GOP says bud­get re­flects loss of up­state inf lu­ence

More state aid is headed down­state

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Tom Pre­cious

AL­BANY – The be­lief that Al­bany was go­ing to be po­lit­i­cally trans­formed when the state govern­ment be­came all Demo­cratic-run was quickly es­tab­lished when the takeover be­came of­fi­cial in Jan­uary.

New abortion pro­tec­tions, tougher gun con­trol laws, col­lege aid for un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, ex­panded rights for trans­gen­der New York­ers and new le­gal av­enues for vic­tims of child sex­ual abuse were among the long-stalled items to pass.

The first and most im­por­tant fis­cal test of this new Demo­cratic hege­mony has now been met with the re­cent pas­sage of a new, $175.5 bil­lion state bud­get.

A key ques­tion lingers, how­ever, in the bud­get de­lib­er­a­tions’ af­ter­math: Is up­state a loser or win­ner?

Democrats say they carved new pri­or­i­ties into the bud­get – “ad­vanc­ing New York val­ues” is how they termed it – with an em­pha­sis on trans­porta­tion in­fras­truc­ture im­prove­ments, a ban on plas­tic bags, big en­vi­ron­men­tal spend­ing, new pro­tec­tions for crim­i­nal de­fen­dants and cod­i­fy­ing the fed­eral Af­ford­able Care Act, known as Oba­macare, into state law.

Democrats say that in the face of budgetary strains brought on by de­clin­ing in­come tax rev­enues, they still were able to create a school aid pot that grows faster than in­fla­tion and re­stored a num­ber of health care cuts that were on the ta­ble at one point.

But Repub­li­cans, now firmly in the mi­nor­ity in both houses, por­tray a dif­fer­ent new fis­cal plan – one that shows Democrats were ea­ger to grab the spoils that came with their po­lit­i­cal vic­to­ries last fall.

Up­state, they say, takes the hit.

It is a bud­get, the GOP says, with a New York City-cen­tric tilt, from a big per­cent­age hike for the city’s pub­lic school sys­tem com­pared with many other dis­tricts while not in­creas­ing fund­ing for road and bridge repairs up­state and cut­ting up­state pro­grams af­fect­ing ev­ery­thing from agri­cul­tural re­search ef­forts to veter­ans ser­vices pro­grams. Repub­li­cans say school aid in­creases were smaller in their sub­ur­ban and ru­ral dis­tricts com­pared with what many Demo­cratic law­mak­ers were able to bring home.

“Those con­stituents who ben­e­fit from those pro­grams are Democrats and Repub­li­cans and in­de­pen­dents. They shouldn’t have to pay a price

from some­one who wants to ex­tract a po­lit­i­cal price in the bud­get,” said Sen. Rob Ortt, a North Ton­awanda Re­pub­li­can. Sour grapes, say Democrats. “We ac­tu­ally in­vested more in up­state New York than our Re­pub­li­can col­leagues had,” said Sen. Liz Krueger, a Man­hat­tan Demo­crat and chair­woman of the pow­er­ful Se­nate Finance Com­mit­tee.

Krueger ac­cused Repub­li­cans of cherry-pick­ing items in the new bud­get to re­play their “clas­sic stereo­type” that New York City ben­e­fits at the ex­pense of other re­gions. “Frankly, it’s never been true, and it’s not true now that we are in power,” she said.

The state bud­get is in­ten­tion­ally made to be too com­plex for most to un­der­stand. But one math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tion is sim­ple: There is only a frac­tion of law­mak­ers from up­state in the ma­jor­ity party in the State Se­nate com­pared to the same time a year ago.

A year ago, 19 Re­pub­li­can se­na­tors from up­state ar­eas were in the ma­jor­ity – putting them in the front seat, with Assem­bly Democrats and Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo, when it came to bud­get de­ci­sions. When the GOP was ousted from Se­nate con­trol, three Se­nate Democrats from that same re­gion are in the ma­jor­ity party, with the ma­jor­ity of the 39-mem­ber Demo­cratic con­fer­ence hail­ing from New York City or its ad­join­ing sub­ur­ban coun­ties.

Repub­li­cans say that new math played out in the bud­get.

School aid fund­ing was con­tentious fight

Con­sider Foun­da­tion Aid, the cat­e­gory of state aid to 700 school dis­tricts that helps fund school op­er­at­ing costs. In the new bud­get adopted April 1, it rose $618 mil­lion, or 3.5 per­cent. That was the same dol­lar amount in­crease as the pre­vi­ous year.

But Repub­li­cans say Democrats un­fairly treated dis­tricts in sub­ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas rep­re­sented by GOP law­mak­ers. In Erie County, where most sub­ur­ban dis­tricts are rep­re­sented by GOP se­na­tors, the Foun­da­tion Aid num­ber rose 2.8 per­cent. Much of that was driven by Buf­falo, which saw a 3.6 per­cent bump in that pot.

Many sub­ur­ban dis­tricts in Erie County rep­re­sented by GOP se­na­tors, though, got Foun­da­tion Aid in­creases in far lesser amounts; in a num­ber of cases, the aid rose less than 1 per­cent. One dis­trict did well with that aid cat­e­gory: Lack­awanna. It is rep­re­sented in Al­bany by Sen. Tim Kennedy and Assem­bly­man Sean Ryan, both Democrats from Buf­falo.

Four of the school dis­tricts rep­re­sented by Sen. Chris Ja­cobs, a Buf­falo Re­pub­li­can, were in that un­der 1 per­cent cat­e­gory.

“This after months of procla­ma­tions and prom­ises of dra­matic in­creases from the new ma­jor­ity,” Ja­cobs said.

Dis­tricts in Westch­ester County – home to the new Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader, Andrea Ste­wart-Cousins, and Se­nate Ed­u­ca­tion Chair­woman Shel­ley Mayer – saw a 5.2 per­cent Foun­da­tion Aid in­crease. New York City schools? Up 4.4 per­cent.

Last year, sub­ur­ban school dis­tricts in Erie County re­ceived an ex­tra $10.9 mil­lion in Foun­da­tion Aid, ac­cord­ing to Sen. Michael Ranzen­hofer, an Amherst Re­pub­li­can. This year they got a $7.3 mil­lion hike.

“New York City’s gain was our res­i­dents’ loss,” said Ranzen­hofer, adding that lo­cal dis­tricts will have to cut planned spend­ing or seek higher lo­cal prop­erty tax lev­els.

Democrats counter that the all-Demo­cratic Al­bany has shifted pri­or­i­ties on a num­ber of fronts, es­pe­cially ar­eas they say Repub­li­cans long ne­glected. Poorer, ur­ban schools did do bet­ter un­der the Democrats in the new bud­get be­cause, they say, the needs are greater. More­over, they say the over­all school fund­ing pot – be­yond just the main Foun­da­tion Aid – will rise by $1 bil­lion, or 3.8 per­cent, and help all re­gions of the state.

“The fund­ing went to com­mu­ni­ties that needed it most,” Kennedy said, adding that mak­ing the prop­erty tax cap per­ma­nent in law will have an es­pe­cially im­por­tant im­pact for up­state res­i­dents over the com­ing years.

Democrats main­tain up­state wasn’t ig­nored

The bud­get iden­ti­fies rev­enue sources – even­tu­ally worth $25 bil­lion – for New York City sub­way and sub­ur­ban rail in­fras­truc­ture im­prove­ments be­cause, they say, the sys­tems have been long-ne­glected.

The Ni­a­gara Fron­tier Trans­porta­tion Author­ity has got­ten a prom­ise of $106 mil­lion in new cap­i­tal money from the state to de­vote to its de­te­ri­o­rat­ing light rail sys­tem. The NFTA, and other up­state tran­sit agen­cies, will get a new fund­ing stream for op­er­at­ing ex­penses cour­tesy of a new sales tax on up­state auto rentals. Kennedy said that fund­ing will be “trans­for­ma­tive” to im­prove light rail and bus ser­vice across the re­gion in Demo­cratic and Re­pub­li­can dis­tricts.

Kennedy ac­knowl­edged added fund­ing get­ting steered to Buf­falo, for pro­grams such as com­mu­nity schools, but said sub­ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas rep­re­sented by Repub­li­cans also get fund­ing to help with trans­porta­tion ser­vices for peo­ple to get to med­i­cal ap­point­ments, in-home ser­vices for the el­derly, child care fund­ing and added money for con­nect­ing opi­oid ad­dicts with treat­ment.

Democrats also say they wish the bud­get did of­fer more. “I will say that, for me, be­ing the ma­jor­ity leader at a time with a mul­ti­ple bil­lion deficit, it’s not a great feel­ing,” said Assem­bly Ma­jor­ity Leader Crys­tal Peo­ples-Stokes, a Buf­falo Demo­crat. “I’d rather be ma­jor­ity leader at a time with a sur­plus so there was more to share.”

Hav­ing said that, she added, it’s to be ex­pected that Repub­li­cans now out of power will com­plain about a bud­get they had no con­trol over. “The process de­cided there should be less Repub­li­cans in lead­er­ship and that there should be more Democrats. Com­plain about that all day long, but that’s the process,” she said.

In Buf­falo last week, Cuomo spent 30 min­utes in a speech go­ing through all the var­i­ous spend­ing ini­tia­tives in the bud­get for West­ern New York. Some of the spend­ing is new, some old. He talked of money for cul­tural groups, which are reg­u­lar re­cip­i­ents of state aid each year, as well as fund­ing for devel­op­ment on the East Side of Buf­falo and money to con­sider op­tions for Buf­falo’s Sky­way.

“This is the most ag­gres­sive plan we’ve ever done for Buf­falo,” Cuomo said as part of a post-bud­get vic­tory tour he takes each spring.

GOP says bud­get hits up­state

But Repub­li­cans say Democrats are gloss­ing over cuts to var­i­ous up­state-cen­tered pro­grams.

Ortt said the new bud­get elim­i­nates or re­duces 18 agri­cul­ture-re­lated pro­grams, af­fect­ing ev­ery­thing from agri­cul­tural re­search to vet­eri­nar­ian di­ag­nos­tic an­i­mal health care and a ra­bies pro­gram.

Ortt said the bud­get also trims a num­ber of vet­er­an­sre­lated pro­grams in up­state, in­clud­ing those pro­vid­ing var­i­ous men­tal health, sui­cide-pre­ven­tion and jobs-re­lated ser­vices. Hardest hit, he said, is a veter­ans pro­gram for the Fin­ger Lakes re­gion.

Gal­li­van said the new bud­get will force lo­cal­i­ties to turn to prop­erty tax­pay­ers for a greater share of road and bridge repairs, and pro­grams he got funded in the past – from an al­ter­na­tives to in­car­cer­a­tion ini­tia­tive to lo­cal do­mes­tic vi­o­lence agen­cies – will be cut.

Repub­li­cans slammed an ex­panded sales tax ef­fort af­fect­ing on­line con­sumers us­ing sites like eBay; only a part of the rev­enues col­lected will go to coun­ties and most of it – es­ti­mated at $320 mil­lion a year – will go to help fund down­state sub­way and train im­prove­ments.

The bud­get is also silent, GOP se­na­tors say, on a $65 mil­lion pro­gram de­signed to help lo­cal­i­ties fix crumbling roads after ex­treme weather, such as this year’s win­ter that saw much freez­ing and thaw­ing con­di­tions that have af­fected roads across the state.

Se­nate Democrats relish the irony of com­plaints com­ing from Se­nate Repub­li­cans – who for decades were the ones mak­ing closed-door de­ci­sions that ben­e­fited their dis­tricts over Demo­cratic law­mak­ers in the cham­ber.

Se­nate Democrats say they also re­stored fund­ing pro­posed to be cut for cities, towns and vil­lages across the state. They note up­state’s de­cline over the decades came dur­ing Se­nate GOP con­trol.

“We un­der­stand we are one New York,” Murphy said.

Good and bad for up­state

The head of one up­state group, whose mem­bers in­clude sev­eral Buf­falo busi­ness or­ga­ni­za­tions, praised Se­nate Democrats for pass­ing a bill in Jan­uary to make the state’s prop­erty tax cap pro­gram per­ma­nent in statute – and then for en­sur­ing with Cuomo that it was part of the fi­nal bud­get deal. “We cer­tainly ap­pre­ci­ate that,” said Michael Kracker, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Un­shackle Up­state.

Not ap­pre­ci­ated, though, was pas­sage of two ma­jor tax and fee hikes that the group has, un­til now, blocked for years. One will boost taxes by $128 mil­lion on em­ploy­ers who pur­chase en­ergy through en­ergy ser­vice com­pa­nies. “Busi­nesses up­state will be pay­ing sig­nif­i­cantly more for en­ergy costs,” Kracker said.

Also, he said, right-of-way fees – ex­pected to to­tal $200 mil­lion – can be now be levied by the state on telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pa­nies look­ing to put fiber op­tic ca­bles on state land. Be­sides hik­ing busi­ness costs, Un­shackle Up­state fears it will put a chilling ef­fect on broad­band ex­pan­sion in un­der­served up­state.

When Repub­li­cans con­trolled the Se­nate, cap­i­tal fund­ing for New York City’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Trans­porta­tion Author­ity was of­ten linked to up­state trans­porta­tion needs. “No doubt this bud­get put a significant ef­fort on the MTA. I don’t think we heard enough about up­state in­fras­truc­ture needs,” Kracker said.

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