As Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted tax breaks, the economy and education reform in his fourth annual State of the State speech, people in the North Country heard things they like and also things that raised questions.
Cuomo hailed his first three years in office as a turning point for New York's economy, and applauded the state government's ability during that time to pass budgets on time, reduce unemployment and welcome new businesses.
Cuomo also unleashed a slew of proposals - some new, some not-so-new - and said it was time to keep moving New York forward.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers the State of the State address Wednesday in Albany. Behind him are state officials and the flags of some of New York’s 62 counties.
(Photo — Darren McGee, Office of the Governor)
Among those proposals were a $2 billion bond referendum to update technology in public schools, cutting the corporate tax rate in upstate New York, a circuit breaker tax credit for low- and middle-income homeowners and implementing two-year property tax freeze for local governments that contain taxes and try to consolidate with others.
Cuomo singled out the North Country and said it's a different place than it was three years ago. He gave a shout-out to a new, $35 million collaboration between Saranac Lake and Clarkson University and also stated his approval of the proposed Interstate 98 "Rooftop Highway" between Champlain and Watertown along U.S. Route 11. He said it would reduce travel time and speed up commerce.
"We've been hearing about it for years," Cuomo said. "Let's see if we can get DOT to do a study and make this project happen."
Assemblywoman Janet Duprey applauded Cuomo's proposals regarding tax breaks and education, but she said state officials should tread carefully when considering the Rooftop Highway.
"There's a study there that they can dust off and add to and make it more appropriate to today's economic growth," Duprey said. "I think it would help the transportation of commerce, without a doubt, in getting truckers back and forth quicker."
Duprey said there's another side to a Rooftop Highway, though. When she was young, her family used to travel down U.S. Route 9 to visit her dad's family in New York City.
"My concern is, I go up and down the Northway now, and I see some of the small communities where we used to stop: Schroon Lake, Newcomb, North Hudson," Duprey said. "Some of these areas where we used to pull off and get lunch or have dinner have lost a lot with the Northway because people aren't stopping anymore. I think we have so many great, small towns in Franklin County, certainly with their history, and they have so many great things going for them. People get on these superhighways and just go from point A to point B."
Duprey said a feasibility study would have to address all of the advantages and the disadvantages of the highway, including how it would be paid for.
"If the federal government doesn't contribute to the cost, I don't see any way New York state taxpayers can afford it," Duprey said.
Overall, Duprey said the highway is a project worth looking at.
"Cautious optimism is what I'd say," Duprey said. "I think probably it has more benefits than not, but I think we'd be misrepresenting it if we said it would be all good."
Cuomo used the speech to announce a fourth round of Regional Economic Development Grants, and he also cited "a new hotel in Saranac Lake." The state has pledged $7 million to two Saranac Lake hotel projects: a new one and a renovation of the Hotel Saranac.
"We've done well with those (grants), we've been in the top five the last three rounds, and I have every reason to believe we'll do well in the fourth round," Duprey said. "That's how we've gotten funding for so many of these projects, so I'm very pleased to see that continue."
Attracting businesses to the state was a major topic during Cuomo's speech. He said businesses have been fleeing in part because of the 7.1 percent corporate tax rate and proposed lowering that to 6.5 percent. Cuomo also suggested passing a manufacturers tax credit, good for 20 percent of a firm's property tax liability.
Cuomo proposed giving homeowners a break, too. A proposed property tax circuit breaker would provide $1 billion in tax relief to low- and middle-income homeowners who earn up to $200,000 a year. Those homeowners would pay an effective real property tax rate relative to income that exceeds their income tax rate.
"We raise $40 billion from income tax and $50 billion from property tax," Cuomo said. "New Yorkers pay the highest property tax in the U.S."
State Sen. Betty Little has been a longtime proponent of the circuit breaker and was happy with the announcement.
"I'm very happy to see the governor's tax reform commission propose their own circuit breaker proposal," Little said in a press release. "I look forward to learning more details in the proposed budget."
Cuomo again said New York has too many local government bodies.
"Taxes are so high because we have too many local governments and we've had them for too long," Cuomo said. "We have a proliferation of government that is exceedingly expensive and costly and we've assumed more local costs than the state government has ever done in modern political history. We are funding $700 million in aid to localities."
Cuomo said a law was passed to make consolidation easier for local governments, but only two have actually consolidated. As an incentive, he said localities that stay within the 2 percent tax cap and take efforts to reduce costs through consolidation could receive property tax breaks.
"It is time to stop making excuses and time to start making progress," Cuomo said. "We believe in linking the assistance to performance."
Cuomo said the best economic development strategy is to have the "best education system in the world."
Although he failed to mention the state's controversial Common Core standards, he did propose a $2 billion Smart Schools bond referendum that would provide money to increase technology to districts with an approved plan. The money could be used to purchase things like laptops, desktops, tablets and improved Internet connections.
"There's a great disparity in education," Cuomo said. "In some schools there are children who are on the Internet. Some schools, they don't even have a basketball net."
Cuomo also proposed creating a reward performance fund that would make teachers who are rated "highly effective" eligible to receive a $20,000 bonus.
He also wants to fund full-day universal pre-kindergarten.
"I'm glad to see the governor's focus on universal pre-K, but whether a commitment to funding matches the rhetoric remains to be seen," said Saranac Lake Teachers Association co-President Don Carlisto. "The bond (for technology upgrades) seems a good idea, as our district has for several years identified the need for significant upgrades to our technology infrastructure, libraries, etc."
However, Carlisto called the plan to give highly effective teachers a $20,000 bonus "troubling.
"Merit pay schemes like this are a distraction at a time when the focus should be on much more important areas, like helping kids succeed while we work to fix the mess that the Regents' Reform Agenda has become," Carlisto said.
Duprey applauded Cuomo's proposal of full-day universal pre-K.
"Full-day universal pre-K is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart," Duprey said. "Get our school children started in the right manner. New York state is going to have to come up with the funding for it, and they should."
Despite Cuomo's attention to the Adirondacks over the last three years, the Adirondack Council's executive director, William Janeway, said he was concerned about the governor's announcements.
In a press release, Janeway said he liked the parts about improving rural infrastructure and tourism, but didn't hear much about the environment.
"We look forward to a state budget that will stand as proof of his commitment to the environment, because we didn't hear much about those issues today," he said.
Janeway said he hopes Cuomo's enthusiasm for the region translates to more attention to the Adirondacks' environmental needs.
"We are pleased that the governor mentioned the Environmental Protection Fund and took credit for adding money to it last session, for the first time in many years," Janeway said. "But more than 100 organizations will be calling on the governor to increase the EPF to $200 million this year. As for the governor's plans for regulatory reform, we caution him to seek reforms that will not damage the Adirondack Park's clean waters, clean air and open spaces. Those are not just environmental concerns, but economic ones. We need to keep the park forever wild for everyone."
Janeway said the council was also concerned about the proposed Rooftop Highway and said it could isolate the Adirondack Park from wildlife migration pathways to Canada and the Great Lakes.
In the legislative session ahead, Janeway said the Council will push for improvements to the Adirondack Park Agency Act and updates of the agency's 40-year-old rules for private land development, improvements to invasive species controls, measures to address greenhouses gas emissions and the impact of climate change on the Park's ecology and rural communities, and laws or regulations that keep all-terrain vehicles off of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
Janeway also commented on Cuomo's decision to invite major political leaders to the Finger Lakes for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic. Last year he invited them to a rafting race in Indian Lake in the Adirondacks.
"With or without the governor, we hope there will be a 2014 Adirondack Challenge this summer that brings additional attention to the park's new public lands and waters - as well as bringing new business to the surrounding, gateway communities," Janeway said.
Senior Staff writer Chris Knight contributed to this report.