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Budget passes late; few local details for now

Jones weighs in on state budget; includes funds for Adirondack overuse

State Assemblyman Billy Jones speaks about road salt legislation signed by the governor earlier this week at Berkeley Green in Saranac Lake December 4. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

The full details of New York’s 2021-22 budget are not yet fully known, but it includes new funding for environmental protection, including overuse in the Adirondacks.

According to Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the budget sets aside $1.55 million to address overuse in the Catskill and Adirondack parks. The budget also includes $300 million for the state Environmental Protection Fund and, if voters approve, $3 billion for the “Restore Mother Nature” Environmental Bond Act to fund environmental restoration projects. This bond act will be on the ballot in the November 2022 general election.

The state Division of Budget had not uploaded the full text of the budget by press time, as the Legislature was still in session, so many funding fields are not yet known.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Budget, which laid the groundwork for the state budget, planned to give the state Olympic Regional Development Agency $105 million of capital funding, including $92.5 million for winter sports facility upgrades in anticipation of the 2023 World University Games, which will be based in Lake Placid.

It also included $1.7 billion for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, $800,000 for High Peaks overuse abatement and $6 million for the Adirondack Park Agency.

It is unclear if the final budget maintained these numbers or changed them.

Jones votes “no” on revenue bill

Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, voted against the revenue bill but had different reasons for it than Republican legislators Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury and Assemblyman Matt Simpson, R-Horicon. While his fellow North Country legislators across the aisle opposed tax increases for New York’s wealthiest residents, Jones did not have an issue with the increases, but he didn’t like the state’s plans for where to spend the money brought in by those increases.

Out of the $5 billion in revenue raised by this tax hike, $2 billion will go to an Exclusive Worker Fund for undocumented immigrants, people formerly incarcerated for felonies and others who were not able to find work and could not receive federal aid during the pandemic. Stec and Simpson opposed this fund, and so did Jones.

Jones said the program “has a ton of holes in it.”

“The price tag itself is enough to make you go, ‘Wow,'” Jones said. “If they want to increase taxes on the wealthiest, a lot of programs could have been put in place to help out citizens.”

He thinks the money raised could be used to help more people suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of the EWF, he said he would prefer to use the money for education, infrastructure, workforce development programs or paying health care workers more.

Reasons for being late

Jones also cited different reasons than his Republican counterparts for why the budget was six days late this year. Democrats hold a majority in both the Senate and Assembly, and the governor is a Democrat, too, so their party largely sets budget priorities and debates policies by itself. Stec and Simpson pinned the blame mostly on the tax increase debate among Democrats.

Jones said it’s not that simple — there are a lot of big issues on the table this year, including legalizing mobile sports betting, increasing salaries for home health care aides and budgeting while social distancing during a pandemic.

“This has been the toughest, most complicated, roughest budget I’ve ever been through,” said Jones, who was first elected in 2016. “I’ve been through budgets in county government. I’ve been through five of these now. This has been the toughest one by far.”

As a member of the majority party, Jones is a bit more involved in the budgeting process, but he said this year COVID-19 made it harder for members to be involved.

“I was disappointed with the process this year because a lot of it was done via Zoom,” Jones said. “It’s not easier, certainly, to come to a consensus on a lot of things or to try to talk to your colleges about reasons why you feel one way.”

He said debating is much easier when legislators can be in a room together.

“You don’t have that collegiality,” he said. “You can’t get your points across as easy as you could in person.”

Overall, Jones said he is pleased with the budget and its investment in the North Country.

Stec said overall, the budget has ballooned at an “astonishing” rate. He was happy it includes funding for a broadband internet study but worries that the budget is driving people out of the state.

“High taxes and a very challenging business environment, not the weather, has chased a lot of people out of New York State,” Stec wrote in a press release.

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