It may have been nearly 10 days late, but with the passage of the state's $153.1 billion state budget late Sunday night, North Country legislators are content with the final product.
Longtime North Country state representative Sen. Betty Little views the 2017-18 budget as one that funds several issues important to the region. She pointed to the largest investment in clean water infrastructure in state history, workers' compensation reform to reduce costs for businesses and the expansion of ride-sharing services upstate as wins for North Country people.
"It took a little longer to reach an agreement than I wanted," she said. "The disagreements were substantial and the compromises reached in many areas reflect the challenges of governing in a diverse state. Overall, this budget accomplishes a lot of good."
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury
The $2.5 billion for water infrastructure covers $1 billion for the 2015 Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, $150 million for inter-municipal infrastructure grants, $245 million for water quality improvement grants, $75 million for septic and cesspool replacement, and $100 million for municipal water quality infrastructure programs.
Little and other state senators were in Albany late into Palm Sunday working until past 10 p.m. on the budget after the state Assembly approved budget bills Saturday. For the nine days prior, the state had been operating on an extension of last year's budget that was passed April 3. But since the April 1 beginning of the new fiscal year, without an adopted 2017-18 budget, legislators could not get paid until a new spending plan was approved.
Like Little, her fellow Republican North Country Assemblyman Dan Stec was critical of the budget approval process and disapproved of several items passed in final bill. Stec, who represents the state's 114th district spanning from Glens Falls in the south to the northern border of Essex County, described the process as one full of dysfunction and a lack of transparency.
"(It's) been extremely disheartening," he said in a statement issued Saturday. "This budget contains too many controversial issues that are not budgetary, crammed into bills that should only contain revenues and expenditures. It slowed the process and caused the major bill to be printed in the middle of the night, debated Saturday without adequate time for the public to vet the bill.
"I cannot support a bill that contains 'Raise the Age,' which will allow criminals the opportunity to receive a lesser penalty in family court while burdening our counties with additional costs," Stec continued. "I was unhappy to see the governor's Free College Tuition Program included in the final budget, as this will be an additional cost to taxpayers. I was also disappointed to see the lack of necessary fixes to the (New York State School Tax Relief Program) that were proposed in both the Assembly and Senate one-house budget proposals."
Franklin County's representative in the Assembly, first-year Democratic Assemblyman Billy Jones, felt the budget will do much to progress the lives of North Country families. He namely highlighted improvements to North Country roads and bridges, investments in public education and addressing the "skills gap" here in the region.
Jones singled out the Empire State Apprenticeship Program, a budget item that has a goal of helping young adults become skilled workers in high-demand fields such as nursing, agriculture, advanced manufacturing and information technology.
"The North Country has good-paying jobs that can lift New Yorkers out of poverty," Jones said in a statement issued late Sunday night. "But we have a severe shortage of qualified candidates. This apprenticeship program funnels young adults who have in-demand skills into businesses who desperately need them. It's a win-win."
As for capital funding, Jones applauded the budget's inclusion of $100 million for SUNY campuses, $140,000 for the North Country Chamber of Commerce for operation costs and $200,000 for the chamber toward the North American Center for Excellence in transportation, job creators in Plattsburgh and Champlain. The budget also includes $70 million for the I Love New York program, something Jones cheered.
Details on exactly when peer-to-peer car services such as Uber and Lyft will expand to exact locations upstate are still to be determined and will have to wait for Cuomo's signature, but Little, Jones and others applauded the expansion of the services to the upstate.
July will be the beginning of the roll-out upstate, and Jones believes it will be a "huge" step forward for the North Country's transportation needs. He also claimed the expansion is anticipated to bring in $16 million in revenue for the state general fund through a four-percent tax.
"It's convenient for residents, helps hardworking families earn a little extra money, boosts our economy and could even reduce the number of DUIs we see," he said
Little said the passage of ride-sharing will boost tourism and create new jobs.
Jones was highly complimentary of the budget's $65 million increase to the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Program (CHIPs) and Pave NY, which helps local governments pay for road and bridge improvements without charging taxpayers. Little said the new annual total will be $503 million for 2017-18.
Jones on agriculture
The freshman Assemblyman and former dairy farmer also applauded the 25-percent tax credit for farmers to donate to food banks. He said this will help them save money while also providing local families better access to local and healthy food.
Jones also singled-out that he helped to restore $215,000 in funding to promote maple syrup, something he said will particularly help Clinton County, the state's leading producer.
Heroin and opioids
The 2017-18 budget increases funding to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic by $33 million to a total of $203 million. The funding will go to treatment and programs such as family support navigators, peer supports, recovery clubhouses, community coalitions and 24/7 crisis centers. The budget also includes $10 million in additional capital support to increase the number of beds in in-patient treatment facilities.
The budget bill approved a whopping $2 million for repairs to the Whispering Maples Memorial Gardens mausoleums in the towns of Plattsburgh and Ellenburg, an appropriation secured by Little. The mausoleums are in a state of disrepair and were turned over to the towns, though Little said the municipalities lacked proper resources.
"What has happened at Whispering Maples is disgraceful," she said. "Those interred and their families deserved much better than a business being run into the ground and the mausoleums being neglected as they have."
"Senator Little advocated strongly for this and I was happy to support her initiative in the Assembly," Jones said. "This much-needed funding will go a long way to help the towns in this effort."
Jones said he was happy to see the inclusion of $150,000 for services and expenses of a road salt study in the Adirondacks included in the final budget. He said many constituents and local officials have expressed concerns that salt has contaminated streams, lakes and water supplies.
He also worked to secure $250,000 for Older Adults Technology Services to help seniors use technology to improve their quality of life and become more civically engaged.
And Jones brought up how the budget also includes an increase in funding for Aid and Incentives for Municipalities funding without the consolidation agreement, which he said was important to area families.
"The North Country spoke up and Albany heard," Jones said. "But we have to keep fighting to make sure our land is protected, our water is safe and our community is taken care of."