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Guest Column: State Sen. Tom O'Mara

"A hard line?"

ALBANY, Oct. 29 -- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stirred up some ill will around the state last week – and since it’s not going away anytime soon, it’s worth a closer look. It’s worth digging beneath the headlines to try to see where we may be headed.

Last Monday, at one of his periodic public cabinet meetings at the Capitol, the governor responded this way to a reporter’s question on the need for the state to help local governments get out from under the crippling burden of unfunded state mandates: “I have a $1 billion deficit. You know what I want? Mandate relief from the federal government, and when I get it I’ll pass it along…That’s called life, and that’s called the constraints you are in as a government official today.”

The governor essentially signaled that local leaders are on their own on this one, that the state’s own ongoing fiscal deficits and constraints prevent us from doing any more right now. There’s no arguing with the governor that every level of government has to stay focused on the need for cutting costs, consolidating services, becoming more efficient, exercising greater responsibility, and implementing long-term fiscal reforms. Some counties and local governments across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes have done a good job doing just that. But we’ve seen other reports recently that many places in the state have not. For example, Westchester County continues to pay 100% of its employees’ health insurance, and in the city of Buffalo school district the cost of retiree health insurance exceeds that of the city’s current employees.

While I understand the governor’s frustration with federal mandates forced upon the state and the lack of progress by many local governments across New York in reigning in their benefit and other costs, he must also recognize that there are local government entities that have made the tough decisions and have made efforts to control escalating property taxes in spite of the overwhelming mandates passed through the state from the feds to the locals -- and the extra state-created and imposed mandates. Chemung County continues to be a shining example in the state. The county has managed to reduce its property tax rate over the last two decades from nearly $12 per $1,000 of assessed value to under $7 per $1,000 despite these annually increasing mandates far exceeding the county’s total property tax levy.

The truth is that there have been important steps toward mandate relief, especially, as I’ve noted, in the area of Medicaid, which counties have long pointed to as their single-largest state-mandated expense. This year’s state budget sets in motion a state takeover of local Medicaid cost increases beginning in 2013 with a full freeze in effect by 2015. Under the plan, counties will save upwards of $1.2 billion in Medicaid costs over the next five years. Further, the state created a new pension tier that, while not providing immediate savings, will result in over $80 billion in savings to local governments over the next 30 years.

Now, I’d like to see the state do even more in the long run. The ultimate goal would be a complete state takeover of Medicaid to entirely eliminate the local burden. Toward this end, I joined a bipartisan group of state legislators earlier this year to introduce legislation that would begin an eight-year phase-in of a complete state takeover of the nearly $8-billion local share of Medicaid currently borne by property taxpayers.

What about the need for more immediate mandate relief? Forget about it, the governor appeared to say last week. Keep in mind that he’s said it before. I’ve never agreed that it can be such an open-and-closed discussion. The other side of that coin, of course, is that the state should never have mandated anything it couldn’t pay for itself.

Elmira City Manager John Burin said in response to the governor’s most recent comments, “I know [the governor] did a tax cap, and that’s good. It’s a very popular thing, but then there’s the other side of that. They promised mandate relief, and they didn’t give it.”

Again, there has been some mandate relief. And the 2% property tax cap the state put in place in 2011 has been much more than just popular. It’s finally taken direct aim at what has long been one of the greatest of all of New York’s downsides: high property taxes. The cap’s been working to keep property taxes under control in many places, and where it hasn’t been feasible, localities have the ability to override it.

I’ve been a steady and strong supporter of many of the initiatives that the Legislature has worked on with Governor Cuomo to enact important, long-term economic and fiscal reforms. The state closed a $10-billion budget deficit in 2011-12 and another $2.5-billion deficit in its 2012-13 budget without raising taxes, fees or debt. Equally important, the state spent less year to year over these two years, which is the first time that’s happened in over three decades.

We are a long way from being out of the woods and I continue to strongly disagree with the governor’s cut-and-dried pronouncements on unfunded state mandates. And I disagree, first and foremost, because the governor gave his word that the approval of the tax cap would be followed
by mandate relief. Governor Cuomo persuasively built the case for enacting the cap by promising that it would be accompanied by meaningful mandate relief.

So it’s wrong now to simply dismiss, seemingly out of hand at times, the need and the obligation. Local property taxpayers remain at risk under a mountain of unfunded state mandates, and the heaviest unfunded mandate of all remains Medicaid. The state’s response to the cries of local leaders
for relief shouldn’t be tough luck. It’s unrealistic for the state to believe that many local governments can find a way to handle the escalating costs of unfunded state mandates in the face of the tax cap.

So we need to keep at it, and I believe we will.

Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli recently -- and smartly -- restated the local position this way: ”All we are saying is let’s sit down and look at these programs to see what we can do and what we can do differently because we have a very unfair burden.”

Again I’ll go back to October 2011. Governor Cuomo was saying this to local governments: We can’t do any more. Several months later we put in place one of the most significant mandate relief initiatives ever with the takeover of local Medicaid cost growth. In other words, we committed to a
true turnaround in the state-local partnership and long-term, sustained relief for local property taxpayers.

That’s where we’re headed.

The governor appeared to draw another hard line in the sand last week. But keep in mind that in government the next set of waves washes in new realities, better ideas, a fresh way of looking at things – a reshaping of the sand, so to speak.

If state government under this governor has shown anything, it's demonstrated a willingness to keep working at seemingly intractable, deep-rooted problems. There remain many of us who will keep pushing just that approach on the thorny subject of unfunded state mandates.

Photo in text: State Senator Tom O'Mara


Schuyler County Officials

Legislature Members:

Top row (from left): Dennis Fagan, Thomas Gifford, Doris Karius, Glenn Larison

Bottom row: Michael A. Yuhasz, Barbara Halpin, Phil Barnes, Stewart Field


Legislature Chairman

Dennis Fagan, Tyrone 607-292-3687

Legislature Members:

Michael A. Yuhasz, 535-4967

Doris L. Karius, 546-5544

Barbara Halpin, 594-3683

Glenn R. Larison, 594-3385

Thomas M. Gifford, 535-9517

Phil Barnes, Watkins Glen 481-0482

Stewart Field, Watkins Glen 535-2335

County Clerk: Linda Compton, 535-8133

Sheriff: William Yessman, 535-8222

Undersheriff: Breck Spaulding, 535-8222

County Treasurer: Margaret Starbuck, 535-8181

District Attorney: Joseph Fazzary, 535-8383


State, Federal Officials for Schuyler County

Sen. Charles E. Schumer

United States Senate
313 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-3201
DC Phone: 202-224-6542
DC Fax: 202-228-3027
Email Address:

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand

United States Senate
478 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
DC Phone: 202-224-4451

State Senator Tom O'Mara -- Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Yates, western Tompkins, Enfield, Ithaca (Town and City), Newfield, Ulysses(Trumansburg)

Room 812, Legislative Office Building
Albany, NY 12247
Phone: (518) 455-2091
Fax: (518) 426-6976

Assemblyman Christopher Friend -- Chemung, Schuyler, Tioga
Room 720, Legislative Office Building
Albany, NY 12248
Phone: (518) 455-4538


© The Odessa File 2011
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869