Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined an aggressive agenda for 2013 in Wednesday's State of the State address, and while North Country leaders don't agree with all of it, they do plan to work with the governor on common-ground issues.
Cuomo put forth several legislative goals that would affect the North Country in particular, including a seven-point plan to strengthen gun laws, a regional marketing initiative aimed at increasing tourism, and a renewed call for casino gaming that he says would boost upstate New York's economy. The governor said economic development is "the engine that drives the state," and that his promise of no new taxes will continue in 2013.
"I applaud Governor Cuomo for recognizing that New York is the most overtaxed state in the nation and his commitment to ensuring that he will not agree to any tax hikes this year," new Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said in a prepared statement on the first day after being sworn in Tuesday. "Getting more New Yorkers back to work must continue to be our top priority this year. We need to ensure that our climate is more hospitable to business growth and development. That means lowering taxes and reducing the bureaucratic red tape that stifles job creation, as well as reducing the size and rampant spending in our state government."
Jamie Ford of the Wild Center shows Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau a diorama of the Tupper Lake nature museum's planned Wild Walk, an interactive, elevated walkway that's been partly funded by the state, in the concourse outside the Empire State Plaza Convention Center Wednesday afternoon in Albany. Ford and Rabideau were there for the governor's annual State of the State speech.
(Photo courtesy of Clyde Rabideau)
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, said in a prepared statement that she expects the new Legislature to focus heavily on strengthening the economy.
"Because revenues remain weak and the full financial impact of Sandy is still unknown, I anticipate another fiscally austere state budget," she said.
Saranac Lake village Mayor Clyde Rabideau, who attended the event at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center, called Cuomo's speech "exciting.
"I think he's taking on a lot of controversial issues: gun safety and longer school days," he said. "So he's taking the bull by the horns. I admire that."
In his speech, Cuomo noted that upstate New York has dealt with "decades of decline" and that job growth there has been "sad and troubling." He said the nation's slow economic growth has been outpacing that of upstate New York.
Cuomo proposed new initiatives like "innovation hotspots" that he believes will spur the upstate economy. The plan calls for 10 high-tech incubators that would be selected though a competitive process; the so-called hotspots would be eligible for big tax breaks.
Rabideau said he thinks Saranac Lake - which is now home to a biotech cluster that includes Myriad RBM, Active Motif, Trudeau Institute and Bionique Testing?Laboratories - could compete.
"I'd like Saranac Lake to think big and go after one of the hotspots," Rabideau said.
Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, R-Peru, agreed.
"I'm not going to discount the North Country being able to tap into it," she said. "Look at the colleges we have: Clinton, North Country Community, Paul Smith's. Part of it is getting people trained to the right jobs. I believe we could do that, and I think we certainly have the workforce."
Cuomo also proposed a new approach to marketing upstate tourism to out-of-state visitors and New York City residents. The model would be similar to the Regional Economic Development Councils, with regions of the state putting together marketing plans and competing a share of $5 million in advertising funds.
Some critics have argued that North Country communities now compete with each other for tourism. Cuomo said this new approach would encourage regional unity. Rabideau, who recently conducted a survey of Long Island residents to see how familiar they were with the Adirondacks, said a regional marketing effort must happen.
"The Adirondacks desperately needs a regional marketing program, so the governor is right on target with this," he said.
Cuomo's speech covered a lot of ground, but he never mentioned relief from costly state mandates on counties, municipalities and school districts. A number of unfunded state mandates have been putting tremendous economic pressure on local governments trying to work within the confines of the state's property tax cap. Local officials and lawmakers have been calling for relief for many years, but especially since the tax cap took effect in 2011.
Little said her focus will remain on mandate relief.
"In particular giving schools and local governments more flexibility in managing through their own financial challenges," she said in a prepared statement. "Medicaid and pension reform mandate relief will help on the local level, in addition to some other smaller measures also already enacted, but clearly more needs to be done."
Stec said he was disappointed that Cuomo didn't address the mandate problem. Rabideau, meanwhile, said he didn't have high expectations that Cuomo would target unfunded mandates.
"I didn't expect manna from heaven to fall down, so therefore I'm not disappointed," he said. "The 2 percent tax cap is a goal that's been adhered to by the village for the last few budgets, and we're aiming for it again.
"It's a fact of life for localities. The onus is on. I accept the challenge. I would like to see help from the state, but we're going to do it without them."
Cuomo's speech focused heavily on improving the state's education system. The big emphasis was on the amount of time students spend in the classroom.
Cuomo said there are three ways to provide more learning time for students: increasing the length of the school day, increasing the length of the school year, or a combination of both. The governor pledged to pay 100 percent of the costs associated with longer school days or years for districts that choose to do so.
Little said she wants to see details of the plan when Cuomo presents his executive budget later this month. She said one way to increase learning time is to decrease the number of holidays and the length of school vacations.
"There's a lot of superintendent's days during the year," Little added. "I know of a lot of school districts that do them before the school year and at the end of the school year rather than have days off during the school year."
Cuomo's seven-point plan for strengthening gun control includes an assault weapon ban, closure of the private sale loophole, banning high-capacity ammunition magazines, tougher penalties for illegal gun use, keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, a ban on internet sales of ammo, and a state background check on ammo purchases.
Stec said lawmakers are all in favor of public safety, but he questioned the necessity of "costly new restrictions on law-abiding gun owners." He said he does believe more needs to be done to keep criminals from acquiring guns.
"I would be more inclined to support measures that were put in place to keep guns away from children, criminals, people with mental health issues - and if there's gaps in the existing law that could be addressed and fixed, that's fine," Stec said. "But if it starts sliding away from that and now getting into a true infringement on a Second Amendment right - peoples' right to keep and bear arms, what is the definition of an assault weapon - the devil will be in the details on items like that."
For officials like Rabideau, Little, Duprey and Stec, attending the State of the State is an annual tradition. But for others, like Jamie Ford of Saranac Lake, it was an entirely new experience.
Ford traveled to Albany on behalf of The Wild Center, the Tupper Lake natural history museum that recently received $1 million in state funding to help build the Wild Walk, an 850-foot elevated walkway in the treetops near the facility.
"When we got here, we came off the elevator and we were immediately greeted, if you will, by anti-fracking protesters," she said. "The Wild Center model, which they asked us to display in the concourse outside of the convention center, was right behind them. The energy was crazy."
Inside the convention room, Ford said it was hard not to be overcome by the range of emotions. Before Cuomo took the stage, family members of the firefighters killed in a Christmas Eve shooting in Webster were honored with a flag presentation.
Ford called Cuomo an effective orator.
"He's very thorough, he's very confident, but he's also funny - he has a great sense of humor," she said. "So even though he was outlining all these different proposals - his goals for 2013 and the overview of what New York has done in the past that led up to why these legislative items were proposed for 2013 - he does it with humor, and he does it with wit, and he's incredibly intelligent.
"So as you're hearing him outline his agenda, you're excited, you're proud. I was proud to be a New Yorker. It's not my home state technically, by birth, but it is my state now. It's where I've made my home. Today just cemented that fact."