Legislators hear state budget update
PENN YAN—The number is $3 billion. That is the dollar shortfall currently with the state budget for revenue and expenses.
During a special meeting Saturday, March 3, State Assemblyman Phil Palmesano (R-C-I, Corning) and State Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-C, Big Flats) addressed the Yates County Legislature on the process regarding 2012-13 state budget. The new fiscal year will begin April 1.
Both lawmakers agreed the biggest priority in budget negotiations is to get more mandated tax relief from the state government. Palmesano expressed concern about how New York spends more in taxes than states with bigger populations such as Florida and Texas. He added that taking more money out of taxpayers’ pockets is not an efficient way to go about solving the current budget crisis.
O’Mara explained one good sign is that Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to place a cap on the increased costs for Medicaid reform. There is currently a three percent cap on added costs, but it is expected to drop to two percent by 2013. The cap is anticipated to be at one percent in 2014 and by 2015, there will be no increased costs. When the finance committee held a special meeting last month, Administrator Sarah Purdy mentioned this drop in increased costs would save the county around $35,000 for 2013. O’Mara added he is even pushing for the state to impose a hard tax cap on Medicaid during the first year that costs drop. “Whether there will be a hard cap or not is yet to be determined and that is something we will be negotiating,” he spoke.
While he expressed approval of Cuomo’s intention to put a limit on Medicaid tax increases, O’Mara said he was still disappointed with how quiet the governor has been on the tax relief issue as a whole. He is worried how areas such as school districts will struggle with the upcoming budget due to being “woeful in mandate relief.”
The senator discussed how the problem is that outside of Upstate N.Y., counties are not that enthusiastic about establishing more tax relief. O’Mara stated that while he sees it as a struggle, Palmesano and he are still working hard to fight for what they see as the top priority in budget negotiations.
Legislator Tim Dennis asked the lawmakers when they expected to see mandate relief taking place. Even with Cuomo being quiet on the matter, O’Mara said he is confident they will begin to take place this year.
Palmesano said one of the biggest issues he has with the budget relates to the extra $800 million the governor plans to allocate towards education. He spoke about how the problem he has is that a third of that money will be set aside for competitive grants. Palmesano stated school districts should have the option of using that money to improve academic programs in their classrooms. He added that while this proposal would benefit districts in wealthier counties who already have money to fund academics, schools in areas with less financial luxury such as Yates County could use the funds to improve core programs. “We need to level the playing field,” Palmesano told the legislature.
Another problem with the budget which Palmesano touched on was the increase in contribution rates to the state’s pension fund. He noted costs are expected to increase as much as 18 percent this year, which he said would be unsustainable financially. Palmesano referred to the matter as a long term issue which should start being approached in Albany. “Workers compensation and business taxes,” he said. “It’s the little things that add up.”
Legislature members expressed no objection to what the lawmakers said they were working towards in Albany. However, there were questions regarding the efforts of the state to stimulate the economy in Yates County. Dennis asked what was being done to have primary elections on two separate dates during the year, as opposed to three. He mentioned the request made by the county last December to have federal and state primaries held on the same day. The request was made after a federal lawsuit claimed the originally scheduled Sept. 11 election for state offices violated the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act which requires all primaries to be held at least 80 days before a general election.
O’Mara mentioned U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe recently ruled to set June 26 as the state’s primary date for federal offices. However, he said that he felt there would not be enough time to prepare a primary for state positions that same day and he would prefer that election take place in August. O’Mara said there already has been plenty of work needed to get done regarding the potential redistricting of assembly and senate lines in the state. He indicated if too much time was spent dealing with elections, it could mean less time devoted to other problems confronting the state and Yates County. Dennis responded by asking, “do you understand if we go to three primaries, it is an added cost for the state?” O’Mara said he understood and Palmesano chimed in, saying while a ruling has already been set for the day of the federal primary, it would still be possible for the state to have that date changed. O’Mara added he feels there is a great chance the June 26 election will be moved back and that two primaries will still be held on the same date later except a little later on. This way, there would be more time to prepare for things, such as printing and distributing ballots, while sparing counties the financial burden of a third primary.
Legislature Chair H. Taylor Fitch expressed concern regarding tax reimbursements Yates has been getting from the state. An example Fitch gave was cell phone taxes. He complained only 7 percent of that money was coming back to help the county’s 911 calling centers. He said he was worried with the added expenses of new technology that these places could not be adequately funded with such small tax returns. O’Mara said he would make sure enough funding is being allocated for new emergency equipment and that he completely agreed with Fitch.
Legislator and Town of Milo Supervisor Leslie Church asked about the possibility of grocery stores in the state being allowed to sell wine. Church noted that wine is a popular resource in the Finger Lakes region. O’Mara told her that he supported the idea, but he is not optimistic due to opposition from the governor. “It is an opportunity for revenue,” stated Dennis who also added former governor David Patterson endorsed selling wine in grocery stores. While he understood the point, O’Mara did say there are many winery owners against the idea since it could result in a loss of customers.
Along with the legislators, Keuka Housing Council Executive Director Kathy Disbrow addressed Palmesano and O’Mara regarding state aid. Disbrow spoke about Cuomo’s plan to cut funding to rural housing companies such as Keuka Housing. “Rural preservation funds are the base of our program,” she explained. “We need these funds to sustain.” Disbrow noted the program has been receiving money from the state for the last 22 years. She described how her organization has worked to improve and maintain the living conditions of low-income families in Yates County. “These are your constituents,” Disbrow told the lawmakers, referring to residents Keuka Housing provides service to. “I plead with you to maintain rural housing communities.” O’Mara responded saying he has been meeting with Keuka Housing and that he fully supports the funding of anything that will help preserve Upstate New York. Palmesano also expressed his support for the program. “I agree 100 percent with Tom (O’Mara),” he said. “This is a vital investment.”
At the meeting’s conclusion, Palmesano said he would no longer be the assemblyman for the county if redistricting takes place. If approved by the governor, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-C-I, Canandaigua) would represent Yates. Palmesano’s new district would cover all of Schuyler and parts of Seneca and Steuben Counties. “It has been a privilege representing Yates County,” Palmesano told legislators. “Regardless of what happens, it is a privilege to be working with you.”