NY State on Verge of Historic Public Power Victory, But Key Obstacles Remain

Is the New York State Legislature finally getting serious about embracing renewable energy? Or is this an election-year mirage?

John Tarleton Jun 2, 2022

For more, see Beyond Con Ed: For New York, Public Power Is the Past and the Future.

“In New York, launching a Green New Deal doesn’t require starting from scratch so much as circling back to an earlier era when bold public infrastructure projects were in vogue,” we wrote in our April cover story about growing efforts in Albany to pass the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA). 

The bill, which has been bottled up in committee for years, would dramatically expand New York state’s public power system (which is already the largest in the country) and begin to sideline fossil fuel-centric utilities like Con Edison. And now, in the waning hours of this year’s state legislative session, the measure is suddenly moving through both houses of the legislature like a mountain stream rushing downhill. 

New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

On Wednesday, BPRA passed the state senate and it was approved by the Rules Committee in the state assembly. The last obstacle in the legislature is Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), who must call the bill to the floor for a vote today before the legislative session expires. 

Is this really going to happen? It’s impossible to say. Transformative policy ideas rarely see the light of day in Albany. But we’re already ahead of the curve here. And public power advocates I’m in touch with are optimistic the legislation will pass the Assembly too. 

Still, there is a long tradition in Albany of one house of the legislature passing bills favored by progressives safe in the knowledge the other will let it die. Legislation as a glorified press release. Assembly Democrats did this for years when the Republicans still controlled the senate. Since a cohort of young progressives and socialists flipped control of the senate to the Democrats in 2018, it’s the assembly that has been the more conservative of the two houses. 

The pivotal role of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie can’t be overstated. He controls what legislation makes it to the floor and his top lieutenants control the committees that craft legislation. Heastie also controls the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, a multi-million dollar slush fund stocked with donations from every special interest under the sun. Heastie doles out that money to favored incumbents who are up for reelection. Will he screw the powerful private-utility industry to make New York a national leader in building out renewable energy sources? If he wants to make it happen, it will happen. (You can call Heastie’s office at 518-455-3791 to express your support for BRPA.) 

Transformative policy ideas rarely see the light of day in Albany. But we’re already ahead of the curve here.

A deeply Machiavellian interpretation of the current scenario would be that this is a one-house messaging bill crafted to make some vulnerable incumbents look good with climate-oriented voters, in particular State Senator Kevin Parker (D-Flatbush), chair of the Senate Energy Committee who is facing a tough primary challenge from democratic socialist David Alexis who has made winning public power a centerpiece of his campaign and has denounced his opponent for taking more than $100,000 from fossil-fuel interests since being elected to the senate in 2004. He has also tagged Parker as the “Joe Manchin of the State Senate” for obstructing climate legislation in his committee. It will be harder to make that label stick after yesterday’s events. 

If both houses pass the BPRA, it will still need Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature in order to become a law. But she would face tremendous pressure from progressives if she refused to act. With the bill’s fate still apparently up for grabs, we could also be looking at a moment when top Democrats in New York under intense grassroots pressure have decided it’s time to get out in front of this issue. If they do,  they will be able to take election-year credit for breaking with the utility companies and making the state a national leader in renewable energy while creating tens of thousands of good union jobs.

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