The Consequences of Late Budgets Negotiated in Secret

Posted by NYPIRG on April 10, 2023 at 9:08 am

Groundhog’s Day of New York politics comes in early April when the governor and state lawmakers are at loggerheads on the budget and need to do a short-term “extender.”  That’s where we are this week.  The state budget was supposed to be approved by April 1, but like recent ones, it’s late.  The extender allows negotiators to keep working on a deal while ensuring that the state’s workers continue to be paid.

Despite the fact that some $230 billion in taxpayer monies are in play, these negotiations are conducted in secret.  Secrecy allows the governor and state legislative leaders to horse trade items – some of which may have no relevance to the budget – as part of an overall budget deal.  Last year’s surprise was the deal for New York taxpayers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. 

This year’s budget is moving along more slowly than last year’s, which was put to bed on April 9th.  And while the consequences for New Yorkers tend to be minor when the budget isn’t too late, the deals can have far-reaching consequences.

By definition it’s hard to know what’s going on in secret negotiations, but a fight over one deal spilled out into the public last week: Governor Hochul’s plan to weaken the state’s climate law.

First some background.  In 2019, New York approved a new law that set aggressive goals to tackle the worsening climate crisis.  That legislation was based on the recommendations of the world’s climate experts, most notably that the state achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.  The 2019 law requires New York to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and no less than 85 percent by 2050 over 1990 levels.  The remaining 15% of emissions will be offset by things like planting trees, which take carbon dioxide out of the air, to reach net-zero emissions.

The Hochul Administration proposal would change the way the law measures greenhouse gas emissions from the current law’s 20-year accounting method to a 100-year standard.  The current law smartly focuses on methane, the main component of natural gas, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas in the near term than carbon dioxide.  Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.  Even though CO2 has a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming for two decades after release.  Thus, the lawmakers who crafted the 2019 law set a 20-year time horizon – also the timeframe climate scientists predict the world has to avoid the most devastating consequences of a heating planet.

The 2019 law also established a Climate Action Council tasked with developing a blueprint for the state to follow in meeting its climate goals.  That Council didn’t recommend a change to current law – and in fact incorporated the 20-year standard into the climate plan it developed over 2½ years.  And no such recommendation was included in the budget plans of the governor, Senate or Assembly.

But thanks to secret negotiations, the governor tried to make that fundamental change – one that is supported by the fossil fuel industry, since it would be free to sell gas for a longer period. 

The governor’s rationale was that keeping to current law would have a big negative impact on New Yorkers’ wallets.  Of course, that issue had been raised in the Climate Action Council proceedings and until a week or so ago, all – including the governor – argued that those costs would be less than the impacts if New York did nothing.

But a week after the budget was due, the Hochul Administration advanced a near total repudiation of its earlier arguments.  Now the governor argued the costs were significant and the state needed a plan to weaken the methane standard.  There have been no public hearings, no public discussion in legislative committees, no public debate at all.  It was put on the table in secrecy as part of the Hochul Administration’s horse-trading plan.

Unfortunately for the governor, the scheme made its way into the public domain and resulted in a firestorm of opposition.  Environmental groups, frontline communities and climate scientists protested the plan and last week the governor pulled back her proposal from the budget negotiations. 

The governor’s arguments that the costs of acting to deal with the climate crisis is, however, an important issue to consider.  The state Senate did in its budget plan.  The Senate, after public hearings and committee consideration, approved a proposal to charge the biggest oil companies for the costs of the state’s climate damages.  Their ingenious plan also makes it impossible for Big Oil to pass those costs onto the public.  Great idea: protect ratepayers and taxpayers and place the financial burden on those responsible for the mess and those benefiting from record profits.

Yet in the secret budget negotiations, it appears that opposition from the governor’s office has stopped the plan to hold the oil industry, not ratepayers and taxpayers, accountable.

If true, that’s a big mistake.  Weakening the state climate law isn’t the solution to the cost problem, charging Big Oil is.  Hopefully the final budget protects New Yorkers and with no special interest giveaways on big policy issues.