Emissary from Albany underscores gov’s speech

GREEENPORT–Governor Andrew Cuomo sent members of his cabinet out this week to 70 cities and towns on a State of the State tour, sharing his 2012 State of the State address.

As part of this effort, Brian Stratton, director of the state Canal Corporation, came to Columbia-Greene Community College Wednesday. He first reviewed the governor’s accomplishments of 2011, which included the launch of the New York for Business Campaign and the Regional Economic Development Councils, passage of the Marriage Equality Act and cutting taxes for the middle class so that they pay “the lowest tax rate in 58 years.”

Now, said Mr. Stratton, the governor has a three-part plan for a new New York: the next phase of the economic blueprint, a re-imagined government that makes that blueprint a reality.

Economic development involves a plethora building and repair projects. The state is a destination for tourists from all over the country and the world, who spend an annual $50 billion in the state, said Mr. Stratton. “The canal system accounts for some $380 million of that,” he added.

But he said that the state needs to stay ahead, which requires building a new convention center. The Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan is not large enough “to be in the top tier” of convention centers, and is 12th in square-footage. The governor, said Mr. Stratton, is “on track” for $4 billion in private investment to build a new convention center at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. The plan calls for the Javits Center to be torn down and its 18 acres of prime Manhattan real estate redeveloped in another boon for the state.

The Regional Economic Development Councils “exceeded all expectations across the state in 2011,” said Mr. Stratton. The Capital Region council, which includes Columbia County, was awarded $67 million for 88 projects. This year the state will launch a second competitive round worth $200 million.

Don Moore, president of the Hudson Common Council, who attended the presentation, said afterward, “What concerns me most is that the city of Hudson have a clear path to the state funding that it needs for economic development and city improvements.” He said he hopes to see this region receive a large grant this year.

On casino gambling, Mr. Stratton said, “It’s time to confront reality. Gaming is already here: there are 29,000 gaming machines in the state, more than in Atlantic City. Massachusetts has legalized casinos, bringing to that state jobs and dollars that should be here. It’s about jobs, jobs, jobs and over $1 billion in economic growth that gaming can bring,” he said. The governor will work with the legislature to amend the state constitution “so that gaming can be done right.”

Regarding infrastructure, Mr. Stratton, formerly the mayor of Schenectady, noted that 32% of the state’s bridges are “deficient,” 40% of its roads in “poor or fair” condition and 83% of state parks and historic sites in “disrepair.”

In 2012 the New York Works Fund and Task Force is supposed to lead public and private sector experts to coordinate and accelerate infrastructure projects. The plan is to improve more than 100 bridges, repair 2,000 miles of roads (the equivalent of five round trips between Buffalo to New York City), repair 114 flood control projects and dams, upgrade 90 municipal water systems and improve 48 state parks and historic sites that are visited annually by 37 million people.

The state will create a master plan and issue requests for proposals. Private companies will bid on and build more than $2 billion in infrastructure. The funds for this, Mr. Stratton said after the meeting, will come from the higher taxes on wealthy taxpayers.

The re-imagined government that will achieve all this performs better and costs less, according to the governor, who promises to close the remaining $2 billion deficit “with no new taxes and no new fees.” One way he plans to do this is with a less generous Tier 6 benefits plan for all new government employees, in an effort to slow rising pension costs.

The Mandate Relief Council, created last year, begins work this month, with public hearings. The goal is a “robust discussion” on mandates that will lead the legislature to move forward with mandate relief, said Mr. Stratton.

Envisioning the New York of the future, the governors’ priority is public education. He has declared himself the lobbyist for students. The state is currently first in the nation in spending on education but 38th in high school graduation rates. A bipartisan education commission will work with the legislature toward major reform, which will include a “real” teacher evaluation system and increasing student achievement.

The SUNY 2020 program will offer 60 campuses of the SUNY system, including all community colleges, the opportunity to compete for three $20 million challenge grants.

“We in Columbia County very much need a strong and expanding community college,” council President Moore told The Columbia Paper. “The city is willing to help in any way it can to support Columbia-Greene’s application for a challenge grant.”

Other core missions of the state are public safety, including a statewide network of emergency responders; a foreclosure relief unit at the new Department of Financial Services, advising homeowners and protecting tenants; expanding businesses owned by women and minorities; ensuring that those eligible for food stamps get them; expanding the DNA bank, which helps prove guilt or innocence; closing tax loopholes and reforming campaign finance (New York is 48th in the nation in voter turnout).

Details on these and other state initiatives can be found on the governor’s website, www.governor.ny.gov, and in the governor’s budget address, scheduled for Tuesday, January 17. 

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