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Saturday, November 14, 2009

This is directly from the keyboard of the Assemblywoman

Let’s make the right decisions

Since the New York State Assembly finished its work last June, I have been monitoring the projected deficit that our state is now facing. In October the governor put forth a deficit reduction plan. The Assembly immediately began to review the plan and held meetings and public hearings to listen to the public and stakeholders, and the agencies that provide public services on behalf of the state. I attended an Assembly Ways and Means Committee public hearing in Syracuse a few weeks ago and heard from school districts, health care providers and nonprofit organizations that are contracted to provide services for those most in need. In addition, I have received letters from virtually every sector, from education to health, from transportation to local governments, all requesting that I not support the governor’s deficit reduction plan. My office has received dozens of telephone calls and hundreds of emails and letters from members of the public, and the business community pleading for me to not support any action that will cause our community more financial pain.
The challenges that we are facing in this extraordinary time are immense, but let me assure all of my constituents that I am up to that challenge.
Earlier this week, the governor called a special session of the Legislature to enact a deficit reduction plan. In preparation for this session, the Assembly held conferences, and I spoke fervently about ways to close the deficit in a fashion that is sensible and ensures that our North Country communities are treated fairly by the plan. In discussions about the deficit reduction plan, I brought sensible alternatives to the table along with solutions. For example, there are measures that the state can take to reduce the direct cost of operating the state. I urged that we enact procurement reforms, specifically in the information technology sector. Our agencies’ IT systems are not integrated and our purchases are not coordinated to best take advantage of our purchasing power. Further, I asked that we close the loophole that allows state agencies to hire consultants, especially when the state is in a hiring freeze, a practice that undermines our organized labor force and tax payers. Millions of dollars in savings can be realized by reorganizing our contracting practices and relying on our own workforce to accomplish what contractors have been brought in to do. In addition, we need to evaluate our management-level positions to keep the ratios of management to non-management staff equitable and root out duplicitous layers within our agencies and departments, as well as excessive spending on non-essential matters.
I argued that the proposed school aid cuts disproportionately affect school districts here in the North Country and that we should look at ways to mitigate these cuts, which will eventually be felt by property taxpayers and our children. We also need to take this opportunity to stretch our minds to find ways that we can assist our schools weather this economic storm. I proposed that we look at reducing unfunded mandates.
Health care and other service sectors that we help fund will be crippled by the proposed “across the board cuts.” We need to take a closer look at all the health programs and assess tactically where we can make spending reductions that do not undermine the goal of our healthcare system. We should be cutting programs strategically so that base operating funding is not cut to the point that services can no longer be provided in any manner. For example cutting a grant program with specific requirements should be considered before cutting the operating funding that keeps a doctor in a community-based clinic. Similarly, we should not be cutting funding streams that are tied to matching federal funds so that affected institutions are not hit with double the cuts. I owe it to my community to make sure we are diligent and find ways to spend less but get the most value for every dollar we spend.
With an eye toward our economic recovery, I requested that we take this opportunity to allow our economic development agencies to use state-funded programs for job retention as well as job creation. We have long-standing businesses that have always been viable and profitable. Notwithstanding the current recession, they would be strong and growing. Our economic development agencies are fielding more requests from our existing businesses to help sustain them in the short term and keep their employment levels stable. I consistently make the point that we need to include our dairy farms in these discussions because of their tremendous economic impact on our rural community. We should be able to assist our existing businesses as much as potential new businesses.
The Assembly has been working closely with the governor’s office to negotiate an agreement on the deficit reduction plan. The governor called for additional special sessions and they have been set for next Monday and Tuesday. It would have been my preference to remain in Albany until the bill was ready. We must act sooner rather than later to enact a deficit reduction plan to begin realizing savings and allow the most amount of time for cuts to be absorbed. As we move forward, I will not support any plan that disproportionately affects northern New Yorkers.