New York State will likely see an on-time budget again this year, but local lawmakers aren't likely to feel relief from state mandates anytime soon. And while State Sen. Tom O'Mara sees some future action on the much-maligned SAFE Act, he doesn't expect to see sales of wine in New York grocery stores anytime soon either.
O'Mara and Assemblyman Phil Palmesano spent about two hours Saturday morning talking with Yates County legislators about how issues at the state level are impacting local governments, but their conversation isn't likely to have impact on the budget talks already underway in Albany this week.
Some of the areas that were discussed in the two-hour session included:
• MANDATE RELIEF: O'Mara said mandate relief is not a priority for many other legislators, and he doesn't expect to see much happen to ease heavy-handed state requirements.
• SAFE ACT: O'Mara said Gov. Andrew Cuomo is "getting lots of push-back on the SAFE Act. O'Mara has introduced legislation to repeal the act, and noted that both he and Palmesano have been outspoken on the issue. Palmesano added, "We had an opportunity to have public discourse, unfortunately, this governor wasn't interested in doing it right. He was only interested in doing it first." On Monday, the legislature adopted a resolution seeking the repeal of the act.
• HIGHWAY FUNDS: A lengthy discussion centered on Consolidated Highway Improvement Program funds. O'Mara and Palmesano were among several lawmakers who met with highway officials from around the state earlier in the week. The legislators and local highway superintendents are calling for a CHIPS funding increase of $100 million, from $363.1 million to $463.1 million. O'Mara and Palmesano have been joined by 70 other senators and Assembly members in seeking the funds.
• REIMBURSEMENT RATES: County Administrator Sarah Purdy thanked O'Mara and Palmesano for their help in getting state payments, and asked for a better practice in general. District I Legislator Douglas Paddock pointed out that about 10 percent of the county's $40 million budget is held up in Albany. That and other proposed practices help the state's cash flow while squeezing local governments, he said. O'Mara said he's happy to help speed up payments, but agreed his intervention should not be needed in a function of the executive branch.
• PENSION COSTS: Following a discussion of Gov. Cuomo's proposal to give municipalities and schools a "flat rate" pension plan, District III legislator Mark Morris told O'Mara and Palmesano that the root problem is that public pensions are not competitive with the private sector, and a majority of taxpayers are paying for something they can't have themselves. O'Mara agreed, noting that decisions made several years ago by former Comptroller Carl McCall have created the pension problems local governments are dealing with today.
• CONTRACTS: Morris asked if there was any way state officials could help localities negotiate with bargaining units. Pointing out that Cuomo got concessions and 0 percent increases in contracts with state unions, Morris noted that Yates County officials can't achieve the same because of legal restrictions like the Taylor Law. "I'm feeling very frustrated in terms of our ability to control costs," he said, adding that bargaining units are willing to stall because the worst case scenario is continuation of the current contract under the Taylor law. Palmesano pointed out that the governor's big stick was the threat of lay-offs, and state employees are still getting their "step" increases.
Page 2 of 2 - WINE IN GROCERY STORES: O'Mara said he still has legislation for Wine in Grocery Stores, but with no support from the executive branch or the Republican Conference in the Senate, the legislation only draws groans when he brings it up. "Every legislative district except mine has more liquor stores than wineries, and frankly, there's no unanimity among wineries," he said.
CONSOLIDATIONS/MERGERS: Perhaps foreshadowing Monday's legislative action in Yates and Schuyler Counties, Purdy said it would be extremely helpful if there were some relaxations of regulations "so we can approach things on a regional basis." She said every county is required to have a "lock-up" and a jail. and Yates County is beginning to look more at neighboring counties to see what can be done to accomplish economies of scale.
HYDRAULIC FRACTURING: Jack Ossont, a former legislator and an anti-fracking activist, asked O'Mara's opinion of the Assembly's moratorium on fracking. O'Mara said he opposes the moratorium because there is already one in place and he looks to the state department of environmental conservation (DEC) and department of health (DOH) for guidance. Palmesano said he voted against the moratorium because it also dealt with other types of drilling in the state.