North Country lawmakers are mostly pleased with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed 2013-14 budget, which features no new taxes, more funding for environmental programs, additional aid for communities affected by 2011's Tropical Storm Irene and no upstate prison closures.
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, R-Peru, both reacted positively to Cuomo's spending plan. Duprey said she hopes the state Legislature will be able to pass a third on-time budget.
"The devil is always in the details," Duprey said in a phone interview, noting that she still needs to review the specifics of Cuomo's budget. "It was an optimistic message."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo presents his 2013-14 state budget Tuesday in Albany.
(Photo — Governor’s office)
"Governor Cuomo's proposed budget is much of what I expected with a continued focus on the economy and a commitment to not increase taxes," Little said in a prepared statement. "The less than two percent spending increase reflects the fact that revenues are still weak. The good news is the size of this year's budget deficit is much more manageable than the previous two indicating that our current budget has been fiscally responsible."
Cuomo's projected budget deficit for 2012-13 is $1.3 billion.
Other North Country leaders praised Cuomo's budget. North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas said the governor exercised fiscal discipline by not putting forth tax or fee hikes, while Unshackle Upstate Executive Director Brian Sampson lauded the plan for holding the line on spending.
"Without question, the governor's fiscally responsible approach has put New York on the road to economic recovery," Sampson said in a statement.
Cuomo has proposed closing two downstate prisons, sparing further closures here in the North Country.
"Whenever there's no prison closures in the North Country, it's a big sigh of relief," Duprey said.
If passed, Cuomo's budget would close Bayview, a medium-security prison in Manhattan, and Beacon, a minimum-security prison in Dutchess County. The proposed closures would save the state about $19 million in the first year, according to budget documents.
So are prison closures a concern of the past for North Country communities?
"I think, psychologically, the answer to that is yes," Duprey said. "I think there's always that apprehension when we're going into a budget session. ... But our prisons are full, or close to. I think the real message in this was the economic piece that he acknowledged about the prisons."
Cuomo noted that at the two prisons slated for closure, the average cost to incarcerate one person for a year is close to $74,000. Elsewhere in the state, he said, that figure is about $34,000.
"We've always said that it was cheaper to incarcerate in our area than in metropolitan areas," Little said.
Not everyone liked Cuomo's prison plan. Donn Rowe, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, called the proposal "profoundly disappointing.
"New York's Correction Officers have some of the most dangerous jobs in the state; jobs that were made more dangerous by the budgetary decisions of this administration just two years ago," he said in a statement. "Now, the Governor is looking for even more sacrifice from a group that has already given more than their fair share."
Cuomo would add a total of $19 million to the state's Environmental Protection Fund in 2013-14 for a total of $153 million - the first increase in three years.
The EPF funds a variety of environmental activities in New York. It's used to protect water quality, to cap landfills and to build municipal recycling facilities, as well as to buy land, such as adding to the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
Cuomo said Tuesday that the EPF increase would come from $15 million in unclaimed bottle deposit receipts as well as $4 million from "increased and improved enforcement of the unclaimed deposit program," according to the governor's budget briefing book.
Environmental groups from across the state - including the Adirondack Council - lauded the proposed EPF increase.
"As you may recall, the governor vetoed a bill that passed both houses of the Legislature last session that would have added $10 million to the EPF in each of the next six years," Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan said in a prepared statement. "At the time, the Adirondack Council did not complain about the veto because the governor had indicated he had a plan to increase the EPF in his proposed budget. We are pleased to see that he not only lived up to his word, but increased the total amount going to the EPF beyond what the vetoed bill would have provided.
"The Adirondack Council is grateful that legislative leaders pressured the Governor to increase the EPF and grateful to the Governor for rising to the challenge, and then some."
Cuomo's proposal includes $12.7 million for solid waste programs, $58.3 million for parks and recreation, and $82 million for open space programs, including $20 million for land protection.
Local government help
In last week's State of the State address, Cuomo made no mention of mandate relief for counties, municipalities and school districts, perhaps because he wanted to save some of his proposals for Tuesday's budget presentation.
The governor proposed several measures that he says will provide relief to local governments burdened by unfunded state mandates, including a stable rate pension contribution, local sales tax rate renewals and the elimination of unnecessary reporting requirements. Cuomo also wants lawmakers to approve workers' compensation and unemployment insurance reforms.
Cuomo has also proposed keeping municipal aid at 2012-13 levels.
"In this economy, flat is good - it's not being reduced," Little said. "Being able to stabilize their pension contribution and take in the kind of savings they're going to have when Tier VI - when they have more employees that are on Tier VI - they're able to know what their payments are year in and year out."
The local sales tax rate renewal proposal means counties won't have to go to the Legislature to seek renewal of current rates. Currently, counties must ask lawmakers first, and then vote to renew. The measure wouldn't allow counties to increase their rates, however, as Essex County has sought to do, from 7.75 to 8 percent.
Cuomo's proposed funding package for Hurricane Sandy relief also includes money for communities affected by Tropical Storm Irene, including towns in Essex and Clinton counties.
"Communities that were impacted by Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee will be eligible for $2 billion in grants to support the creation of Community Reconstruction and Mitigation Plans," the budget briefing book reads. "These plans will be created by each Community Reconstruction Zone, and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program criteria and target numbers will be used to govern the program."
Little and Duprey said they were glad that Cuomo recognized that communities hit hard by Irene still have needs, even though the storm occurred more than a year ago. For instance, the town of Jay still needs to remove big debris piles along the East Branch of the AuSable River that pose a threat in the event of future flooding.