Capital Region lawmakers are pleased that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is focusing on funding for upstate New York, but they question where the billions of dollars will come from.
In his 2016 State of the State address on Wednesday, Cuomo said he is looking to provide $20 billion for economic development in upstate communities and $22 billion over five years for roads and bridges.
Several local legislators said they were pleasantly surprised to hear Cuomo use the word “parity” when it comes to downstate and upstate in his combined State of the State and 2016-17 budget address at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany.
“The encouraging news is he said the word parity, and that’s what is big about this,” said Sen. George Amedore, R-Rotterdam. “We have to continue to fight for our fair share in upstate New York. The word parity is big, it’s back and we’re getting our fair share. If it’s good for New York City, then it’s good for upstate New York.”
Cuomo’s proposed $143.6 billion budget increases spending by 1.7 percent. The state Legislature has until March 31 to negotiate and adopt the budget on time.
Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, said infrastructure upgrades are needed in his district, but Cuomo’s promise of billions of dollars for upstate “made me thought I missed Christmas.”
“If you are going to talk about spending that much money, you have to add some realistic accounts of where that is going to come from,” he said. “I know we’re behind on our infrastructure because over the years we haven’t paid as we have gone along.”
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, said she believes even more money is needed because the rural counties “can really use a lot of help.”
“It is a sizeable investment and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I don’t think that will be the end of the required investment stream,” she said. “Our roads and bridges are crumbling. Our rail infrastructure needs investment. Water and sewer can really use a lot of help.”
She also questioned how Cuomo expects to pay the proposed $20 billion price tag.
“At the end of the day we have to live within our means,” she said. “I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks looking at how exactly he is proposing we pay for this.”
Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, said his rural district would benefit from infrastructure funding, noting that broadband needs to be a priority also.
“To talk about the balance of upstate and downstate is critical,” he said. “A $20 billion investment? We’ll take it. But we want to make sure the investment is sustainable. If it creates more jobs we want to make sure those jobs will remain.”
Amedore also said his district needs broadband expansion and that WiFi should be put in every home in upstate, particularly rural areas.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who worked as a civil engineer for 15 years before joining the Assembly, said underground infrastructure in the town of Rotterdam and the city of Schenectady is in desperate need of repairs.
“In Rotterdam we get two or three water main breaks every year,” he said. “That infrastructure was put in the ground and then forgotten about. We do need to invest in infrastructure. It’s also jobs and better service.”
Cuomo said about $1 billion would be set aside to freeze tolls on the state Thruway until 2020. He also noted a proposed $340 million reduction in Thruway tolls for frequent users and farmers.
Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said rather than a reduction in tolls, he would like to see the money used to fund other projects across upstate.
As part of his State of the State, Cuomo released proposed ethics measures including a limit on lawmakers’ outside income to 15 percent of their base salary, or nearly $12,000 a year.
Cuomo also proposed public financing of elections, closing the LLC loophole and extending the Freedom of Information Law to the Legislature.
Steck said he doesn’t agree with limiting outside income. Steck is one of a few local lawmakers who has a full-time job outside of the Legislature. He works as an attorney for Albany law firm Cooper Erving & Savage.
“There is no one who has been involved in corruption for outside earned income,” he said. “It’s all outside unearned income. [Former Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver had too much power and he used that power to get income he didn’t earn. If I go to court and I’m representing an actual person, I’m there working just like everybody else.”
Amedore, vice president of Amedore Homes, an Albany developer, said he believes the quality of the Legislature is higher when lawmakers have experience in various industries.
“You need people with broad backgrounds, diversity and experience in the private sector,” he said. “Transparency is big. If they want to talk about LLC loopholes we also have to talk about every other organization also still part of that ethics reform."
Cuomo said he is aiming to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He also proposed a $300 million small business tax cut and reducing the corporate tax rate from 6.5 percent to 4 percent.
Lopez and Woerner said they believe the minimum wage hike could result in massive layoffs and could force some small businesses to shut their doors.
“He said he wants to help small businesses, but you don’t help them with new expenses,” Lopez said. “We have to have long discussions about that.”
Woerner said she spent 30 years in business before joining the Assembly and understands the challenges small businesses face, like a fixed budget.
“You only have so much money you can pay your employees,” she said. “You need to be thinking about what you will be taking away and what employers will not pay for in order to afford it.”
Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, the most senior member of the Senate, said where the money will come from “is always a concern.” He is optimistic there will be an on-time budget this year.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said. “The devil is in the details. There is a lot of spending in there. But there is a lot of attention for upstate, which is very important.”
Reach Gazette reporter Haley Viccaro at 395-3114, [email protected] or @HRViccaro on Twitter.