ELIZABETHTOWN - State lawmakers from the North Country say improving New York's economy tops their 2013 agenda, although they also expect issues like mandate relief and gun control to be hot topics in Albany.
State Sen. Betty Little and Assemblyman Dan Stec, both Republicans from Queensbury, attended Monday's Essex County Board of Supervisors organizational meeting, and they both promised to work with local leaders to improve the business climate. So did Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, R-Peru, gave a similar message in a press release Monday afternoon, saying she thinks 2013 will be "another year of positive change."
Stec was elected to New York's 114th Assembly District this past fall, replacing longtime Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, who retired at the end of 2012. His district includes all of Essex and Warren counties, and parts of Saratoga and Washington counties. Little represents New York's 45th Senate District, which encompasses a broad region that includes Essex County and much of the Adirondack Park. Duprey's 115th Assembly District includes all of Clinton and Franklin counties, plus four towns in St. Lawrence County.
Newly-elected Assemblyman Dan Stec, right, is sworn in Tuesday by Troy City Court Judge Matthew J. Turner, left. Stec, a Republican from Queensbury, is joined, from right, by Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, his parents, George and Elsie Stec, his wife, Hilary, and his son, Peter.
Stec previously served as supervisor of the town of Queensbury and chairman of the Warren County Board of Supervisors. He told the board Monday he understands the difficulties of putting together a town and county budget, and he'll do whatever he can in Albany to help Essex County as it continues to grapple with financial challenges, including the state's property tax cap.
"I like to think that I'm bringing that knowledge and that experience with me," Stec said. "I thought it was important to remind you all of that: that I know where I came from and I sat in your chairs and I know how difficult that is."
Little told supervisors that she thinks the North Country's economy is trending upward, especially since the North Country Regional Economic Development Council received a windfall of $90.2 million in December. In 2012, the council got more than $100 million from the state.
"Certainly, one of the benefits of that economic development council is money," Little said, "but a bigger one is the fact that we in the North Country - St. Lawrence, Jefferson, Lewis, Clinton, Franklin, Essex, Hamilton County - are really working together and beginning to understand each other's issues and appreciate the fact that we are all one."
Tax cap issues
Following the meeting, Stec told the Enterprise that the best thing the state Legislature can do to assist local governments struggling with the tax cap is to improve the business climate, which would help to increase revenue for counties, towns, village and school districts.
Counties like Essex have been struggling to deal with the state's property tax cap. Faced with a big tax levy hike during last year's budget process, the Essex County Board of Supervisors opted to allocate more fund balance and increase projected revenues rather than increase taxes. But many of those fixes were temporary and won't provide long-term relief.
Stec said the state has a long history of using "one-shots and gimmicks" to present balanced budgets. He said the tax cap has forced local governments to do the same thing.
"With the tax cap and the lack of mandate relief, you are forcing counties and school districts into a situation where they're going to use one-shots," Stec said. "They're going to use more fund balance. They're going to use the sale of property. They're going to use a cut in a budget area that you can make the cut once, and you can't make that cut again the following year. So sooner or later, all the cuts are going to be made; all the fund balances will be dried up, and for some municipalities, it's already happening. And others, it's just a matter of time."
The solution, Stec said, is mandate relief, although he recognizes that every mandate is in place because a particular group lobbied for it. He said it will take "political will" to tackle the unfunded mandate problem, but in the meantime, lawmakers must work to foster a better business climate.
"The state needs to help the local municipalities identify what are your needs versus wants and get back to the basics and struggle through until the economy comes back," he said.
Stec said a better economy will translate to more revenue for local government.
"If the revenue side comes back, that will offset these growing expenditures," he said. "I think the energy could be best spent working on growing the revenue side by growing the economy - not necessarily by just raising everyone's taxes, but just having more people paying into the system because there's a better economy. And again, that goes to regulatory environment and the expense side of state government."
Little, who is a member of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Mandate Relief Council, said several pieces of mandate relief legislation are in the works already. One proposed bill would let school districts establish a reserve account to help pay for teacher pensions. The council also has grants for municipalities that are exploring shared services.
In the wake of the mass-murder shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., Cuomo has called for an all-out ban on assault weapons in New York. Republicans in the state Senate, meanwhile, have instead proposed stiffer penalties for illegal gun possession.
Duprey, in a phone interview Tuesday, said her email inbox has been flooded with messages from people on both sides of the issue.
"I'm continuing to hear from people who certainly have very strong opinions," she said, "those who don't want to see anything done, or very little done, to those who want to see an all-out, permanent ban on assault rifles. At this point, I'm somewhere in the middle."
"I prefer that everyone keep the correct mindset here," Stec said. "Certainly it was a tragedy, what happened in Connecticut, but the places I think to look would have to include mental health issues and our culture of violence. I think that there's a rush to point to that tragedy and then hurry to give away constitutional rights."
Little said it's imperative that guns be kept out of the hands of criminals. She added that the state needs to provide more support for people with mental health issues.
"People who are in the system can call and get some help," Little said, "but people that are not in the system ... it's difficult. I think that we've got to open that up so that the stigma is not there so that people do seek help."
Duprey said she can't understand the need for large-capacity ammunition clips for handguns and rifles. She said she hopes the Assembly will address gun control without infringing on the rights of sportsmen.
"We always run the danger, in government, of swinging so far from one side of the pendulum to the other," Duprey said. "We certainly have to do something. One more life is one more too many."
Cuomo is expected to address gun control in his State of the State speech, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. today.
Senate committee appointments are expected to be released next week. The Assembly, meanwhile, has already made committee appointments.
Stec will serve as ranking minority member for the Environmental Conservation Committee, and he's been appointed to the Tourism, Banks, Social Services and Local Government committees.
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb appointed Duprey as the Minority Conference secretary, and she will continue to serve as ranking minority member for the Government Operations Committee. She is also a member of the committees on Corrections, Ethics and Guidance, Higher Education, Rules, and Ways and Means.
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.