Holding the line on taxes, spurring job growth and rolling back unfunded mandates are the key points state legislators will be listening for in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address today.
“I hope we can continue the momentum of the last two years,” said Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, voicing a sentiment generally shared with his Capital Region colleagues.
The first big challenge is with the state budget, which will be formally presented by Cuomo on Jan. 22.
A fuller picture of priorities for local state legislators can be found on the Capital Region Scene at dailygazette.com and will be updated over the next few days.
Two years in a row the state has passed on-time budgets without raising taxes from the previous year and Seward would like to see it happen again, despite the state facing an estimated deficit of $2 billion in the fiscal year that begins April 1.
The other most common refrain locally was for action on the state’s unfunded mandates, with most attention on Medicaid. The state has already begun capping the cost expansion in the program at the county level but legislators like Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, want more to be done.
She likes the idea of letting counties decide what Medicaid benefits, beyond the federally required minimum, they want to offer. “They can decide what they can afford and what their counties need,” Marchione said.
During the budget process and the legislative session, Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie, will be focused on keeping 2011’s storms, Irene and Lee, on the minds of Cuomo and the Legislature. “It’s still a very critical issue,” said Lopez, whose district is still recovering from the damage. “A quarter of my calls are still flood recovery.”
He is working with Cuomo’s cabinet officials on issues including like housing. As a member of the minority party in the Assembly, Lopez stressed the importance of working with the administration and forming coalitions.
Getting by on the quality of his ideas will also be the plan of Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, who has spent decades working in the minority. This session he promised to continue presenting ideas, like screening for sex offenders at elder care facilities, in an imaginative way to draw attention to his ideas.
One of his focuses will be on shepherding a constitutional amendment to stop requiring the printing of bill proposals, which could save millions each year; electronic records would be allowed. The bill needs to be approved for a second time and then go to the voters.
Republican Assembly members in particular will have their sights set on the state Thruway Authority, which became a punching bag for them in recent months as the authority talked about raising tolls on some commercial vehicles but ultimately backed down.
Tedisco said he would like to see a forensic audit of the authority and wants the Legislature to take over the responsibility of raising tolls, so the power is put in the hands of accountable officials.
A piece of heavy lifting in this year’s budget process will be tweaking the school aid distribution formula, so that needier schools get a large portion of funds. Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, who expects to be on one of the conference committees negotiating the budget, said, “It’s a large order but … one that we can work hard to do.”
If there is money left aside after the budget is completed to address inequities in school funding, Farley added that he’ll continue to try to bring that money to his district.
Seward highlighted changes to the formula last year that made for more equitable distribution, but agreed that more needs to be done for low-wealth, high-need school district.
“We don’t enough money to solve everyone’s problems,” he added. “So we need to give maximum flexibility to schools that want to look at other options.”
The Legislature, Seward said, should offer school districts the ability to merge, consolidate services and spend money with more autonomy.
One local concern for Marchione is payment owed to the municipalities hosting the Saratoga Casino & Raceway, meaning Saratoga Springs and County. The state is supposed to pay the localities a hosting fee. But it currently only doles out about half of what it owes, after initially eliminating the payments entirely during the worst of the state's budget crunch several years ago.
Marchione will be cosponsoring legislation to return host payments back to their full funding.
Farley expects the governor to advance legislation on gun control, campaign finance reform and the minimum wage. He said it was likely that the governor would introduce his own legislation on each issue after negotiating some sort of compromise with the Senate and Assembly.
Regarding the minimum wage, Seward said there was no question that Cuomo would push to raise it. Like most Republicans, Seward sympathizes with families struggling to exist on minimum wage, but ultimately opposes an increase. He argued that this is the kind of burden on small businesses that needs to be rolled back.
“I would like to the make the minimum wage irrelevant,” Seward said. He wants to accomplish this by creating an economy ripe with opportunities that are created by targeted tax cuts to small businesses and manufacturers.