Savino, Klein clean energy vote leaves greens anxious about climate bill

ALBANY — When every member of the Independent Democratic Conference sponsored a comprehensive piece of climate change legislation, environmental groups thought they had found a legislative champion. 

But as the end of session and the Big Ugly approaches, two members of the IDC have voted to defund key clean energy and environmental justice priorities that the bill would codify. Now clean energy advocates are increasingly worried they will get jilted on a climate bill that supporters have called the most progressive in the nation. 

The "Climate and Community Protection Act" would enshrine the state's renewable energy goals into law, set benchmarks for clean energy initiatives, and direct funding to green jobs and vulnerable communities. It would essentially shift the state's economy to one powered almost entirely by clean energy by 2050. 

The bill was largely drafted and backed by NY Renews, a broad coalition that includes more than 100 environmental and labor groups including Environmental Advocates of New York, the Teamsters Joint Council 16 and a slew of environmental justice groups. 

Sen. Tony Avella indicated he would amend the bill (S.6617) but did not return multiple calls requesting comment. Unless the same amendments are made in the Assembly, where the bill has not yet come up for a vote but has passed previously, the bill is essentially dead for the year. If the bill remains alive, it will be up to the IDC to push Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan to bring it up for a vote in the chamber, where it is expected to have just enough votes to pass. 

"The IDC has to prove it can bring this urgent bill to the floor for a vote, or it raises serious questions about whether their entire stated rationale for existing — that they can engage Republicans to actually pass progressive priorities into law — is nothing more than hollow grandstanding," said Guido Girgenti, a political campaigner with the group 350.org

"If the IDC can't pass a historic state climate bill in the direct aftermath of [President Donald] Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord, it indicates that they simply do not have the power to get this kind of visionary climate legislation passed, ever," Girgenti added. 

The IDC has come under fire from national and state Democratic party leaders and progressive groups for working with the Senate Republicans. Critics argue they are preventing a Democratic majority from achieving big policy victories in New York and some members are likely to face primary challenges. 

Two members of the IDC — conference leader Sen. Jeff Klein and Sen. Diane Savino — voted last week in favor of a Flanagan-sponsored measure that would shift funding out of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to the state's aging nuclear fleet. Environmental groups lambasted the measure and Environmental Advocates called out the IDC votes on Twitter.

"Those that voted for Senator Flanagan's bill have endorsed an ill-advised scheme to gut funding for renewable energy and kill programs that help working families reduce their energy burden," EANY executive director Peter Iwanowicz said in a statement. "If this bill ever became law, it would drive up air pollution and trigger more death and disease. A yes vote on this is truly an insult to anyone who breathes."

The NYSERDA bill's chances in the Assembly are slim and Gov. Andrew Cuomo will almost certainly veto it if it comes to his desk, but the votes of Klein and Savino are leaving advocates increasingly anxious about their support for the climate protection bill. 

"What I hope we're not looking at is a case of legislative schizophrenia," said Eddie Bautista, head of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. "Savino has been a champion and got through one of the most significant climate bills in the Senate so it's hard to square." 

In 2014 Savino was instrumental in passing the Community Risk Reduction and Resiliency Act, which requires the state to factor in climate change before approving any state-funded projects. 

IDC spokeswoman Candice Giove defended the votes of Klein and Savino on the NYSERDA bill and said Avella would be amending the bill but did not indicate if the amendments were different than those made in the Assembly. 

"Senators Klein and Savino made a decision based on calls and emails from their constituents who would be stuck paying more for their energy bills to bail out upstate nuclear power plants," Giove said in a statement. "That being said, the IDC has always championed environmental causes and there is no greater advocate in our conference for that than Senator Avella, who is working with climate scientists to make amendments to the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA)."

With Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and numerous cutbacks to clean energy initiatives, states and cities are filling the void to enact policies the federal government has abandoned, heightening the need for the climate protection bill, supporters said. 

"It's the most important thing that we could possibly do and punting is not really called for. Action is called for," said state Assemblyman Steve Englebright, who sponsored the bill in that house, where it is expected to pass this week. "There is a crisis that our state and nation needed to deal with yesterday. So delaying is a very bad thing."

Dan Sherrell