Thursday, January 24, 2008

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Northern Westchester Bureau Chief
Catherine Wilson

Westchester’s Albany Contingent Responds To State Of The State

Each year in January, the Governor gives a “State of the State” address to the members of the Legislature. This speech outlines the issues
the governor considers to be paramount for New York and sets the tone and goals for the upcoming budget. In his State of the State Address on January 9, 2008, Governor Spitzer covered a variety of issues. Chief among his concerns was education, especially our colleges and universities in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. Spitzer encouraged the legislature to adopt the recommendations of the 2007 Commission on Higher Education: Over the next five years, we must hire 2,000 new full-time faculty members for SUNY and CUNY, including 250 eminent scholars – the type of professors whose research draws grants and collaboration from around the globe, and whose stature lifts entire campuses.

We must create an Innovation Fund for cutting-edge research at New York’s public and private colleges, similar to the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. Supercharging cutting-edge academic research will also supercharge our innovation

We must invest in our community colleges, which train New York-ers for high-skilled jobs and serve as the gateway to four-year colleges.
For the community college students who want to continue their education by transferring to four-year SUNY and CUNY schools, we will
make the process simple and seamless, and give them full credit for the academic courses they have successfully completed.

In addition to the above, Spitzer is proposing flagship medical and research universities at Buffalo and Stony Brook in the areas of cancer, neurobiology, plant genetics, and bioinformatics. Spitzer sees this as a “chance for New York to lead the world”. The Governor acknowledges that this expansion of the SUNY system will not be without cost and is proposing unlocking some of the value of the New York State Lottery: “either by taking in private investment or looking at other financing alternatives”. Spitzer also advocated making health care affordable, especially coverage for children:

“In my upcoming Executive Budget, I will propose that New York State fully fund the expansion of our Children’s Health Insurance Program. I know many in this chamber care passionately about this issue and will join me. There will be affordable coverage for every single child in this State.”

The governor also addressed the lack of medical care in the urban areas and poorer sections of our state. He is proposing the creation of
a program called “Doctors Across New York” which will offer grants to repay education loans for doctors who move to the State’s medically underserved areas. Spitzer highlighted the initial success of the state’s $600 million Stem Cell Research fund which was initiated in 2007 and already operational in several research facilities across the state, including New York Medical College in Valhalla.

The governor also encouraged prevention of chronic diseases, especially in our state’s children. To that end, Spitzer is proposing the Healthy Schools Act” to take junk food out of our schools – a proposal set forth by local Chappaqua doctor, Susan Rubin, as reported in The Guardian last December. Chief among the concerns of New Yorkers are high property taxes – Westchester now has the distinction of having the highest property taxes in the nation. Spitzer acknowledged this problem and noted that the current rebate check program may “temporarily ease the pain, but it doesn’t cure the disease”. He is proposing a bipartisan commission to study the issue from a threepoint

First, a package of reforms that gets at the root causes of what is driving taxes so high. This should include a look at unfunded mandates on both school districts and municipalities. Because school district property taxes account for about two-thirds of all property taxes, the commission must also identify ways to maintain our commitment to the highest quality education at a more affordable cost.

Second, proposals on how to make our tax relief system fairer to the middle class taxpayer. And third, a proposal for a fair and effective cap – to hold the line on sky high school district property taxes once and for all. In addition to keeping property taxes down, the governor also proposed a series of cost-cutting measures from improvements in the workers’ compensation system to energy conservation methods
of “smart metering” for consumer appliances to generation of solar and wind power.

The governor’s proposals also included some new spending measures – a billion dollar “Upstate Revitalization Fund” and an investment in the infrastructure in the state. Spitzer emphasized the $500 million investment in Stewart Airport and improvements to the New York City transit system.

Lastly, the governor’s speech addressed quality of life issues, among them affordable housing, public safety, and public spaces. A new “I Live New York” program seeks to build jobs and create “livable communities”. Spitzer is proposing $400 million for a “Housing Opportunity Fund”, support for law enforcement including a full DNA databank, and $100 million to revitalize the state’s aging parks.

Given the breath of the governor’s address, and the variety of issues it covers, The Guardian asked our local state representatives for their reaction and how the governor’s proposals will affect their constituents. Sandy Galef, Democrat NYS Assemblywoman for the 90th District, commented at length with The Guardian on several of the governor’s proposals. As the chairwoman of the Real Property Tax committee
in Albany, Galef was especially heartened that the governor made the reduction of property taxes a priority. Galef said “the high cost of living is the greatest concern” for her constituents and that we need to “share or merge our local governments to reduce costs”. However, Galef proposed an alternative to the current STAR program. “I would prefer a ‘circuit breaker’ program which would base property tax rebates on earnings and how much is spent on property taxes” Galef said. She believes the ‘circuit breaker’ rebate approach would benefit those taxpayers who are spending a greater portion of their income on property taxes. In addition, Galef was supportive of the governor’s proposal to offer energy incentives. She is proposing to “make Westchester the pilot project” for smart metering to reduce energy costs for local residents.

Chief among Galef ’s priorities was the Healthy Schools Program. “I want to require better meals for our children in schools” Galef said and
noted that she has already been working with Dr. Susan Rubin in Northern Westchester schools to promote healthy eating for our children.
Galef agreed with the need for improvements in the SUNY system but also called for “accountability of education funds” and supported the Comptroller’s push for state audits of school spending, including audits of charter schools since they “utilize state funding”. Lastly, Galef supported the expansion of the Child Health Plus program but also wants to continue providing lower insurance for businesses through
the Healthy New York program. “I believe we should track Massachusetts’ program where everyone is provided health insurance from a pool at lower cost to see if a similar program would work for New York” Galef said. She noted that one of the biggest medical issues for her constituents were difficulties with dealing with insurance companies and advocated the use of “electronic health records” to
ease problems and lower costs.

The Chair of the State’s Finance Committee, Vincent Liebell, Republican NYS Senator for the 40th District, also spoke with The Guardian
at length on the governor’s address. Like Ms. Galef, Liebell said he was “pleased that the governor addressed property taxes since this is
the most pressing issue for New York” and was encouraged by the tone of the governor’s address. Liebell said, “I am hopeful and willing to
make changes. We all have a role in our government, from elected of-ficials to constituents to the governor”.

Liebell noted that the property tax issue is “the number one priority” and if not addressed, will “break the back of New York”. “If this is not corrected”, Liebell said, “the middle class will leave”. He wants the governor’s property tax commission to “report back quickly”. Liebell noted that the Senate already passed legislation in both 2006 and 2007 to resolve the school tax issue and believes these pending legislations would help the commission resolve this issue.

Second among Liebell’s concerns was the need for infrastructure and he supported the proposed improvements for our roads, mass transit, and particularly Stewart Airport which he believes will “put money into our area”. Liebell also strongly supports the improvements to the SUNY system to make New York more competitive. “Our competitors are no longer sister states” Liebell said. “We are now competing with the world and if we’re not doing something, our competitors will be doing it. We have to enact laws and make changes at a faster rate than previous administrations”.

Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Democrat 35th District, agreed with her fellow legislators that high property taxes was her constituents’ greatest concern and was heartened that all of the NYS legislators were “on the same page”. Stewart-Cousins noted: “the governor laid out a broad sweeping agenda”. She was encouraged to see that her constituents’ concerns of “lowering property taxes, educational opportunities, health care for all, and providing doctors to underserved communities” were all addressed in Spitzer’s speech. “The fact that we are talking about some of these issues is important” Stewart-Cousins said. “Some of these issues, like creating affordable housing, haven’t been addressed by the state in years”.

Chief among Stewart-Cousins interests is educational opportunities and school taxes. She noted that she is holding a forum with local school
superintendents later this month to flesh out ideas and discuss issues. “We’ve got to find another way and a better way to fund our education
system” Stewart-Cousins said. “We are in a global society so we need to provide opportunities”. But she cautioned that “We have to create a more level playing field” in the area of school property taxes. Stewart-Cousins noted that we “need to find answers sooner rather than later”.

Greg Ball, Republican NYS Assemblyman for the 99th District, had a different view of the governor’s address. “The governor was elected
on a mandate by the people to reform Albany” Ball said. Ball was disappointed that Governor Spitzer seems to have backed down from reforming Albany in his speech. Agreeing with his fellow representatives that property taxes are the major issue, Ball wants to “cap taxes like in Massachusetts” and has co-sponsored the “Taxpayers’ Protection Act”. However, Ball was disappointed that the State of the State Address did not mention the governor’s failed proposal for providing drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. Ball said “It is interesting that (he) did not mention this”. Ball also said that Spitzer’s mandate for reforming Albany was “awkwardly missing” from his address.

As of press time, Assemblyman Adam Bradley, Democrat 89th District, and Senator Suzi Oppenheimer, Democrat, 37th District, had not
responded to The Guardian’s requests for comments. Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, Democrat 92nd District did respond to The Guardian’s request for comments with the following statement: “It was a good speech, delivered well, with the right tone. There was a marked absence of how to pay for all of the good things the Governor wants to be able to do so we will not be able to answer your question of how the State of the State will impact our area until we see the budget”. Since the State of the State Address sets the tone and the goals for
the governor’s budget, its full impact will not be known until the Executive Budget is proposed next month.

Northern Westchester Round-Up

Armonk: • IBM announced that it was granted 3,125 patents in 2007, the highest in the U.S. The computer company has received the highest
number of U.S. patents every year for the past 15 years.

Mount Kisco: •The Town H all announced that it will accept preliminary applications for a waiting list for Section 8 housing from January
28 to February 1. Applications may be obtained from the Mount Kisco Housing Authority at 200 Carpenter Avenue.

Peekskill: • Fundraisers at Hendrick Hudson High School generated more than $6,000 for the family of slain student Justin Woodward. Woodward was stabbed to death earlier this month. The proceeds of the fundraisers were donated to Woodward’s mother at a local basketball game last week.

Sleepy Hollow: •The FBI has subpoenaed the personnel files of several members of the Sleepy Hollow Police Department. The FBI is
investigating the department for possible cases of police brutality and misconduct.

– Catherine Wilson

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