Everyone supports climate change legislation, so why can’t it pass?

Even though Governor Andrew Cuomo says he wants to pass a bill to mitigate climate change, and even though both chambers of the Legislature appear to have majority support for the Climate and Community Protection Act, the bill may not pass in this session.

Destroyed houses on Rockaway beach, four months after Hurricane Sandy hit New York.

Destroyed houses on Rockaway beach, four months after Hurricane Sandy hit New York. Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

Although Gov. Andrew Cuomo has frequently professed his commitment to combating climate change, he has spent the past several weeks downplaying the prospects of climate change legislation in this year’s session after the budget, adding that he did not support the Climate and Community Protection Act, known to advocates as the CCPA – the bill with the most momentum and widespread support – as it’s currently proposed. And even though both chambers of the state Legislature nominally have the votes to pass the CCPA and force the governor’s hand, it appears unlikely that they will do so. At a Wednesday press conference, Cuomo said he is “cautiously optimistic” that he and the Legislature can reach an agreement before the end of session. But his new position offers little insight into the fate of the Climate and Community Protection Act specifically.

The day before, on Tuesday, hundreds of environmental activists made the trip to Albany in an effort to spur movement on the climate bill before the session ends on June 19. They rallied at the Capitol, calling on the state Legislature to pass the bill, before staging a die-in in front of Cuomo’s office.

The demonstration targeted Cuomo, but the bill remains stalled in the state Legislature – particularly in the Senate – where it has yet to be scheduled for a floor vote. And it may stay that way.

The CCPA’s core components include a deadline for the state to eliminate net carbon emissions by 2050, enabling people to sue the state if emission targets are not met and a guarantee to invest 40% of funds spent on emissions mitigation in disadvantaged communities. When Cuomo said on Wednesday that he and the Legislature may reach a deal on climate change, he did so with an explicit objection – the 40% investment in disadvantaged communities. The governor argued funds should go wherever they are most needed to meet the climate goals. Cuomo has also previously said that the specific emissions goals in the CCPA were too ambitious and unrealistic. Cuomo has instead been touting his own climate agenda, referred to as the Climate Leadership Act, that he proposed as part of his executive budget, which would mandate a fully renewable energy portfolio by 2040. Many climate activists believe it is insufficient, particularly in how it addresses issues of the disproportionate impact of climate change on disadvantaged communities.

Climate change advocates say they are confident that the measure has the support of both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and that it will pass both chambers before June 19, when the Legislature adjourns. Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, said that both leaders have repeatedly stated their commitment to getting the bill passed. And even though legislators are down to the wire, Iwanowicz said he’s not concerned by the apparent lack of progress. “I think what I see coming together is the legislative leaders putting together their vision of what climate law should look like, under the CCPA,” Iwanowicz said. “There’s ample time and I see a ton of political will.”

The political will certainly appears to exist. The Assembly has passed the CCPA in each of the past two years, and the bill has even more co-sponsors than it did in 2018. In the state Senate, the legislation has never been voted on, but a majority of senators have already co-sponsored it, signalling that enough support is there to pass it. State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, the bill’s Senate sponsor, told City & State that Democrats conferenced the bill last Thursday and the whole caucus is on board. “We have 39 people on the same page, we talked about some changes to the bill that we thought would make it stronger and more adaptable in terms of its governmental structure, in terms of getting real things done. So we are ready to move forward,” Kaminsky said.

Despite Kaminsky’s confidence that his chamber is ready to act, the CCPA has yet to move out of the Environmental Committee. He said that he doesn’t know when it might come to a floor vote and that the decision is to be made by leadership.

“The Senate Democratic majority is committed to New York state being a national leader on addressing climate change… We look forward to reviewing and discussing this legislation as a conference as we continue to move forward,” Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Stewart-Cousins, said in a statement to City & State. A follow-up question about when the bill might actually come to the floor went unanswered.

It is also unclear whether the changes Kaminsky mentioned would come about through revisions to the CCPA or separate legislation – either way, that new language must be introduced by Sunday night if the Senate hopes to pass it by June 19.

Kaminsky said that he has been in regular communication with Assemblyman Steve Englebright, the bill’s Assembly sponsor, which Englebright confirmed. Englebright said it has the support to pass, but added that the legislation has not been updated since last year so it may be tweaked and updated before that. However, the legislation advanced out of the Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday and was sent to the Rules Committee, the last stop before it can go to the floor, which would suggest the bill is poised to pass as written. Englebright’s legislative director said that “negotiations are ongoing” when City & State asked what the movement meant.

Both chambers currently seem to be in stasis, with each pointing the finger at the other, and the governor, for the inaction. Englebright said the Assembly has “been delaying action” in order to have “meaningful conversations” with the state Senate and the governor. “The likelihood is that we will do something,” Englebright said. “Whether we will have the cooperation of our Senate and executive colleagues is yet to be seen.”

Mike Whyland, a spokesman for Heastie, said in a text to City & State, “We have passed this before and are hopeful we get a law this year. It’s very important to the speaker and our members.”

Kaminsky offered a similar assessment for his own chamber. “It is obviously our hope that both the Assembly and the governor want to be at the table and help figure out how to move forward in this dire situation,” Kaminsky said.

Both sponsors said they don’t have insight into any closed door negotiations that their leadership has had with each other or the governor. A spokesman for Cuomo confirmed to City & State that threeway negotiations are underway on the bill. The state Legislature could force Cuomo’s hand by passing the CCPA independently and sending it to his desk for him to either veto or approve. Kaminsky said at a recent press conference that such a decision would be one for his leader, who has made no public comment about where she stands on that possibility. Additionally, climate legislation could get bundled into an end of session “big ugly” omnibus bill. While environmentalists and the bill’s sponsors would prefer stand-alone legislation, they agree that any action would be welcome – so long as it contains the key components of the CCPA.

“When it comes to the core values of the bill, we're really advocating for the Legislature to stick to the fact that this is a climate jobs and justice bill,” Daniela Lapidous, coalition organizer for New York Renews said. “And that not all climate policy will address climate change in the context of social inequality and economic inequality.”

With additional reporting by Zach Williams