The adoption of any state budget is a long and arduous task of give and take, matching revenues and expenditures and negotiating differing priorities in a somewhat open process, which usually results in a satisfactory (though not perfect) outcome. This year was far different. From where I sat, the final 2009-10 budget negotiated behind closed doors by the governor and legislative leaders did not make a passing grade. This budget embodied too many wrong choices, in too many ways, and, in good conscience, I was compelled to vote against it in its entirety.
Make no mistake, these are difficult times. Faced with a national, even global, recession of historic proportions, state governments across the nation have been dealing with generally declining revenues. The revenue decline was most acute here in New York State where Wall Street and the financial sector historically contribute a mighty share to state coffers. When the Governor proposed his budget in December for the April 1, 2009 – March 31, 2010 state fiscal year, he was faced with a $13.7 billion gap between anticipated expenditures and anticipated revenues, and the projected gap worsened over time.
But, despite the unanticipated availability of federal stimulus funds to fill some of the gaps in state program funding, the adopted budget went beyond that, and beyond what the Governor had proposed, by increasing state revenues to a level that raised overall state spending to unprecedented heights. The addition by the Legislature of an increase in the state personal income tax for higher earners and many small businesses, combined with the Governor’s proposals to increase the “18-A” assessment on electric and natural gas utilities, and the imposition of and increases in a whole host of new and existing taxes and fees resulted in bringing the size of the state budget to $131.8 billion, including federal stimulus funding—an 8.7 percent increase over last year’s spending.
Extracting such sums from the state’s already stagnant economy will impair our ability to recover from the current recession and make it even more difficult for upstate areas that are already struggling to make up economic ground. Extracting increased fees and taxes on everything from driver’s licenses to cell phone bills directly or indirectly from individual New Yorkers will heighten pressures on household budgets, too many of which are already being squeezed by rising costs and frozen wages, reduced working hours or unemployment.
I am not saying that it is easy, especially in economic times like these, to balance the opposing forces of increasing needs and declining revenues. Doing so demands that the long view be taken and some very hard choices made. Instead, in my view, a state budget was adopted that, in the words of the State Comptroller, “does not adequately respond to today’s economic realities” and will likely need to be revisited.
Some of the actions taken in shaping the 2009-10 state budget follow.
Although several of the more egregious “nuisance” taxes initially proposed by the Governor were rejected, including those on bowling and health clubs, cosmetology and massage services, and non-diet drinks, the final budget still contains some $8 billion in new or increased taxes, fees and assessments.
Due to a two-year influx of federal stimulus funds for education, public school aid was essentially held level statewide, with the Ken-Ton, North Tonawanda, Sweet Home and Tonawanda school districts set to receive modest aid increases with the federal aid included. Public libraries, on the other hand, were hit with a sizable cut in state funding.
A scheduled increase in state aid for towns, cities and villages was canceled, so the Town and City of Tonawanda, the City of North Tonawanda and the Village of Kenmore will receive the same level of funding as last year.
STAR Rebate checks for homeowners have been eliminated, but the Enhanced STAR and Basic STAR exemptions that reduce school tax bills will continue.
Face-to-face interviews, finger-imaging and asset testing for those re-enrolling in Medicaid were eliminated. Also, welfare benefits will increase 30 percent over three years.
The 5-cent deposits on pop and beer bottles will be expanded to bottled water, and the cost of a driver’s license will go up 25 percent as will the cost for registering a vehicle.
Even as Medicaid spending will rise from $45.3 billion to $48.6 billion, state payments to hospitals, nursing homes and home health care agencies were cut by nearly $600 million.
If you have driven in the vicinity of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute or Buffalo General Hospital lately, you have seen the gleaming new buildings that anchor the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. They are welcome signs of progress in our region, but they would not be there were it not for substantial state investment in those buildings, and in Roswell Park, the University at Buffalo, and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, the institutions to which the buildings belong.
Further development of the medical campus is very much part of UB 2020, the University at Buffalo’s strategic growth plan, and public and private sector leaders in our region have come together to back UB 2020 as Western New York’s highest economic development priority. Already the largest of the State University of New York campuses and a leading academic research institution in our state, UB aims to grow by 10,000 students and 2,500 staff, expand its research capabilities and revitalize its campuses by the year 2020. As it does, the University expects the $1.7 billion it now generates for the state and local economies to more than double in 15 years, broadening and diversifying our region’s economic base with innovation, high-tech development and next-generation industries.
As the Assembly chair of the Western New York state legislative delegation and chair of the Assembly’s Economic Development Committee, I have been working very hard to secure support for our region’s research university at the state level, and I am pleased to be able to report that we have scored some successes this legislative session.
As a major research campus, UB stood to be disproportionately hurt by the cuts to SUNY the governor proposed in his executive budget. I coordinated a strong response from our legislative delegation that helped defeat some of the most injurious proposals, restoring funding for high-profile research centers and programs at UB that include the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, the Center for Advanced Bioengineering Technology, the Research Institute on Addictions, and the Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence. We also succeeded in legislating, in connection with $138 million in funding for the expansion of the Downtown Campus, the flexibility needed to enable the joint UB/Kaleida Global Vascular Institute to go forward.
Flexibility is, in fact, one of the crucial requirements for maximizing UB 2020’s potential as a regional economic engine and jobs creator, and I have also introduced the UB 2020 Flexibility and Economic Growth Act (A.2020/S.2020) that would give UB new freedoms in the areas of capital project financing, procurement, property acquisition and disposition, and tuition policy. These reforms incorporate recommendations the New York State Commission on Higher Education made for the State University of New York as a whole, and with the approval of the legislation, UB 2020 could do valuable service as a pilot project for broader implementation.
It was my honor to speak at the April 24 groundbreaking for UB’s new building for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. With immediate construction work only the beginning, the education, research and jobs that will be generated in association with the new building will bring a healthy return on the state’s investment in that state-of-the-art structure. As I and my Western New York legislative colleagues continue to support the University at Buffalo’s strategic growth initiative, my hope is to see a growing UB 2020 contribution to a Western New York economic resurgence.
Now there’s a way for more New Yorkers to get help with prescription drug costs. The New York Prescription $aver program offers significant discounts on thousands of prescription medications, providing savings of as much as 60 percent on generics and 30 percent on brand name drugs. You can qualify for a (free!) Prescription $aver Card if you are age 50 to 64 or determined disabled by the Social Security Administration, and you have an annual gross household income under $35,000 if single or $50,000 if married, and you do not receive Medicaid or EPIC coverage.
While the program is sponsored by the state, the discounts you will receive at the counter are provided through participating pharmacies and pharmaceutical manufacturers, not through state tax dollars. For an application and lists of participating pharmacies and drug prices, go online to http://nyprescriptionsaver.fhsc.com. You can also pick up an application at your local participating pharmacy, or request one by calling 1-800-788-6917 (TTY 1-800-290-9138) or my district office.
A $20 million project to turn a 104-year-old former warehouse and manufacturing site on the Erie Canal in North Tonawanda into a high-end, mixed-use commercial and residential center is another step closer to completion.
Eighty live/work loft apartments, a restaurant, a health club, and a conference center will soon begin to occupy the 167,000-square-foot former Remington Rand factory complex a short distance from Gateway Harbor Park in the heart of the Twin Cities. A ceremonial groundbreaking for the “Remington Lofts on the Canal” project was held at the site in May.
Funded primarily through private equity and bank loans secured by the developer, The Kissling Interests LLC, the innovative project required a package of state and local government financial assistance to cement the deal, including $1 million from the state’s Restore NY Communities initiative, tax incentives through the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program and the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency, and a $500,000 State Assembly capital grant to the Lumber City Development Corporation (North Tonawanda’s economic development agency) I obtained for related infrastructure improvements.
The first phase of the project is construction of an upscale restaurant, to be named “15 Mile” to mark the site’s Erie Canal legacy. It will be located in a one-story historic building facing the canal that at one time housed the Erie and Niagara Railroad power plant.
The unique loft apartments’ state-of-the-art technology and location on the canal should appeal to a variety of tenants, including high-tech start-ups, young entrepreneurs, artists and “empty nesters.” They should be ready to rent by the end of 2010.
The project has been quarterbacked by Lumber City Development and North Tonawanda Mayor Larry Soos’ office. Remington Lofts on the Canal is another step in the city’s plans for revitalizing the downtown area of North Tonawanda.
After the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) stepping up security requirements at U.S. borders was enacted by the federal government, I worked with other state and federal officials all along the northern U.S. border to convince the U.S. Department of Homeland Security we needed a less expensive, less cumbersome alternative to the WHTI’s passport requirement for re-entry into the United States. The result was Washington’s approval of state-issued Enhanced Driver’s Licenses—single, secure, wallet cards to act as both driver’s licenses and WHTI-compliant proofs of residence and citizenship at all land/sea border crossings between the U.S. and Canada (and Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean). U.S. citizens under the age of 16 (and 16–18-year-olds traveling with specified adult-supervised groups) can still cross with a copy of their birth certificate.
As of June 1, the following documents are acceptable forms of identification for adults returning across our bridges from Canada:
Enhanced Driver’s License or Enhanced Non-driver Photo ID
Available from any New York State or county motor vehicles office that processes driver’s licenses for $30 in addition to any other fees that apply to the driver’s license or non-driver ID transaction. You must apply in person, bringing a Social Security card, and proofs of identity, U.S. citizenship, and New York State residency. (More information is available at www.nydmv.state.ny.us/edl-main.htm or by calling the NYS EDL Helpline at (518) 474-9981 or my office.)
A NEXUS card allows pre-screened travelers to go through special NEXUS lanes at the border, often avoiding lines. After submission of an online application (at www.cbp.gov) and a $50 fee, applicants need to appear in person at an enrollment center. Children (up to age 18) will not be charged for their applications. Enrollment centers can be found locally at the Peace Bridge and Rainbow Bridge.
Passport books will continue to be acceptable for all international travel but are the slowest form of ID document to use at the bridges because they lack the new radio frequency identification technology. Unexpedited U.S. passports cost $100 for adults and must be applied for in person. The City of Tonawanda (appointment required), North Tonawanda and Kenmore post offices all accept passport applications and can take the required photos for a $15 additional fee.
This is a wallet card that also can be applied for at the above U.S. post offices at a cost of $45 for first-time adult applicants. The passport card is acceptable for the same land and sea border crossings as the Enhanced Driver’s License, but international air travel still requires a passport book.
You can find more information on applying for passports and passport cards at www.travel.state.gov.