and you’re not going to see it on the front, but to go When and flip your ballot. And it’s a testament to the campaign that the advocates ran and a real testament to New Yorkers and what they view on their environment.

    Alexander Morse

    You know, I find it kind of funny that policy goes beyond just writing legislation and getting a proposal back on the ballot. But it’s also the campaigning to just inform voters that you have to do something like flipping your ballot,

    Sean Mahar

    correct. And we can state agencies, we can’t advocate for measures like this, we can only educate the voters on what the legislature has passed and what will be before them and remind them that it is on the backside of the ballot and to flip your ballot. And that was really our focus. And now we’re really excited to get to work on advancing this.

    Alexander Morse

    So let’s talk about advancing this. You mentioned that there are some categories that authorizes funding from these from this $4.2 billion. Can you walk us through what those categories are?

    Sean Mahar

    Sure. So water quality is obviously forefront of many New Yorkers minds and what the governor who called in the legislature did through this bond act was really looked to make even more investments in water quality, and upgrading our water infrastructure. So one of the major categories is drinking water protection and wastewater infrastructure upgrades, really looking at making sure the larger scale projects that we need from our new municipal infrastructure are advancing to protect water quality and make sure people are delivered clean water every day. And that we’re making sure that the wastewater is processed properly and not causing impacts and issues like harmful algal blooms and nutrient problems and other issues that we’re seeing in our wastewater infrastructure, that’s really going to be leveraged to the clean water infrastructure Act, which is another major piece of the state budget to finances these upgrades, and also through the IRA and Bill funding in the federal level. This is really sort of a great sweet spot and a great time to be in government right now. Because you have all these different categories that are going to be working together to really leverage and get good projects done on the ground. And that’s really what our focus is going to be on. So water quality, major category, one of the big ones there. Air quality and promoting projects to reduce air pollution is another one of the ones especially as we look at our fight with climate change, we need to make sure that we’re taking steps to improve air quality and reduce emissions overall. So the Bond Act is going to finance a lot of different projects there from zero emission school buses, to addressing urban heat islands and all the different parts of the climate mitigation space that we’re in with the Climate Action Council and the community protection or climate leadership and community Protection Act. This funding is really going to advance a lot of the projects that we need to see there, again, working synergistically with some of the other financing that the state already does. So in addition to financing many projects to reduce air pollution, and really tackle the climate crisis that the state is facing from the emissions portfolio, the Bond Act really wisely also invest in really as a hallmark of the Bond Act is investing in communities to adapt to climate change, or become more resilient in the face of the climate impacts that we’re already seeing happening in New York. You look across the state, we’re seeing more intense and frequent storms happening, you’re seeing more rainfall events, more flooding, and he’s having real impacts right now in communities. So what the Bond Act does is really make sure that we’re investing in protecting those communities, both by looking at the built environment and the built infrastructure and making it more resilient to climate change, but also really working with nature to make sure that we’re looking at freshwater wetlands and tidal wetlands and the natural features that naturally help protect communities from flooding, and improve the resilience. So it’s really working hand in hand with the built environment and the natural environment to advance protection measures on the ground. And in addition, when it comes to protecting the environment, not only for community resilience and and protecting in the face of climate change, but the Bond Act also invests in making sure people have access to nature and recreational opportunities. So how where are we protecting more land? How are we creating more community parks across the state? However, we’re really working to make sure people have more access opportunities to nature, and how are we improving the natural environment as well. So the investments in the Bond Act will go a long way to making that happen, too.

    Alexander Morse

    It sounds like to me that this bond act is doing a couple of things. It’s calling back to previous bond acts, right. We talked about open spaces before and environmental quality, but it’s also building upon that to work on protecting communities, and really building that resilient infrastructure as climate change continues to happen and will continue to happen. And so having this significant amount of funding is really going to help the DC New York State and other agencies put forth climate initiatives to help protect these communities.

    Sean Mahar

    Yeah, Alex, I mean, one thing New York has been a leader, a really national leader in this space already. If you look at the Environmental Protection Fund, you look at the clean water infrastructure act, New York has really put an emphasis on advancing projects and funding opportunities to reach these goals. And what the Bond Act does is really help leverage Real Estate Investments even more, augment them, really get larger scale projects. done and also allows it to happen over a longer time period as well. And it really gives us the funding that we need to draw from for those larger projects. Well, we continue to work with the legislature each year and during the budget to, you know, continue to finance a lot of these projects as well. And now with the federal funding that’s coming down the pike as well, this bond DAC will also help leverage a lot of that it’ll match some of those funds, and allow us to be more creative in how we get the good work done that New Yorkers want to see.

    Alexander Morse

    So with all of that funding coming in from the federal level, and from the state level, this might be a difficult question to measure. But you know, what are some of the long term returns and cost savings that New Yorkers can expect from the implementation of these programs?

    Sean Mahar

    Sure, well, we’re going to be tracking a lot of that information and metrics as part of the rollout of the bond act over time, I mean, one thing, we want to always show accountability to the voters of what we accomplished, and what we’re able to create, you know, a lot of the facts and figures you see is, you know, on the upwards of 100,000, plus jobs will be created through the Bond Act, because it’s going to take a lot of people to do this type of infrastructure work that we want to see. That’s why we saw such strong support from the labor community. That’s why we put a lot of labor provisions in the Bond Act to make sure that we were helping to create those economic opportunities, because it really is, when you invest in the environment, you’re investing in the economy of New York State, you’re putting people to work to do the good work that needs to be done. And then you’re also seeing the environmental quality improvements, which reduce our costs over time. But you know, from everything from our health care costs to the cost of just the societal costs of you know, our infrastructure and whatnot. So this funding is hugely important to maximizing those returns on the investments. And we’re going to see a lot of those returns happen over time.

    Alexander Morse

    So that means, Shawn, that you’ll come back on the podcast to talk about the savings and returns for sure,

    Sean Mahar

    I hope you will keep keep track of how we’re doing throughout time. And we’re always happy to provide updates as we’re making progress. All we’re glad

    Alexander Morse

    to hear it. So let’s talk about looking ahead, moving forward with the $4.2 billion and the other federal funding and other state funding that exists for programs. But specific to the Bond Act, what is the D C’s role with allocating these funds.

    Sean Mahar

    So we’re going to be one of the chief administrating agencies of the Bond Act. And we’re going to work with other agencies like the Office of Parks, Recreation, historic preservation, Department of State, the Environmental Facilities Corporation, we’re going to have an all hands on deck approach to state government to make sure that we’re implementing the Bond Act and putting this money on the street and getting good projects done. But we’re going to be one of the central points of administering that funding and working really also with the outside environmental community and our local government partners to identify the projects that need to happen and make this money flows quickly and efficiently as we can.

    Alexander Morse

    I’m glad that you mentioned a couple of other agencies and departments within New York State that we’ll be working with, well, the DEC oversee programming entirely, or will you be handing off some projects to other agencies such as you said, Office of Parks preservation or NYSERDA, or other agencies, we’re

    Sean Mahar

    gonna be working hand in hand with them, we’re going to look at the various specific categories that are in the Bond Act, and identifying the current funding programs that are already working to move money towards these separate projects and infuse Bond Act funding into that, we’re going to look at where we need to create new programs to meet the goals of the bond act as well. So we really have to get creative now that we have this authority from the voters. And really, we’re on day one right now. So we had been working previously, of course, we didn’t want to get our hopes up too much. Because anytime you got to put something before the voters like this, you want to make sure that it’s you’re going to get the support that you need. Now that we have it, we’re really going to buckle down and make sure that we’re looking to leverage the programs that we have currently grow new programs where we need to and really deliver the results that New Yorkers need. See,

    Alexander Morse

    I’m glad that you talked about leveraging existing programs and building out new programs. So the categories that we mentioned earlier, water quality and resilient infrastructure restoration, flood risk reduction, climate change mitigation, open space conservation. Do you have a sense of how many of these programs already exist within New York State and versus how much you might need to build out?

    Sean Mahar

    What we found in New York through decades of our research and others is that you know, there are certain populations, particularly low and moderate income communities that have been disproportionately burdened by environmental threats. So when you look at where we’ve cited industrial entities where we’ve looked at where the major transportation corridors are where, you know, many of the environmental threats that we’re seeing today are really focused, unfortunately, in certain communities, which are lower income, moderate income, and really the climate leadership and community Protection Act started us on the trend of really taking the environmental justice work that we’re doing with the SEC, and putting a broader statewide emphasis on it. So right now, the climate justice Working Group as part of the Climate Action Council, is developing a definition for what a disadvantaged community DEA is in New York State. And that is going to be foundational to programs like the bond act like the CLC, PA and the scoping plan for how we channeled those funds to those communities. So they’ve got a many different criteria that identify what a disadvantaged community is, they’ve gone out for public comment, we’re really reaching New Yorkers, because we want to hear from them and make sure we’re setting the right criteria for identifying these communities so that we make sure this funding can flow into them and provide the benefits that they need to see through improved air quality, protected open spaces, more access to nature, and really change that unfortunate history in many parts of the state and make it better.

    Alexander Morse

    Now, well, that percentage that’s going to be allocated to disadvantaged communities be applied equally through those subcategories, or is it going to be more of a determination? So for open space conservation, is that going to receive 35% funding for disadvantaged communities? Or could it be plus or minus.

    Sean Mahar

    So what we’re going to do is really look holistically at these benefits and explaining to New Yorkers how these investments are going to provide what they need to see in their communities, both within their communities directly, but also on the larger scale of protecting New York’s environment, writ large. So there’s, it’s going to be very comprehensive, but our goal here is to be very transparent with all New Yorkers and show them how we’re advancing this and how we’re working in disadvantaged communities to create the improvements that New Yorkers want to see.

    Alexander Morse

    I suspect some of that transparency is going to be visually seen by these communities, right, they’re going to see infrastructure resiliency through less flooding, right. So I think part of the goal here is to not just spend money and tell people that it’s working, but that they’ll actually they’ll see it, they’ll know it’s working.

    Sean Mahar

    Definitely. And you go around the state today, and you still see bond axons from previous bond acts. And people know that a certain fishing access site or specific open space was protected using Bond Act dollars, we’re going to do similar initiatives like that as we work to get our state’s infrastructure up and running. And when I say our state’s infrastructure, it’s the people and the places to move the money in the right ways to get these projects done. We’re going to be thinking about visually how we work with New Yorkers to tell this story. And obviously, in our digital age as well, that’s going to be incumbent upon shows like this. And that’s why we appreciate sitting down with you today. Alex, talk about this. Appreciate it.

    Alexander Morse

    Thank you, Sean. So let’s talk about that state infrastructure you just mentioned, what’s the timeline or the horizon by which you expect to begin rolling out of these funds.

    Sean Mahar

    So we’re really starting right now, to get our ducks in a row have you as it pertains to what the voters have now charged us to do? So working across the multiple different agencies really, to get our needs put together? Really, again, looking at what categories and what programs are already working to advance this money that we can use? Where are we going to have to create new funding, the state’s financial plan has, you know, will be updated to include the Bond Act and the forecast of the Bond Act in it. So we’re going to know that we’re going to have those resources to draw upon. And really, we’re going to start as soon as we can, once the bonds are procured by the State Comptroller. And, you know, we have the resources to draw from we’re going to start very soon moving projects.

    Alexander Morse

    Well, Shawn, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m really excited about this. I am really happy that you’re here to talk about how this funding became available, what it’s going to and what we really do expect to see in New York State. We talked about it before you will be coming back on the program. Once we see some some metrics,

    Sean Mahar

    definitely happy to I mean, Alex was so it’s an awesome day to be an environmentalist in New York to be a New Yorker period to really come out of this election and know that your work is really recognized as important to the voters and now I feel even more empowered and inspired to get out and go to work every day to make this project process happen.

    Alexander Morse

    Love to hear well, Sean, thanks again. Thanks. Thanks to Sean Mahar, Executive Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation for joining us to break down the most recent environmental bond act and how the agency will collaborate with other agencies and communities throughout the state to fund environmental projects to improve infrastructure resiliency and protect the environment. Did you liked this episode, please rate, subscribe and share. It’s the best way to help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest in public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcasts. transcripts are available on our website. Special thanks to Rockefeller Institute staff Joel Tirado. Laura Rabinow, Heather Trela and Laura Schultz for their contributions to this episode. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time, The Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York state and the nation. Learn more at Rock institute.org or by following at Rockefeller inst. That’s Rockefeller i n s t on social media. Have a question, comment or idea? Email us at [email protected]


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Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

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