LAKEWOOD - A cup of coffee, some eggs and bacon- and a discussion on politics.
Those attending the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce state legislative breakfast at the Lakewood Rod and Gun Club on Friday had a healthy dose of politics over breakfast, as State Sen. Catharine Young, R-C-I-Olean, and Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-C-I-Chautauqua County, shared what is going on in the state. The moderator for the event was John D'Agostino, publisher of the OBSERVER.
Both Young and Goodell agreed that the state budget, which was recently completed, has its fair share of positives and negatives.
The Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce hosted a state legislative breakfast at the Lakewood Rod and Gun Club on Friday to update residents on state issues. Pictured, from left are John D’Agostino, publisher of the OBSERVER; State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean; and Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Chautauqua County.
P-J photo by Liz Skoczylas
"This budget actually is a pretty good budget," Young said. "There are things that I didn't agree with, and no budget is perfect. But, I have to say, it did keep spending under 2 percent of an increase, we did have significant tax relief included - especially for small businesses and manufacturers. There was an increase in school aid. I believe very strongly that we are moving in the right direction."
Goodell said there were parts of the budget he loves, and part of the budget he hates. One of the things he specifically commented on was unfunded mandates throughout the state.
"We are constantly dealing with proposals that, for example, mandate staffing levels in a business," he said. "They require our local governments to pay certain rates or provide certain services without any funding, of course."
D'Agostino also asked the legislators for an update on the NRG project in Dunkirk, which both have had a large part in over the last several years.
"Sometimes, people say to me that this is just a Dunkirk issue. That's really not true," Young said. "This is incredibly important, because not only is the impact on the tax base to Chautauqua County and the city of Dunkirk and the school districts, but also it's an economic issue."
Young said the legislature is currently working to repower the NRG plant, as she feels it is important to not lose that source for this area.
Goodell also pointed out that the broad picture needs to be looked at, as the NRG plant accounts for around 40 percent of the Dunkirk tax base.
"This plant will be the most efficient plant in New York state," Goodell promised. "The problem is that National Grid is trying to minimize its prices and maximize its profits, and they're coming in with a counter-proposal, where they'll build a transmission line that bypasses the Dunkirk plant so they can import power."
He explained that National Grid typically gets a guaranteed investment return on capital investments. However, it only gets a pass-through cost on energy, so it is able to over-bill and make more money.
"A lot of the benefits from this plant will occur here, in our area, with our lower utility rates through National Grid, but will also have benefits that go well beyond National Grid service area, because it will result in a reduction in utility rates throughout Western New York," Goodell said. "So, it's an incredibly important piece of legislation for Western New York."
The legislators also briefly touched on the subject of hydrofracking, which they said is something that has been done in the county for a number of years without issue.
"We have been hydrofracking in Chautauqua County now for over 65 years," Goodell said. "We have over 5,000 wells, hydrofracked, in Chautauqua County. ... It's not the end of life as we know it. Can we hydrofrack safely? Of course you can. Should we? Absolutely."
Goodell said 48,000 jobs could be added to Upstate New York with hydrofracking. Young said the topic is one that has been under review for almost five years now.
"Hopefully, we will see some kind of resolution to this shortly," Young said.
Another subject that has been a hot topic during this year's budget season is the topic of minimum wage, which has been brought up both at the state and federal level.
Young explained that over the last few years in the Assembly, a minimum wage increase has been passed. The Assembly had set the minimum wage at $8.50, with annual indexing, which would cause an increase each year. However, the Senate did not pass the plan. This year, Gov. Cuomo included a minimum wage increase to $8.50 an hour in his state budget.
"Once something is in the governor's budget proposal, in order to take it out, both the Assembly and the Senate have to agree," Young said. "Of course, it was not likely - in fact, it was impossible - that the Assembly speaker would agree to take the minimum wage increase out of the final state budget."
She said Senate Republicans are working to help make the impact of the minimum wage increase less harmful to small businesses. In the final budget, minimum wage will be phased in over three years. Additionally, she said the Senate had wanted to include a training wage into the budget, but the Assembly speaker would not agree. However, a youth wage is included, where individuals under 18 will make a certain wage.
"That's important, because the current teenage unemployment rate - kids going to high school that want to go to college - is over 20 percent," Young said. "So, it has already hurt them. A lot of the minimum wage jobs are actually to teenagers who work during the summers and work when they are going to college. So, this is something that was put forward."
CLOSING THE GAPS
D'Agostino asked Goodell what is being done to close the major budget gaps in the state for the future, specifically how the state will be dealing with its debt.
"The state reminds me of somebody who is, like, morbidly obese," Goodell said. "We should be engaged in cutting back our spending. We're spending just too much. So, you say, 'The good news is, our weight is only going up by 2 percent a year.' Yeah, but you're already too big. You need to cut back. We need smaller government and lower taxes."
Goodell said that instead of comparing the state to where it was several years ago, it should be comparing itself to other similar states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania or North Carolina.
"The problem with back-door borrowing, and the problem with borrowing in general, is it's like a heroin, it's like an addictive substance for politicians," he said. "We get to go out and say, 'Look at all these great things we've funded,' but we're not taking responsibility for paying it. We pass that off to someone else. It's a very serious problem."
He said he believes that the problem needs to be addressed in language at the Constitutional Convention. Until then, Goodell said, he doesn't believe the problem will be solved.
In addressing Chautauqua Lake, Young said a $100,000 grant has been provided to the Chautauqua Lake Association to help with the lake's weed issues.
"That, I think, will put us in a very good place, as far as this upcoming season, to make sure that the lake weeds are being addressed," Young said. "That's the short term. The long term is to continue to work to reduce nutrients going into the lake."
Additionally, the legislators said they were hoping to secure additional funding for the lake. Goodell said they will continue working with groups involved with the lake to ensure they continue receiving funding.
Young has been working on legislation regarding regional high schools for more than a year. During the breakfast, she cited the recent agreement between Ripley Central School and Chautauqua Lake Central School to tuition high school students from Ripley to Chautauqua Lake as a step in the right direction.
"That's the focus of regional high schools: To provide excellence to our students," Young said.
She also said she believe regional high schools would save jobs, while realizing efficiencies that would help the taxpayers as well.