GREENPORT–Our congressman, the four people who represent Columbia County in the state legislature, and the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors each spoke briefly last week to officials and businesspeople at the Chamber of Commerce Annual Legislative Breakfast. The tone of all the remarks was calm and kept to the topic of recent legislative actions, with no hint of the roiling presidential campaigns that are seeking attention ahead of Tuesday’s primaries.
Representative Chris Gibson (R-19th), whose district includes all of Columbia County and all or parts of 10 other counties, led off with a list of federal measures signed into law in the current Congress, citing national security legislation intended to fight ISIS and address threats from Russia and China. He then turned to increases in the federal budget that would enhance the efforts of the Veterans Administration treat mental illness among veterans. He also said that the federal budget has funds to assist returning veterans start their own businesses. But the item that elicited applause during his remarks was his mention of the 10% increase in federal investment in infrastructure over the next five years.
Mr. Gibson, who lives in Kinderhook, has said he will not seek reelection to a 4th term this fall although he has indicated he might seek an unspecified statewide office. In the meantime, he said, “we’re going to finish strong,” and he listed a number of proposals he’s currently working on, including helping Vietnam veterans deal with exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, which contained dioxin, a chemical known to cause cancer and other illnesses. There is also a “clean energy act” on his list as well as help for dairy farmers buffeted by swings in the price they receive for milk.
County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell (R-Stockport), who took up his county leadership post earlier this year, promised that he and the board would pursue the same policies and programs of his immediate predecessor, Pat Grattan (R-Kinderhook).
On April 1, a few hours into the new state fiscal year, the state legislature approved and the governor signed the 2016-17 state budget. State Senator Kathy Marchione (R-43rd) said the budget contains an “unprecedented” increase in state aid to schools, with overall spending on educations set at $24.8 billion. The budget includes an agreement to reimburse school districts for aid promised in previous years but withheld by the state so that money could be diverted to other programs.
She said there would be a tax cut that will begin in 2018 and be fully implemented by 2025. She also mentioned that state government is adhering to a 2% cap along the lines of the ones the state has set for municipal governments. And she spoke about efforts to create a more fair and rational way of distributing funds for infrastructure repair and replacement projects.
Ms. Marchione, whose district extends all the way up to Saratoga County, said the adoption of a higher minimum wage was “a very difficult issue.” She said that Governor Cuomo and exercised his power to convene a wage board that raised the minimum to $15 for workers statewide in the fast food industry. Upstate, the minimum wage will go up more slowly than it will in New York City and on Long Island and may not reach $15/hour. That led her to pose the question: “What if we said No?”
Defending the vote by members of the Senate GOP majority to support a higher statewide minimum wage, she said the governor would have reconvened the wage board and the board’s members would have imposed the higher hourly wage without input from upstate lawmakers. “I really felt it was better to protect our businesses than to turn it over to the governor,” she said. The minimum wage is now scheduled to raise locally to a maximum of $12.50/hour over the next 5 years of yearly increases of 70 cents per hour for most industries.
Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin (R-107th), one of the most prominent critics of Governor Cuomo, called it “really outrageous” that the budget was adopted as it often is in the wee hours of the morning, with legislators like him having no opportunity to debate or even to read the language of the bills they were asked to approve.
But he did say he was pleased by the tax cut and the additional funding for infrastructure and the money for local school districts.
Assemblyman Pete Lopez (R-102nd) challenged the “top-down decision making” on the budget, which allows only the Governor and the leaders of the two houses of the legislature to arrive at the budget agreement without much input from the rank and file lawmakers.
After the devastating floods in 2011 in Greene, Delaware and Schoharie counties in his district, he was pleased that the budget comes with more funding for “flood resiliency,” but he said, “We need to be better positioned for adverse weather events.”
As for approval of the minimum wage, he questioned the “main goal” of the legislation and whether alone it would lift people out of poverty. He also questioned whether the state has adequate training for the workforce and whether there are adequate funds to “Offset the impact” of the higher minimum wage, indicating there are not.
Assembly member Didi Barrett (D-106th) reminded the audience, “You now have a majority member in the Assembly.” She said the new speaker of the Assembly, Carl Heastie, had visited the district and is “a strong advocate for Columbia County.”
Among the budget items she highlighted are funds for returning veterans who want to go into farming.
And there was a noticeable buzz in the room when she said that while there are many older homes in the county there aren’t enough people qualified to work on them. She is hoping to find state funding “to train the next generation of artisans and craftsmen to work on historic properties.”