ALBANY - State legislators vowed this week to overturn Gov. David Paterson's proposed reduction in the state Environmental Protection Fund, as nearly a dozen environmental advocates blasted the idea, while criticizing his associated proposal to freeze state land acquisitions for the next two years.
Faced with a pending $7.5 billion budget shortfall in fiscal year 2010-2011, Paterson has proposed slashing the unexpended balance in the Environmental Protection Fund to $143 million - a $79 million reduction from last year - while not spending any money at all for state land acquisition. The cash is to be moved into the state's general fund.
Dozens of environmental advocates objecting to the proposals as they testified before a joint hearing of the state Senate and Assembly Environmental Conservation committees.
Adirondack Council Legislative Director Scott Lorey told legislators that stripping the EPF of its funds is not only bad environmental policy, but could also devastate local economies.
"There are many good reasons for protecting open space. One example is that local governments receive financial assistance from state tax payments on forest preserve lands," Lorey said.
Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth said Paterson's proposal to cut nearly 130 jobs between the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the Adirondack Park Agency and the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation will leave the state agencies unable to manage what they already own. The cuts, he said, represent a disproportionate burden on environmental programs.
"Across 24 state agencies and offices in the state, a total of 630 full-time jobs are being cut," Woodworth said. "Remember, over 130 are being cut from our environmental and park agencies."
Democratic legislators, including Long Island Assemblyman Steven Engelbright vowed to restore the EPF funding and salvage the environmental programs. He said state leaders needed to reassure citizens a "positive future" existed for them in New York State.
"The last thing we need to do is have our parks become a big neon billboard that says New York is collapsing, run for your lives," he said.
State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commissioner Carol Ash told legislators that Paterson's proposed cuts would result in the closure of dozens of parks throughout the state.
And although legislators said that they are hoping to restore at least some of the EPF funding, they were less resolute in their opposition to the land acquisition moratorium.
According to DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis, the current EPF proposal would allow procuring state easements, but not outright fee acquisitions.
Hamilton County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Farber and Adirondack Local Government Review Board Executive Director Fred Monroe also testified before the joint committee.
Farber argued that in-park land acquisitions have been made hastily.
"We need to make sure that we have done sufficient planning, that we are confident that when we spend millions of dollars on land in the Adirondacks, it's the right thing to do," Farber said. "We have to know the economic impacts, the impacts on affordable housing."
For Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, the implications of continued state land acquisitions are clear.
"Our communities are struggling - Economic development is almost nothing other than tourism," Sayward said. Sayward serves as ranking Republican on the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee. "Unless you own the motel, hotel or store, you are making minimum wage and as a result, we are losing families."
Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Cahill argued the Legislature isn't always the enemy of Adirondack residents.
"The governor's decisions to offer a moratorium on land acquisition will prevent us from being able to acquire very fragile lands in other places across the state," Cahill said. "While I sympathize with the plight of the North Country communities and recognize that this has been an ongoing struggle for many years, I think it is important to remember that there are friends here in the Legislature."
Wrangling over Paterson's proposed budget is expected to increase substantially in the coming weeks.