By KIM SMITH DEDAM
PLATTSBURGH — Early Friday, New York lawmakers approved a $135.1 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year.
A 9.2 percent increase in Municipal Transportation Authority funding is seen here as a boost to the North Country.
“In particular,” President and CEO of the North Country Chamber of Commerce Garry Douglas said, “this is good for a major customer of Bombardier, Nova Bus and other transportation equipment companies.
"It means great contract opportunities for the business we are in."
As well, "another $150 million was laid out for the Regional Economic Development Councils, further helping our job creators grow and develop our economy," Assemblyman Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) said in a prepared statement.
The North Country version of the regional councils has won about $200 million in the two years it has competed for funding through that state source.
SCHOOL DISTRICT AID
Key spending adjustments in the budget allow a 4 percent increase in aid to schools, with a total $805 million in additional funding.
High-needs school districts will get 71 percent of that.
"Most of our schools got a nice pop in their funding this year," Assemblywoman Janet Duprey (R-Peru) said by phone en route back home after a long few days of negotiations.
"We were able to get significant increases for them to recover gap elimination cuts. They also got increases in foundation aid.
"We also put in a significant increases for non-public schools."
“There was renewed focus on education and our economy,” Stec said, expressing mostly satisfaction with the budget.
“Our schools will see the overall increase in aid they need to provide our children with the quality education they deserve."
TASK FORCE ASSEMBLED
Duprey said the most irreconcilable cut comes to funding to the State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.
The agency is a primary source of funding for area organizations, including Mountain Lake Services, Adirondack ARC and Citizens Advocates.
"Only $30 million of the ($120,000) in (earlier) cuts to OPWDD was restored," Duprey said.
"I voted against that part of the budget, because I was so concerned about the agencies up here. It affects ARC, Citizen’s Advocates (formerly North Star), and it includes the residential homes."
No plan was yet in place to execute the budget reduction.
"They did put a task force together to determine where the cuts are going to be made and how," Duprey said.
The funding decrease, said Martin Nephew, executive director of Mountain Lake Services in Port Henry, "will affect services all the way down the line.
"The Assembly and Senate fought this thing, but to no avail."
Statewide, the decrease in funding totals 4.5 percent, he said.
That, to Mountain Lake, would be almost $1.8 million, but until more details become available, Nephew said, he wouldn't know just how much the agency stood to lose.
“I am disappointed the budget does not fully restore funding for programs serving the developmentally disabled," State Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) said in a statement released earlier this week.
"This issue is complicated by a settlement reached by the federal government and state related to Medicaid overpayment. It is something my colleagues and I are very concerned about and will work to address in the months ahead to minimize the impact on critically important local programs.”
An increase of minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour will be phased in over three years.
But tax credits funded by taxpayers will reimburse some employers for a portion of the wage increase.
Duprey said employers have to pay the wages first and then apply for the tax credit.
"They’re going to get a tax credit if they hire teenagers between ages of 16 and 19, if the teenagers are in school."
Beginning with a step to $8 by the end of 2013, the minimum wage will rise to $8.75 by the end of 2014 and then to $9 by the end of 2015.
Douglas said the chamber had disagreed with the measure.
But, he said, “it is significant that we obtained a three-year phase-in, avoided indexing, and also secured a teen tax credit.”
Indexing would have meant automatic annual increases in the minimum wage per inflation, he explained.
“This would institutionalize inflationary increases in business costs. And many private employers have been unable to provide raises to any of their employees over the last couple of years due to sluggish business and a struggle to meet the payroll they have without added reductions in staffing.”
The “minimum wage reimbursement credit” will provide 75 cents an hour per employee in the when the minimum wage rises to $8, and $1.31 an hour for workers that meet specifications when wages go to $8.75 in 2015.
When minimum wage tops out at $9 in 2016, employers will be subsidized $1.35 an hour for three years.
And although the measure would prohibit firing an adult solely to hire a teenager and collect a credit, critics of the plan have said that may be hard to enforce.
Local businesses gain additional tax breaks in the new budget for hiring military veterans with a $5,000 tax credit for each veteran hired and up to $15,000 for hiring disabled vets.
SAFE ACT FUNDING
Stec says the budget leans somewhat toward North Country needs.
But he did take issue with Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act funding, although the ban on 10-round magazine sales to police officers is suspended in a budget bill.
“The $36 million for the SAFE Act only goes further toward treating our responsible, law-abiding gun owners as criminals, and I will continue working to repeal this violation of our constitutional right,” Stec said.
"A lot of people will be disappointed that there wasn’t much done on the SAFE Act," Duprey said.
"You can get a 10-bullet magazine but only use seven bullets."
Aid to community colleges went up an additional $150 per full-time equivalent student in the approved budget, which will make a difference in the bottom line at North Country Community College and Clinton Community College, Duprey said.
"The increase brings state aid per student to $2,422. Our community colleges do a great job and this is going to be a big boost."
There is $89 million in the new budget for state parks improvement, and some of that funding will be used to repair flood damage in the Adirondacks, dating back to 2011 destruction from Tropical Storm Irene.
A new tax rebate, called the Family Tax Relief Check, funded with $375 million next year, promises a $350 rebate check for families earning between $40,000 and $300,000 annually and with at least one child younger than age 17. Qualification is based on two prior tax years, and the payments would begin mid October of 2014 and extend for three years.
The budget was approved by the Assembly early Friday morning, and Cuomo was expected to sign it without further question.
“As with all budgets, it was a compromise," Duprey said. "A lot of negotiations took place with four men in a room."
“The new budget keeps state spending below a 2 percent cap for a third consecutive year, funds programs and services important to many in our communities and includes new tax relief to help families and businesses," Little said.
"On time is what should always be the case, but doing so three years in a row, given the past track record, is a good trend."
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