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Nothin’ but blue skies and puppies

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The state Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have spent much of the last week and a half doing high-fives and back-slapping each other over the fine, second straight, on-time budget they passed. Now that the ho-de-dohs are calming down, let’s talk about what this governor and Legislature do not seem able to accomplish — and whether or not their “accomplishments” really reach that level.

There are massive, fundamentally vital issues that the governor and legislature completely whiffed on this year. Among them, reapportionment reform, reform of the absurd aid to education formulas and the inability to define, let alone reform, the unfunded mandates that drive local officials nearly crazy.

Look, for example, at the final realignment of state Senate and Assembly districts. While numerous state leaders, including the leaders of both houses of the Legislature and the Governor, vowed to take the raw politics out of the equation, there wasn’t even a half-hearted attempt to do so. As a result, many areas got carved up in a fashion so blatantly political that Elbridge Gerry himself would have been scratching his head. Chief among the losers: St. Lawrence County, a massive chunk of land, now has Assembly districts that look like the vegetable platter at the end of the party, with three scraggly pieces of broccoli lying forlornly together after everything else is eaten. And the Legislature essentially ceded redrawing the state’s congressional districts, kicking their silly proposals around while fully expecting the job to be done by a federal magistrate (whose new districts, by contrast to the state legislative reapportionment, were logically and cohesively drawn).

They laid this off on the state constiitution, saying the state needs an amendment to right this listing ship. That was hooey. The constitution as written does not declare “the separate houses of the legislature shall do everything in their power to entrench their own political influence in the drawing of new district lines.” All that has to happen is to have the governor push to have the process be depoliticized and the legislative leaders agree to do so.

Likewise, the Legislature came riding in late with more money for schools than the governor had in his executive proposal, trumpeting their commitment to supporting education at the state level. They must sit around the conference room chuckling when someone says “That trick NEVER gets old!” Year after year the governor cuts school aid, year after year the Legislature restores some of it, and all the while, school districts are dying a slow and excruciating death by funding starvation.

The aid to education formula in New York is well and truly broken. Only the governor and the Legislature can fix it. This has been true for at least the 40 years I’ve been working in the newspaper business in this state. It never changes because the political pressure applied by the divergent education interests — the New York City school district, other big-city districts in the state, wealthy and poor suburban districts, struggling rural districts — make devising a truly equitable formula difficult, but not impossible. It is, however, considered politically impossible, and therein dies reform.

As for curbing unfunded mandates, the Legislature can’t even define the term, Nor, really, can the local governments who chant this mantra. One of the problems, of course, is the legion of satraps who lump such things as the state pension system and many Department of Social Services programs into this category. Does anyone believe that no local government level should have a responsibility to pay into its workers’ retirement fund? Do we really believe that counties bear no level of fiscal responsibility for the programs that are offered in health, foster car, child protective services — all of which aid their citizens?

Finally, the governor and the Legislature started their round of back-slapping last June, when the Legislature passed the governor’s proposed 2 percent tax levy cap, then said to be among the stiffest in the nation. At the time, a number of newspapers, including this one, editorialized that the burden of this legislation was going to fall disproportionately on school districts, because only school districts are forced to present override proposals to the voters. And boy, has this prediction come to pass.

Town and village after town and village routinely voided the cap with simple votes of a five-or-seven-member board. I say simple because the bulk of the municipalities in the state, and nearly all in the rural areas of the state, have ruling boards that routinely pass ALL resolutions with a unanimous vote. Getting a majority-plus-one vote on cap overrides has been virtually automatic across Northern New York, and I suspect across most of the state. The board members are fully cognizant that voting to override carries absolutely no political liability at the local level.

Schools, on the other hand, have to have their budgets approved by 60 percent of the voting public if they try to exceed the cap. Since the coming May 15 school budget vote is the first one under the tax-cap legislation, it’s too early to definitively say how it will affect school districts. But thus far, I have read of only one district in the north country that is seriously considering putting up a budget that busts the cap — and that fact alone should tell us that school district officials already believe the deck is stacked against them.

In addition, the 2 percent tax cap is a 2 percent cap in name only. A number of factors, including retirement costs, debt service and even increasing assessments, can push that cap up by an additional 2 percent or more. One district in St. Lawrence County has calculated that its 2 percent tax cap is, in fact, 4.8 percent. On a $6 million levy, the difference between 2 percent and almost 5 percent is about $175,000. It takes a CPA to figure out what the actual cap is.

So these are the common man’s experiences with the marvelous “successes” of the governor and the Legislature. To suggest that it all could have been done better is an understatement of massive proportion. Yet the Ritchies and the Russells and the Blankenbushes and the Griffos have all fired off self-congratulatory releases to tell us all they have accomplished. None of them, however, has talked about the many vital things that, year after year, they seem unable to address.

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