April 6, 2005

State legislators reach for NYSERDA piggybank?

I've been fond of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for a while now. I first heard about them when I had work done on my house and received a rebate, but they also audited that work impressively, contributed to Dryden High School's solar panels, and are likely to help plan and pay for energy efficiency in Dryden's new Town Hall.

You can find out more about NYSERDA - origins, what it does, etc. - at their Frequently Asked Questions page, but for the current discussion, what matters is that their funding, which comes from the utilities and to some extent the federal government, is dedicated funding, not money that comes from or goes into the state's general fund. (You may think Lotto money goes into a dedicated fund for education, but it actually goes to the general fund.) NYSERDA's mission is squarely focused on energy, in particular on improving the state's energy efficiency, from businesses to rental homes.

NYSERDA doesn't seem to be very popular with the legislature this year, however. An AP story in Newsday suggests that the legislature wants to end NYSERDA's independent status and financing. Some of the highlights:

In its $105 billion budget passed last week, the Legislature included a measure to bring the $150 million System Benefit Charge energy efficiency program and the new Renewable Energy Portfolio program under the fiscal watch of lawmakers. The programs are run by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and funded by a charge on utility bills.

Public authorities such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Thruway Authority and the New York Racing Association have been the subject of some of Albany's biggest scandals in recent years and lawmakers want them to be more open and accountable.

But environmental groups say the planning for many renewable energy projects is done in five-year increments and if projects have to undergo funding reviews on a yearly basis, energy companies will be reluctant to invest in new projects if there is uncertainty about whether the funding will continue from year to year at the same level.

Conservation groups also said legislators in other states like Connecticut and Wisconsin have raided similar funds to fill budget holes or pay for pork-barrel projects....

Jeff Jones of Environmental Advocates of New York said that instead of rushing to "take over" the Systems Benefit Program, the Legislature should have an "open and public discussion about what problems there are with the program, if any."

But while Jones says NYSERDA is one of the best run state authorities, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, D-Westchester, says "that's not a very high fence to jump over."

"We're asserting the principle that decisions on spending not be decided by a Soviet style bureaucracy," said Brodsky, who as chairman of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, has investigated several authorities.

"This is not a critique of way the money is used, it's a critique of a process that's done in secret," he said. "No one knows how or why the money is going to be spent. Whether it's the best or worst run authority is irrelevant."

Gov. George Pataki's office and environmental groups noted that an oversight committee, which includes two members of the Legislature, monitors the NYSERDA-run programs.

"This is one of the most open processes in Albany," said NYSERDA President Peter Smith. "This has been underway since 1998 and we file an evaluation report every quarter. There is a round of debate about this."

It's not every day I find myself siding with the Pataki adminstration against the legislature, especially when oversight of New York's generally overgrown authority sytem is involved. Still, I'm heartened to read that "the administration believes the legislature's measure is unconstitutional and is working to remove it from the final state budget." Why? Because the language the legislature passed is this:

to  provide  for  the transfer of moneys from the New York
         state energy research and development authority (Part  M);
   31    S  2. Commencing with the 2006-2007 state fiscal year, and each fiscal
   32  year thereafter, the governor shall, in his or her executive budget,  as
   33  submitted  pursuant  to  article  VII of the state constitution, provide
   34  appropriations for currently non-appropriated moneys received by the New
   35  York state energy research and development authority, under  the  direct
   36  oversight  of  the department of public service, related to assessments,
   37  collected for the purpose of funding public policy energy programs.

The word "oversight" is in there, but the action this legislation takes is moving money from a separate ledger under its own management to the appropriations decision-making of the legislature. And that sounds a lot like New York, in its current fiscal condition, may be following Connecticut and Wyoming's lead in raiding the fund for other projects.

Assemblywoman Lifton complained bitterly at her recent Town Hall about efforts by Pataki to take budget authority away from the legislature and to strengthen his control over education, but legislators seem to be playing exactly the same game here.

For once, I really hope Governor Pataki uses his veto pen on this budget language.

This seems worth contacting my legislators and the governor. I've mailed a letter to Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, a letter to Senator Jim Seward, and a letter to Governor George Pataki.

Update: You can find more on the general debate in this March 25th Albany Times-Union article. (I agree that it would be smart for Governor Pataki to stay out of their advertising.)

And another update: the Times-Union has another piece which suggests that "Some speculate the fee might be a bargaining chip for lawmakers in talks with Pataki about changes in the Environmental Protection Fund -- which, coincidentally, is $150 million, too."

And yet another update: it looks like Governor Pataki will be vetoing this part of the budget (New York Times - registration required) while the rest of the originally on-time budget gets rewritten in the classic Albany back-room way.

Posted by simon at April 6, 2005 4:24 PM in , , , ,
Note on photos