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Five Issues to Watch in Albany that Aren’t Uber

13 min read
January 19, 2017

Yes, you should call your representative and weigh in on the push to bring Uber and Lyft to Upstate New York. But ridesharing isn’t the only issue that should have your attention as the State Legislature kicks off the 2017 session.

Still, just to be sure you’ve got your talking points down: Visit Buffalo Niagara calls ridesharing a necessary visitor amenity, and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership says not having it is “the opposite of the new Buffalo.”

Uber estimates it would create 13,000 job opportunities for drivers in Upstate cities, and advocates have pointed to the safety benefits like cutting down on drunk driving incidents.

Opponents continue to push back, leading with a call for finger-printing — and most recently they made a pitch for a 50-year ban on driverless cars as an attempt to ensure drivers don’t lose access to their ridesharing jobs.

OK, now let’s get to those other state issues:

Investing in New York’s infrastructure needs

“Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to build things. Big things.”

That’s how Alfred Doblin, editorial page editor for The Record, put it. And who can blame the Governor? New York State’s infrastructure needs are severe, from Buffalo to the Bronx.

Last year, the state approved a $55 billion statewide transportation plan, the Empire State’s largest ever. It includes $21.1 billion for capital improvements to highways, bridges, rail and aviation infrastructure across the state.

In Niagara Falls, they’re removing a section of the Robert Moses Parkway, now renamed the Niagara Scenic Parkway, to provide public access to the Niagara River waterfront. In Buffalo, there’s a $30 million renovation planned for the Scajaquada Expressway.

In Rochester, the Greater Rochester International Airport was awarded $40 million through the Upstate Airport Economic Development and Revitalization Competition to revamp the airport and improve the amenities available to travelers.

Big projects are happening across the state – and this year could bring even more.

Remember all of those water main breaks last summer in Western New York and throughout New York State? Well, Governor Cuomo has a plan to help. He’s proposing a $2 billion plan to rebuild and upgrade aging water infrastructure. The Senate seems to be on board with the idea, too.

The Governor also wants to make 2017 the year New York approves the largest offshore wind project in the nation’s history, a 90-megawatt farm 30 miles off the Long Island coast — enough to power 50,000 homes.

Talk about building big things.

Upstate economic development: BB-squared, Photonics Venture Challenge

Infrastructure investment isn’t the only job creation program the state will be pursuing this year.

The state’s Regional Economic Development Councils will continue their work to assess and invest in priority projects to fuel growth in each region of the state.

And the three regions that won last year’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative (URI) competition — the Finger Lakes, Central New York and the Southern Tier — will see another $100 million infusion to administer projects and programs they outlined in their URI plans. These regions will receive a total of $500 million, over five years, in state investment for economic development.

Want to see what they’ve got planned? Read the plans: Finger Lakes Forward; CNY Rising and the Southern Tier’s plan.

And really, you can’t talk about state economic development programs without bringing up the Buffalo Billion. The progress is undeniable. As the Governor outlined in his Western New York State of the State address, Buffalo has seen the highest wage growth in 36 years; there’s been a 22 percent rise in construction jobs; homes sales are up; and home prices have increased.

This year, Governor Cuomo wants to kick off Buffalo Billion Squared. It’s part two of the Buffalo Billion program, and it will lead to another $500 million investment for Western New York’s revival. Among other projects, the Governor intends to revitalize key corridors on Buffalo’s East Side, prepare the old Bethlehem Steel site for new growth, extend NFTA Metro Rail to Amherst and invest in Niagara Falls and Jamestown.

The success of the Buffalo Billion program is also inspiring new action in other regions of the state. Modeled after 43North, Governor Cuomo plans to create the Photonics Venture Challenge, which will accelerate entrepreneurial activity in the Rochester region’s photonics and optics industry. It’s designed to attract more innovators to Rochester through a startup business competition that will award a top prize of $1 million with $500,000 awards for second and third place.

One more economic development item to watch: the Governor’s “Buy American” plan, which would require state entities to give preference to American-made products on any contract more than $100,000. It could provide a boost for manufacturers in New York and beyond.

Free college for middle class families

To fill the high-tech, knowledge-based jobs the state is creating, we need to have an educated, skilled workforce. And Governor Cuomo’s proposal to provide free college tuition for families with incomes of up to $125,000 will certainly help grow the ranks of New Yorkers with a college education.

“A college education is not a luxury – it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility,” Cuomo said, explaining the economic realities of the modern job market.

The proposal has grabbed headlines nationwide, and it has even garnered bipartisan support. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher has voiced support and wants to ensure SUNY is effectively training students for in-demand jobs, providing an ample supply of highly-educated labor for the local workforce.

In Western New York, 85 percent of families will qualify, and 80 percent of families statewide will be eligible, according to the Governor’s office.

But a couple of sticking points that could arise — how to pay for it and undocumented immigrants’ access to the program. Governor Cuomo and Democrats in the Legislature have pushed for the DREAM Act, which would extend TAP to undocumented immigrants, but Senate Republicans have resisted the effort.

A peripheral benefit: a generation of young New Yorkers graduating college with little-to-no student loan debt. This will empower people to make big economic decisions earlier in life, like pursuing homeownership, buying a new vehicle or starting a family.

State Finances Growing Tighter?

The table is set for some huge investments that could make a lasting impact on New York State. But there’s a big, dark cloud looming on the horizon that could ruin the picnic.

It’s a projected $689 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year, and it could jump to $2.1 billion in 2018-19.

Additionally, if Congress repeals Obamacare, the state estimates the resulting budget impact would be $3.7 billion.

To fill the budget gaps, the state may have to rein in spending or delay some projects. There’s also a tax surcharge on high-income earners — often referred to as the millionaire’s tax — that is scheduled to expire. If it’s renewed, those budget issues may be resolved.

When Governor Cuomo took office, he was forced to grapple with a $10 billion budget deficit. Working with the Senate and Assembly, he identified ways to build a budget that filled the gap. He also made a promise to keep state spending growth under two percent each year, and he’s successfully kept that promise each year since.

The Governor and his team are adept at tackling issues like this. So, while you should be aware of the state’s tightening fiscal picture, you shouldn’t be too worried that it will jeopardize any priority investments.

Cleaning up Albany — New Ethics Overhaul

 Two things that are nearly universally believed by all people:

  1. Political scandals are fun when they happen on television — am I right, Frank Underwood and Olivia Pope?
  1. Political scandals are infuriating, often repulsive and always unacceptable when they happen in real life.

And unfortunately, Albany has been rocked by several real-life scandals.

That means Governor Cuomo and Albany lawmakers will be hungry to take a bite out of crime in the Capitol. Expect movement — or at least serious discussion — on several long-stalled ethics reforms.

At the last stop on his regional State of the State tour, Governor Cuomo released a 10-point package of reforms that aims to restore the public’s faith and trust in government.

Most of the items on the Governor’s ethics agenda have been pushed in Albany previously, securing various levels of support. However, if fully — or even partially — implemented, it could dramatically change the landscape at the State Capitol.

Governor Cuomo wants to limit lawmakers’ outside income, impose term limits, end to the “LLC loophole” and enact a voluntary public financing system for campaigns.

And in light of recent scandals involving state contracts, the Governor is calling for expanded oversight powers for the Inspector General into nonprofit affiliates of SUNY and CUNY and the creation of a Chief Procurement Officer to oversee and organize the state’s procurement processes.

The package of reforms is likely to prompt a high volume of debate. Assembly Democrats have voiced opposition to term limits.  Senate Republicans have been hesitant on public financing of campaigns. And State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has proposed his own series of procurement reforms.

Inspired to get involved?

 Honestly, this summary, though lengthy, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this year’s legislative session. If you want to make your voice heard on these issues or any others, you can look up your representatives here. And be sure to visit the websites of the Governor, State Senate and State Assembly for regular updates and to track legislative progress.


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