New York government's financial future, short and long term, will dominate the legislative agenda in 2010. No. 1 on the list, of course, must be to keep addressing the state’s immediate fiscal crisis. That much we know.
But the 2010 session of the Legislature, which I believe could prove to be one of the pivotal sessions in our state’s history, remains uncertain on many fronts. So I’ll take this end-of-the-year chance to put down some thoughts on the groundwork that I hope will guide next year’s session.
New York government has its hands full, there’s no doubt about it. But Albany's leaders need to rethink some of their decisions. They need to demonstrate some better sense.
At the outset of this fiscal crisis in the fall of 2008, I said that fiscal reform in New York State was going to be an ongoing and long-term responsibility. I urged state leaders to address it carefully and deliberately. That's not what happened. The 2009-2010 state budget they approved, for example, may have attempted to aggressively address a fiscal crisis in state government, but at what cost to the daily economic struggle facing workers and their families, and communities statewide?
So the state needs to stop taxing so heavily, first and foremost. At the same time, however, we have to keep an eye on the rest of New York's to-do list – because the clock's ticking on many issues, including:
-- Upstate Economy. Many of us who have every determination -- and every belief -- that we can rebuild and rejuvenate the upstate region if we put our minds to it, keep working at it, and invest in it. But we need to do a better job of answering the following question: what is New York State going to do to jump-start the economy?
-- Empire Zone Reform. I've long advocated Empire Zone reform, but the 2009-2010 state budget included an action that sent shock waves throughout the upstate economic development community -- the elimination of the Empire Zone program by June 2010. The Empire Zone program has had its share of shortcomings, but make no mistake that Empire Zone benefits have produced vital economic opportunities and good jobs across the Southern Tier and throughout upstate. A complete dismantling of the program, with nothing comparable to replace it, leaves upstate economic developers at a dangerous disadvantage in the worldwide competition for jobs. I'm deeply concerned that it's going to be tougher than ever to muster the commitment from Albany's leaders to put in place a new program that at least matches Empire Zones. This could become one of the key battlegrounds in New York government in 2010.
-- Property Tax Relief. As we debate how best to put in place short- and long-term fiscal responses, shouldn't we tune in again to the property tax alarm? It will be as challenging and contentious as anything else on an already full agenda, but it's a discussion that deserves a full airing.
-- Dairy Industry. Throughout the past year I've joined many other upstate legislators to urge state leaders to be ready with a response to the ongoing dairy crisis and, in fact, to call for the reauthorization of a successful 2007 initiative that provided direct, immediate assistance to struggling New York dairy farmers. It's an industry that can't be left at risk.
-- Broadband Development. There are many examples of expansion efforts and strategies that have proven successful around the nation. Broadband development across upstate New York must remain a high priority. It's become fundamental to our economic and educational success as a region.
-- Medicaid Fraud. It seems common sense to recognize that we have an overriding responsibility to eliminate the abuse, fraud, and waste in government programs and services, and we know that the Medicaid system remains a prime target.
-- State Spending. Over the past few years, I've joined the call for a constitutionally mandated cap on state spending. New York government has to meet its fundamental responsibilities with less -- and smarter -- spending.
-- Upstate Roads and Bridges. The upstate New York transportation infrastructure must reclaim its rightful place in New York government in 2010. It's an undeniable lifeline for any future hope for the revival of the upstate economy.
-- Emergency Services Volunteers. I'll keep saying it: we need to do a better job of recognizing the difficulty many volunteer fire companies still face to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of emergency services volunteers. That's especially true in rural, upstate New York.
-- Community Safety. Safety remains high on the list of priority concerns for communities across New York. One piece of legislation I'll continue to sponsor in 2010 would create a state-level Drug Dealer Registry that would require convicted felony drug dealers, who are released from prison, to register with the state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) for up to 10 years. Many local law enforcement agencies have noted that over the past decade there have been consistent reports of a steadily increasing infiltration of drug dealers from large urban areas, including New York City, into many of upstate's small cities, towns, and villages. A Drug Dealer Registry would help us know who the dealers are, and where they are, in our communities. This heightened public awareness would give local police officers and local residents a strong tool to fight back against illegal drug trafficking.
Here’s the bottom line: the fast-approaching new year in New York government is chock full of challenges, and it’s going to demand unprecedented action by Albany’s leaders.