By Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
ALBANY If a group of state lawmakers have their way, New York voters could decide next year whether the state should borrow $5 billion to cover some of its myriad infrastructure needs.
A bill introduced this month would ask voters to allow the state to issue $5 billion in bonds in order to pay for projects that could improve the state's environment -- from repairs to aging municipal sewer and drinking water systems to boosting the number of community gardens to initiatives that improve air quality.
The need for improvements is great, said Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, D-Suffolk County, who is sponsoring the measure. A report from the Comptroller's Office found the state has $75 billion in water and sewage infrastructure needs over the next 20 years, with most of those costs borne by local governments.
"It's a drop in the bucket, so to speak," Sweeney said Wednesday. "The proposal is significant, but the needs are significant, too."
The measure is being pushed by Sweeney and Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, who chair their respective chamber's environmental conservation committee. The bill has 21 Democratic co-sponsors in the Assembly.
The state last approved an environmental bond act in 1996, when voters green-lighted a $1.75 billion borrowing plan.
Sweeney last introduced a bonding proposal in 2009, but pulled it as the economic recession deepened. His new bill, he said, is aimed at starting a conversation before lawmakers return to the state Capitol in January.
The new proposal calls for the funds to be split up three ways: $2 billion for improving the state's clean water resources, $2 billion for sewage infrastructure repair and $1 billion for programs improving air quality or preventing urban pollution.
Jessica Ottney Mahar, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy, said her office's phones have perked up since the new bill was introduced with groups asking how they can help see it come to fruition.
"There are significant needs for environmental funding across New York state," Ottney Mahar said. "All of the money from the last bond act has been spent, and there's this huge need across New York state."
The proposal would likely gain opposition from fiscally conservative groups as the state inches closer to its debt cap, which is a percentage of personal income.
The potential for a bond act to spur construction gigs across the state has intrigued the state Associated General Contractors, according to its CEO Michael Elmendorf.
But the conversation needs to be broader, he said, to include other infrastructure needs, such as deficient roads and bridges.
"I think it needs to be part of a bigger conversation that, if it's not overdue, is due," Elmendorf said. "All of our infrastructure is in need."
The bill would have to be re-introduced in January in order for lawmakers to consider it in 2014. If approved and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York voters would be able to consider it in November of next year, when all statewide elected offices and every seat in the Legislature is up for grabs.
Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, said the Democratic governor is "reviewing the bill."