“May you live in interesting times,” the old saying goes. The past six months in Albany have certainly been interesting – more interesting than we’d like, to say the least. An ultimately unsuccessful State Senate coup which paralyzed the Legislature’s “upper” house for close to six weeks. The appointment of a new lieutenant governor using an obscure never-before-used section of state law which many of us questioned. The surprising 4-3 decision of the state’s highest court ratifying that appointment despite strong opinions from lower courts invalidating it. Meanwhile, the emergence of a potential $4 billion gap in this year’s state budget between budgeted expenditures and anticipated revenues, more troubling than interesting. Regardless, there was a 2009 legislative session, which did see many bills considered and quite a few new laws enacted. And in our house – the State Assembly – things even moved along relatively efficiently.
Issues ranged from consumer concerns like a new law protecting New Yorkers from deceptive pitches for car warranties to new state ethics and lobbying reforms, an initiative that we passed in the Assembly but that hadn’t made it through the Senate as of this writing. Tragedies – the death of a young Buffalo-area woman from carbon monoxide and fatal car accidents in Western New York associated with texting while driving – provided the impetus for some new statutes. The national economic downturn elicited others – giving laid-off workers a longer period of time during which they can get health insurance under COBRA, for example.
Though somewhat less directly, the recession surely had an impact on a number of economic development measures, as well. Approvals were given to one-stop regional economic development centers to assist small and medium-sized businesses and an expansion of the Excelsior Linked Deposit program that leverages business loans, but the governor cited the state’s revenue gap in his message vetoing regional skills training programs.
In this newsletter, I have tried to give a brief overview of some of the actions taken by the Legislature during the “interesting” 2009 session. I hope that you find the report informative, and as always, I welcome your views on these or any other issues that may interest you.
With the nation showing signs that we may be beginning to rebound from the most severe economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the past several months have been marked by some very promising developments that will have a positive impact on Western New York’s long-battered economy.
First, Yahoo! announced plans in June for a new $150 million facility in Lockport, and then later this summer GEICO revealed that it will expand its operations in Amherst, adding 300 new jobs to its 1,500-person local workforce. In September, a new state-of-the-art passenger terminal was dedicated at the Niagara Falls International Airport.
Internet giant Yahoo!’s decision to invest tens of millions of dollars in the construction and computer equipment fit-out of a new East Coast Regional Data Center in the Town of Lockport underlines New York State’s position in the emerging New Economy that’s based on knowledge, technology and innovation. The project, which is expected to create 125 new good-paying, high-tech jobs, was cemented by an allocation of 10 megawatts of low-cost hydropower from the New York Power Authority (NYPA). The data center will host properties, advertisements and content found on Yahoo!’s web portal.
That good news was followed shortly by GEICO’s announcement that it would be expanding its operations in Amherst with a new $2.4 million operations center for the company’s subsidiary that sells homeowners, renters, boat and other types of insurance. In 2003, GEICO, the third largest passenger auto insurer in the U.S., embarked on a $36.3 million project to create a customer service center in Amherst for its auto insurance business. That project resulted in the creation of over 1,500 permanent full-time jobs in Western New York, exceeding GEICO’s original goal of 1,200 new jobs. This latest expansion will bring at least 300 jobs to Western New York in addition to continued growth expected at the existing auto insurance division.
A key factor in originally locating GEICO in Western New York was the collaboration given by the Town of Tonawanda, which “loaned” an Empire Zone designation to the GEICO site in the Town of Amherst for this particular project. This allowed GEICO to qualify for special state Empire Zone tax incentives and low-cost power from NYPA. In return, the Town of Tonawanda is slated to benefit from as much as $5 million from payments GEICO’s landlord will make to Amherst in lieu of property taxes over a 15-year period. These funds will be utilized in Tonawanda for economic development projects within the town, such as proposed connector roads linking the Riverview Commerce Park off River Road and the planned North Youngmann Commerce Center business park to be situated on the vacant “Mudflats” just north of the I-290 between Military and Two Mile Creek Roads.
For both Yahoo! and GEICO to select Western New York rather than locations in other states for these significant expansions of their businesses are enormous wins for this region. These decisions speak volumes about the quality of the local workforce here in Western New York and the potential of low-cost hydropower in attracting and retaining businesses and much-needed jobs.
September 2 marked the dedication ceremony for the Niagara Falls International Airport’s (NFIA) new $31.5 million passenger terminal. With its up-to-date terminal and a 10,000-foot-long runway, the NFIA will now have the operational capacity to process international and long-distance domestic passenger flights utilizing the largest airliners.
Located at the intersections of Porter Road, Niagara Falls Boulevard and Williams Road in the Town of Niagara, the NFIA offers a convenient alternative for many area residents and the millions of tourists who annually visit Niagara Falls and the region. It can also play a pivotal role in advancing economic development opportunities and retaining a military presence and related jobs in the area with the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station part of the airport property.
A major stumbling block to the NFIA’s development has been its cramped 1950s-era terminal, which was simply not suited to the aviation needs of today. With a first-class terminal, no noise restrictions or curfews, comparatively low landing fees and terminal rents, and the fourth-longest runway in the state, the new Niagara Falls International Airport is poised to spur renewed interest from the airline industry, increasing the opportunity for Western New Yorkers and visitors to our region alike to travel less expensively and more conveniently.
And, closer to home, significant state funding I helped secure is assisting job creation efforts in our Assembly district. The ongoing demolition and remediation of the abandoned Spaulding Fibre factory in the City of Tonawanda will result in a clean, shovel-ready site ready for reuse, and work is now under way in North Tonawanda on both the redevelopment of the old Remington Rand building into a vibrant loft complex and the construction of a needed access road in the Buffalo Bolt Business Park at the former Roblin Steel site.
Taken together, these area success stories point the way to more progress to come.
As in the past, I wanted to take this opportunity to report to you on a sampling of the issues we have addressed in Albany during this legislative session about which constituents have expressed an interest. At the time that this report went to print, out of the 575 bills that were passed by both houses, Governor David Paterson had signed 488 into law and had vetoed 78.
Please note that I sponsored or supported each of the measures listed unless otherwise noted. The status of each at this printing is indicated (LAW = passed both houses and signed by the Governor into law, VETO = passed both houses and vetoed by the Governor, PBH = passed both houses and awaiting action by the Governor, PA = passed the Assembly only).
Vehicle Warranties – Prohibits any person, firm or corporation from deceptively soliciting vehicle warranty policies by written solicitation or telemarketing to owners of motor vehicles. LAW
ATM Accessibility – Requires ATMs to use both audio and visual systems of relaying messages to customers to ensure the visually-impaired and the hearing-impaired have access. PA
Large-Print Documents – Requires that telephone, cable, utility, and municipal bills be offered in a larger font size, in paper format, to accommodate visually impaired and elderly customers. LAW
Utility Tax – Enacted a new 2% tax on residential and business electric and gas bills. LAW - Schimminger voted no.
Ticket Scalping – Strengthens New York State’s ticket scalping law by prohibiting agents from selling tickets to secondary ticket resellers and extends the provisions of the current law until May 15, 2010. LAW
Do Not Call Registry – Provides for enhanced consumer protection measures and enforcement of the Do Not Call Registry. PA
“Nuisance Taxes” – Raised or imposed taxes on various items and services, including auto rentals, beer, wine, limousines and cigars. LAW – Schimminger voted no.
Vulnerable Individuals – Would establish felony offenses related to endangering the welfare of an incompetent or physically disabled person. VETO
Sex Offenders – Allows N.Y.S. residents to register for notifications of level two and/or level three sex offender registrations in a specified geographic area. LAW
Sex Offender Registry – Provides that sex offenders who fail to register with the state’s Sex Offender Registry will have the duration of their required registration lengthened. PA
Domestic Violence Victims – Prohibits employers from discriminating against victims of domestic violence or stalking. LAW
Campus Safety – Requires colleges to provide incoming students with information about domestic violence and stalking prevention. LAW
Hostile Workplaces – Would authorize and direct the Department of Labor to study hostile workplace behavior and its consequences. VETO
Animal Cruelty – Requires that individuals convicted of animal cruelty and animal fighting offenses reimburse the organizations caring for such animals. PA
Small Business Assistance – Creates one-stop regional economic development centers to ensure small businesses are able to find information on available assistance and regulatory compliance. LAW
Job Training – Would create the New York State Strategic Training Alliance Program (STRAP) to deliver worker skills training programs regionally to networks, associations or other groups of employers. VETO
Economic Programs Review – Would establish a Private Industry Review Council to review state economic development programs and recommend changes to eliminate duplication and streamline programs and services. VETO
Excelsior Linked Deposit Program – Makes qualifying businesses located in certain areas designated under the Federal Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000 eligible for bank loans at lower interest rates through the Linked Deposit program. LAW
Research Information – Establishes the Academic Research Information Access Act (ARIA) to foster economic growth by broadening the availability of high-end information resources. VETO
Power for Jobs – Extends the Power for Jobs and Energy Cost Savings Benefit Programs through May 15, 2010. LAW
Self Employment Assistance Program – Extends to December 7, 2011, the state’s Self Employment Assistance Program (SEAP), which helps individuals who are likely to exhaust their regular unemployment insurance benefits establish small businesses. LAW
Adult Child Health Insurance – Provides for the extension of health insurance coverage to the unmarried child of an insured through the age of 29 years. LAW
Loss of Health Insurance Notification – Ensures that parties in an action for divorce are made aware of the potential loss of health insurance coverage where such coverage was obtained through their spouse. LAW
Immunization Information – Directs the Commissioner of Health to provide parents of children between 6 months and 18 years of age who are in day care or school with information on influenza and immunizations. PA
Medication Guide – Provides for the creation of a drug guide for seniors regarding the drugs commonly used by people over 62 years of age. PA
Mothers’ Rights – Establishes the “Breastfeeding Mothers’ Bill of Rights” to ensure that mothers are given information about the benefits of and their rights with regard to breastfeeding their babies. LAW
Dialysis Insurance Coverage – Provides for coverage of regular, non-emergency out-of-network dialysis under comprehensive medical insurance policies. PA
Carbon Monoxide Detectors – Establishes Amanda’s law requiring carbon monoxide detectors in residences. LAW
DecaBDE Ban – Prohibits the use of the chemical flame retardant decabromodiphenyl in electronic devices, indoor furniture or textiles and mattresses. PA
Green NY – Creates the Green Jobs/Green NY Program to promote energy efficiency and energy conservation, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create green job opportunities. LAW
Electronic Devices – Prohibits texting and other hands-on uses of portable electronic devices while operating a moving motor vehicle. LAW
DMV Fees – Increased motor vehicle registration fees and driver license fees by 25% and required the issuance of new license plates to all motorists at an added cost of $25 per set of plates. LAW – Schimminger voted no.
Bicycle Safety – Requires bicycles to be equipped with a red or amber reflector for night use. LAW
Emergency Response Vehicles – Allows firefighters to operate a fire truck with a regular driver license. LAW
Construction Zones – Requires that signs placed for highway work zone traffic control shall be promptly covered or removed when no construction is in progress. PA
Military Voting – Allows military voters to apply for military ballots by facsimile transmission or electronic mail and extends time for receipt of special federal and military ballots. LAW
Ethics and Lobbying Reform – Strengthens state ethics and lobbying laws by creating independent executive and legislative oversight entities, adding new disclosure requirements. PA
Sportsmen Fees – Increased fishing, hunting and trapping license, permit and stamp fees and raised the minimum age to obtain a lower-cost or free senior citizen license or stamp. LAW – Schimminger voted no.
Holocaust Remembrance Day – Designates January 27 as a day of commemoration to be named Holocaust Remembrance Day. LAW
Public Meeting Schedules – Requires that public bodies that have the ability must post notices of the place and time of public meetings on their Web sites. LAW
Historic Preservation – Provides a residential and commercial income tax credit for the rehabilitation of historically designated properties. LAW
Want to know where there’s highway construction? How about winter road conditions? New York State’s 511 telephone system is up and running and ready to connect travelers and commuters alike to accurate, real-time information about transportation conditions and services.
Part of a nationwide initiative that will be implemented fully in 2010, New York’s 511 system is operational now and will be continually upgraded and enhanced by the State Department of Transportation. The service is available around the clock via mobile phones and landlines and, with the www.511ny.org Web site and its TransAlert subscription program, rounds out a comprehensive information resource on travel modes ranging from bikes to buses to Boeings. Hearing-impaired New Yorkers can dial 711 for Telecommunication Relay Services (TRS) for help accessing the 511 system.
Safety reminder: Unless you are calling on a hands-free mobile phone, check road conditions before you start driving or during breaks, or let your “co-pilot” in the passenger seat access the 511 service.
While the contentious debate over health care reform proposals was being waged on the federal level this year, here in our own state we approved several new laws targeted at helping New Yorkers keep the health insurance they have and giving policyholders more protections.
The first of these allows parents’ policies to cover unmarried children up through age 29 who don’t have their own employer-provided health insurance. While the family likely will have to pay a premium for the coverage, rates should be considerably less than they would be in the individual market. This is intended to help prevent young people who have not yet landed jobs that include health insurance benefits from “aging off” their parents’ coverage and becoming uninsured. Such young adults account for a full 31 percent of uninsured New Yorkers.
A new COBRA law we passed doubles – to 36 months – the time period during which laid-off workers can purchase health insurance through their previous employers, rather than being forced into the far more costly open market. In addition, a federal change to COBRA funded by the stimulus package provides a subsidy of up to 65 percent for COBRA premiums for nine months for income-eligible New Yorkers who lost their jobs between September 1, 2008, and December 31, 2009.
Finally, we gave health insurance policyholders additional consumer rights. We added a requirement that health insurers quickly review post-hospital home health care requests and cover services until a coverage decision is made, prohibited insurers from treating an in-network provider as out-of-network just because the referring provider was out-of-network, and provided consumers with rare diseases with the right to an external appeals process. Also, beginning in 2011, a number of protections given to members of health maintenance organizations (HMOs) will be extended to those in “HMO look-alike” plans such as Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs).
I voted against the current state budget because, as I reported in my spring newsletter, it “embodied too many wrong choices, in too many ways.” Unfortunately, that assessment has since been proven more true than ever.
On October 14, the State Comptroller issued his “Cash Report” for the first half of the 2009-10 state fiscal year. In it, he estimated that if current trends were to continue and no action taken to address the shortfall, the gap between projected revenues and expenditures could reach more than $4 billion by fiscal year’s end on March 31. Not a good performance for a budget plan that was supposed to have been balanced.
But, to be fair, at least 10 other states join New York in facing current-year deficits driven by the persistent national economic downturn, and more than 30 are looking at next-year shortfalls. Still, the lower tax revenues New York is now experiencing were largely predictable in a recessionary economy with significant job losses and substantial contractions in the financial sector. Despite the imposition of new taxes and fees, general fund receipts and total tax collections are down considerably relative to both this year’s budget projections and last year’s actual revenues. As a result, the State Comptroller said, “spending promises made in the spring are not sustainable,” and the Governor proposed wide-ranging mid-year reductions in spending.
Indeed, the adoption of the 2009-10 budget was but one more in a long line of indications that reform is needed in the state’s budget process to institute fiscal responsibility. To that end, I have, since 2006, sponsored legislation that would impose fiscal discipline and restrain our state’s annual budget growth. My proposed constitutional amendment would limit the revenue growth in good years that fuels New York’s persistent structural fiscal imbalance and would create a budget stabilization fund to function as an emergency revenue stream in times of economic decline and shortfall.
The lesson of the 2009-10 budget is that bold action such as my proposed revenue cap, or the Governor’s proposed spending cap, must be taken if we are to hold the line on taxes, attract and retain businesses and jobs, and regain economic prosperity.