Most investment in upstate NY in history, Cuomo says

By Greg Hudson Columbia-Greene Media

New York State lawmakers successfully passed the state’s $156 billion budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year Friday.

The state Senate voted 61-1 Friday morning to approve the budget,including a state income tax cut which will lower the tax rate to 5.5 percent – its lowest rate in 70 years – a provision that will provide 12 weeks of paid family leave, and a historic measure to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour over several years.

The budget also includes the most investment in upstate New York in history, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo said the budget was a testament to a bipartisan effort in the state legislature.

“I applaud the lawmakers,” Cuomo said during a press conference. “This all happened at perhaps the most tumultuous time in the nation’s political history, at least in modern times.”

“The State of New York, which is not a walk in the park politically, just passed the most sweeping political and economic reform in 50 years,” he said.

The highlight of the budget was a gradual minimum wage increase for all employees in the state to $15 an hour. Cuomo said the move has been a priority throughout the budget process.

“I don’t believe there has ever been a state budget which addresses as many problems in the state as this one,” Cuomo said. “It’s raising the minimum wage in a way that’s responsible.”

The key to incorporating the increase into the budget was making the increase an economic consideration, not a political one.

“Our position was to remove the politics from this issue and look at it as an economic issue,” Cuomo said. “Where political forces have gridlocked Washington and have people fist-fighting in the street, we had to get this body to reach consensus. And some of these issues are emotional; minimum wage is an emotional issue. It sparks conservative emotions and liberal emotions.”

Columbia County Board of Supervisors Minority Leader William C. Hughes Jr., D-Hudson4, commended the increase and said it would help lower-income earners keep up with the rising cost of living.

“Gov. Cuomo is to be applauded for his leadership and smart approach to raising the minimum wage,” Hughes said. “New York State has once again shown that when we work together we get things done and show true leadership on how we protect opportunity and economic equality for all.”

Cuomo said the increase will be implemented in different ways throughout the state.

“It goes to $15 in three years in New York City, and in six years on Long Island,” he said. “Upstate, it goes to $12.50 in five years, and it will go to $15 at the rate prescribed by the administration.”

Cuomo said the reason for a different implementation upstate was the consideration for the different economic factors which influence the success of a wage increase.

“Economically, the minimum wage increase, done right, is tremendous for the economy; it puts $15 billion into the economy,” Cuomo said. “But if you go too high too fast, you can cause a problem.”

The New York Farm Bureau was disappointed by the wage hike.

“Farms, especially those on Long Island, will face extremely serious economic challenges as they will be forced to pay the dramatically higher wage rates mandated by this agreement,” Bureau President Dean Norton said.

Farm workers and agriculture businesses were taken into consideration throughout the process, Cuomo said.

“Farmers have gotten the ultimate consideration, which is something we did in the first time I raised the minimum wage,” he said. “To the extent a farm pays an additional wage, they will get a full credit for that payment. On your taxes you will get a full credit back: not a deduction, the full amount back.”

Upstate wages will increase at a slower rate, Cuomo said, as a result of consultation with numerous economic analysts.

“What we said was, ‘Give us a number for upstate that we know we can absorb,’ and that number was $12.50 over 5 years.”

After the first five years, the state will examine the economic impact of the increase throughout upstate New York. The Division of Budget will conduct the analysis, Cuomo said.

The analysis would involve looking at a number of factors and economic trends to determine the rate at which the increase from $12.50 to $15 should be implemented.

Paid family leave has also been expanded to a 12-week period for parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for family members battling illness. It will be funded by payroll deductions starting at 70 cents a week and rising to $1.40. Benefits will range from 50 to 67 percent of average weekly wages.

“I think this will be transformative about the way we live our lives,” Cuomo said. “I believe that 20 years from now, people would say, ‘You mean you used to have to work after you had a baby?’”

The budget also includes $200 million in funding for water infrastructure improvements, a tuition freeze at SUNY schools, nearly $25 billion in public school aid and the termination of the state Gap Elimination Adjustment for school districts.

“I’ve invested more money in upstate New York than any other governor in the history of New York,” Cuomo said.

Rebuild New York Now, a coalition of groups which promotes public awareness of infrastructure issues, hailed the level of state commitment to infrastructure as important progress.

“The final budget provides a historic level of investment in statewide transportation infrastructure and represents a major step forward toward meeting New York’s massive, long-term infrastructure needs,” Rebuild President Mike Elmendorf said. “This represents a true a victory for the millions of New Yorkers who rely on our transportation infrastructure to get them to and from work and school every day.”

Scenic Hudson, a group dedicated to the preserving the Hudson River Valley, praised the inclusion of $200 million for water infrastructure projects.

“Gov. Cuomo and the state Legislature have once again delivered a budget that manages the state’s drinking water supplies while creating jobs,” Scenic Hudson President Ned Sullivan said.

“[The infrastructure funding] will help Hudson Valley communities with failing systems invest in their future and become the best collection of cities, villages and town centers in the country,” Sullivan said.

State Sen. George Amedore, R-46, was pleased the budget will do away with the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment for public schools. Elimination of the plan will increase state funding for Greene County schools by more than $1.7 million.

“Properly funding our public schools is so important, starting with eliminating the GEA that has forced our schools to cut programs and reduce services at the expense of our children in the classrooms,” Amedore said. “There is no better investment we can make in the future of our state than to make sure our schools are properly funded so our children are receiving a quality education.”

U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-19, criticized the Governor’s role in the budget process.

“Once again, we have a budget deal that was delivered to New Yorkers after backroom arm-twisting and deal-making, and driven by political spats and retribution,” Gibson said.

“This is a budget that will ensure more of the same in Albany and in our state. Our counties will continue to struggle, our small businesses get no relief — just more mandates and regulations, and hardworking New Yorkers will continue to bear the largest tax burden in the nation.”