Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a group of local lawmakers last week to symbolically sign legislation creating the state's first cap on annual property tax increases. The signing was at the home of Russell and Tara Klein, who said they pay more than $16,000 in property taxes each year.
The Kleins are far from alone. Westchester is one of the highest-taxed counties in the nation, with a median property tax bill of $8,500. That's in comparison to a state average of $3,700 and more than four times the national figure of $1,900.
Cuomo and other advocates of the 2 percent tax cap, which exempts increase in pensions costs and large legal settlements, say it will not only limit annual tax increases but also force fiscal discipline on local governments and school districts. Cuomo has repeatedly called for government to redesign itself on all levels, rooting out waste and inefficiencies.
Opponents of the cap, including education officials, say it will force a reduction in municipal services and further income inequalities in education while failing to lower tax bills and, in fact, ensuring a minimum 2 percent annual increase.
The cap expires in five years, when lawmakers will have to decide whether or not it's working.
"I think when this expires, people are not going to see lower taxes; what they will see is the negative impact this has on their schools and municipal services," said Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Port Chester).
"This bill is also going to quickly increase educational inequalities which are based on income and zip code."
Oppenheimer and many of her colleagues who are also opposed to the cap still voted in favor of it, mainly because it was packaged together with strengthened rent control laws, a tuition increase for SUNY schools and other smaller measures.
The bill also includes $127 million in cost savings for local governments, most of which would come from "piggybacking" on existing contracts. Even lawmakers who support the cap, including Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) said greater relief from state mandates is crucial to making the cap work.
"Albany should have listened to those out in the field dealing directly with these mandates," Katz said. "However disappointing this bill is, I believe that this is a step forward, albeit a baby step."
He added that the cap "will not provide immediate relief for the homeowners and businesses already struggling under hefty property tax bills."
Some proponents touted the mandate relief measures, including Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson), who said the costs that drive up property taxes could take years to contain.
"People also have to understand that this legislation creates the framework for doing away with unfunded mandates comprehensively, and we will hopefully do exactly that in the coming years,” Ball said.
The senator also said he is creating a local mandate relief council that will meet regularly and forward proposals to a statewide mandate relief team appointed by Cuomo.
The tax cap takes effect in the next fiscal year, meaning school districts and local governments will grapple with it during upcoming budget deliberations.
Here's a look at what our local lawmakers were up to between June 24 and July 1, as well as how productive they were during this year's legislative session, gleaned from a report by the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). The DisPatch this summer will feature stories on some of the bills that became law this year.
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) applauded the decision by drug manufacturer Acorda Therapeutics to relocate in Ardsley, creating up to 190 new jobs. He said the deal, which includes more than $5 million in tax breaks for Acorda, is a prime example of effective public-private partnerships.
Abinanti introduced 11 bills this year, of which four passed the Assembly and two were introduced in the Senate.
Assemblyman Bob Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge), who has sponsored a number of bills aimed at reining in the natural-gas extraction method known as "hydrofracking," issued cautious approval for a set of recommendations released by the state on Friday. He said he was particularly optimistic about a "blue ribbon panel" of environmentalists, industry officials and lawmakers tasked with reviewing the state's policies on hydrofracking when they are drawn up over the next year.
Castelli introduced 70 bills and passed three in the Assembly. His chamber also passed all 35 of the resolutions he sponsored.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) was the champion of a bill awaiting the governor's signature that will allow parents of stillborn children to receive birth certificates. The proposal has been circulating since 2003, but was only passed by both houses of the legislature last month. In a bill memo, Galef says the small measure can go a long way in providing closure to parents.
Galef was also successful in pushing a bill that would amend the state constitution to allow lawmakers to view bills electronically. Currently bills must be printed, leading to mountains of paper piling up on legislators' desks each day. Amendments must be approved by two consecutive legislatures before facing a popular vote, meaning the soonest the paperless proposal could take effect is 2014.
The assemblywoman introduced 95 bills, passed seven, and saw 11 introduced in the Senate.
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) was one of 10 Assembly members who voted against a bill that would legalize sparklers and some other fireworks. She told Gannett the state shouldn't condone something so potentially dangerous, pitting her against Rockland County colleague Ken Zebrowski (D-New City), who co-sponsored the bill. He said he expects Gov. Cuomo to sign the measure.
Jaffee introduced 49 bills, 14 of which passed the Assembly and 16 of which were introduced in the Senate.
Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) wants Albany's "three-headed snake" -- Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos -- to ask Washington for a waiver to opt out of the requirements of the federal Affordable Health Care Act. The leaders scrambled to come to a deal on creating a health care exchange, which is a marketplace where people without insurance can shop competitive rates, but Senate Republicans balked. Lawmakers are expected to strike a deal on the exchange, which is required in order for states to receive federal funding, later this year.
Katz introduced 21 bills in his first year in office, but passed none through the Assembly.
Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye) passed a bill through the Assembly recently that would create a crime prevention program for small businesses. The program would be a "one-stop shop" for tips and strategies to prevent theft, fraud and other crimes. Latimer said the measure, which has stalled in the Senate, would increase the profits of local businesses, many of which can't afford to hire private consultants.
The Assembly passed 10 of Latimer's 53 bills this year, and 14 of the measures were introduced in the Senate.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) was one of the most productive members of the Assembly during her first five terms, and this year was no different with the assemblywoman introducing 118 bills, 16 of which passed the Assembly. Twenty-five were introduced in the Senate.
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City) was the co-sponsor of a bill expected to be signed by Gov. Cuomo that would legalize sparklers and some other mild fireworks. Zebrowski says it will bring the state up to $2 million a year in tax revenues, which is currently lost to neighboring states with legal fireworks.
Rockland County Independence Party Chairwoman Debra Ortutay, a Valley Cottage resident, was , including perjury and forgery. She allegedly testified to the validity of signatures on write-in petitions for Frank Sparaco, a Rockland County legislator and Ortutay's son-in-law, when he ran against Zebrowski last year. Prosecutors say she had not witnessed the signatures. The assemblyman initiated the complaint against Ortutay.
Zebrowski introduced 69 bills, eight of which were passed. Ten were introduced in the Senate.
Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson) announced Senate passage of a bill that will prohibit public employers from eliminating the job of a soldier stationed overseas. The bill was introduced after two Army sergeants were laid off from the Metropolitan Transit Authority while fighting in the Middle East. The bill has already passed the Assembly, where it's sponsor was Vietnam veteran Bob Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge).
The senator announced that he will hold his next hearing into the state of homeland security in New York on Sept. 8 in New York City. The first hearing, in April, caused a small stir because it featured speakers who criticized Islam.
Ball introduced 108 bills, passing nine in the Senate. Twenty-four were introduced in the Assembly.
It's old news now, but you can watch clips of Ball's slew of cable news appearances discussing his bid to strengthen religious protections in the bill that legalized same-sex marriage in New York. Ball was interviewed on CNN, MSNBC and local station RNN.
Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) said he was disappointed that the state appears to be close to allowing hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, in certain parts of the state. Carlucci, who sponsored a bill that would have extended an existing moratorium on hydrofracking, said more time is needed to study the method, which opponents say pollutes air and drinking water.
In a statement, Carlucci said he is working with the Cuomo administration and the town of Warwick to offset the impact of the closure of the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility. The prison will be closed as part of Cuomo's statewide redesign of the prison system, which includes six other closures.
The senator had a busy first year, introducing 80 bills and passing 14. Twenty made it to the Assembly.
Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Port Chester) lauded Assembly and Senate passage of "Complete Streets" legislation, which would require street improvement projects to consider safer access to roadways for pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation. The measure was a key agenda item for environmental groups this year.
Oppenheimer will hold mobile office hours on July 9 from 10:30 a.m to noon at the New Rochelle Public Library, and from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the Ossining Public Library. For more information contact Lailoni Narvaez at (914) 934-5250.
The veteran senator introduced 136 bills and passed 12, while 13 were introduced in the Assembly. Her 57 resolutions all passed.
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said the deal that will see Acorda Therapeutics relocate to Ardsley could "further promote our region as a hub for biotechnical pharmaceuticals," and that it will create stable jobs in the area.
Stewart-Cousins saw five of her 53 bills pass the Senate, and five introduced in the Assembly.