Local representatives preview 2017 session

The New York state legislature began its 2017 session Wednesday, one that is expected to include debates on hot-button issues such as ethics reform, ride-sharing such as Uber upstate and whether or not free tuition should be provided at state universities and colleges, among other issues.

After easily defeating Green Party challenger Robin Barkenhagen on Election Day, Republican Dan Stec of Queensbury returns for this third term representing Assembly District 114, which includes Essex County.

Speaking Wednesday morning, Stec was highly critical of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to provide free tuition at SUNY and CUNY colleges for those coming from homes with an annual household income of $125,000 a year or less.

“I’ve got serious concerns about the governor’s proposal,” Stec said. “I certainly want to see some detail before I make a final determination on it but my initial reaction on it is very pie-in-the-sky, standing on stage with of all people Bernie Sanders (and) doing everything he can to be to the left of (New York City Mayor) Bill de Blasio. And I’m just not convinced this is affordable to the taxpayers. There is no such thing as a free lunch. This wouldn’t be free, this would be paid for by taxpayers, and so far, I’m not convinced that this is a great idea.”

On Wednesday, Stec was appointed vice-chair of the program committee for the Assembly Minority Conference and announced he will serve as the ranking member on the Environmental Conservation Committee. He will also sit on the Local Governments, Social Services, Consumer Affairs and Protection and Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committees.

Betty Little

Stec’s fellow North Country Republican in the state government, state Sen. Betty Little of Queensbury, is beginning her eighth term serving the 45th Senate district, which includes Essex and Franklin counties. Little also easily defeated a Green Party challenger in November’s election, Steve Ruzbacki of Minerva.

Senator Betty Little, speaking Wednesday afternoon, said she was unsure of Cuomo’s tuition proposal and questioned how the financing of it would shake out considering other budgetary items sure to be discussed.

“We all know that colleges are expensive,” she said. “Both public and private continue to increase in cost and we would like to do something about that as well, but this proposal certainly needs to be looked at to see the details.”

One of the items Little was interested in securing funding for is legislation for the state to pay the full cost of providing lawyers to poor defendants accused of crimes, a burden that largely falls to counties now. Last year both the Senate and Assembly passed a bill on the matter before Cuomo vetoed the proposed legislation.

Under state Sen. John DeFrancisco’s bill that passed the senate last year, the full cost of providing legal counsel to indigent defendants would gradually shift from the counties to the state over seven years, beginning this year, as the state only partially reimburses counties for the cost currently.

“We are getting a lot of calls from counties because they wanted the indigent legal services monies to be covered by the state,” Little said. “It was vetoed by the Governor so we need to look at getting that into the budget this year.

Little also said during this session she will be particularly interested in providing additional state aid to public schools, again promoting an automobile recall bill she authored that never was passed last year and improving broadband and cell service for people in the Adirondacks.

As for continued legislation to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic, Little said she is interested in new legislation that would require a hair follicle test for a child under the age of 3 if their parent or supervisor was charged with substantial drug issues to ensure the child doesn’t have any drugs in their system. Little cited a “horrific” case in Glens Falls where a 13-month-old child died from a heroin overdose.

Little said she is intrigued by legislation that would bring Uber and other ride-sharing services upstate, and highlighted how it might be beneficial as a secondary source of income to many people in the North Country.

“That’s all going to be looked at because most think it’d be beneficial here in the upstate,” she said.

Billy Jones

In his first week as a state representative, new Democratic Assemblyman Billy Jones said he was interested in taking a look at Cuomo’s free tuition proposal. Jones, of Chateauguay, is the former chairman of the Franklin County Legislature and defeated his Republican opponent Kevin Mulverhill in November’s election.

Jones said his primary focus to begin his first term serving Assembly District 115, which covers Franklin and Clinton Counties and four St. Lawrence County towns, is to improve the economy of the North Country. He specifically brought up ride-sharing and what it could mean for the area.

“There is going to be legislation out there to improve transportation for us, the shared riding program we should seriously look at it in Upstate New York,” he said. “In more rural communities any time you can improve transportation it will help economies and business. We should take a look at it.”

Jones said he will also focus on continued efforts to curb the heroin and opioid epidemic and increase funding for public schools.

Jones added that he has communicated routinely with the assemblywoman he’s succeeding, Republican Janet Duprey, about the nature of the position. He praised Duprey for her advocacy for constituent services and helping people with special needs and “people that can’t help themselves.” Jones said his communication with Duprey will continue through the early part of his first term and said he aims to also advocate for legislation that helps people with special needs.

“She did a good job, big shoes to fill,” Jones said. “Those are ongoing discussions on things that were close to her heart. Jan was always great about helping people, that was a large part of her job and I would like to follow in those footsteps.”