By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Governor Andrew Cuomo brought a statewide promotion of his budget plans to Sullivan County on Thursday.
The face behind this particular segment of the stump tour was not Cuomo but NYS Financial Services Dept. Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky, who detailed the governor’s initiatives to a crowd inside the Government Center in Monticello.
“We are going to demonstrate fiscal discipline, real reform and entrepreneurial government,” Lawsky promised.
After all, he pointed out, “we have a $2 billion deficit that needs to be closed.”
Sporting a newly designed pin that reads, “I work for the people,” Lawsky said the governor is trying to get the State Legislature to agree to no increases for state agencies, but he indicated the harder task will be the reforms he wants to implement following the budget’s adoption.
“There are thousands of [state] programs,” he explained. “Every year, dozens more are passed with no rhyme or reason.”
For example, 13 agencies provide nearly 100 job training programs the governor wants to consolidate that.
Cuomo, said Lawsky, “will submit a plan to eliminate hundreds of redundant and obsolete programs to the Legislature this year.”
He’ll also pursue reductions in compensation to executives of state-contracted agencies.
Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, who introduced Lawsky, pointed out that Cuomo had made “historic accomplishments” last year.
“Governor Cuomo got it done,” she said, adding that he plans to “reinvent government and make it more efficient for all of us.”
But what about mandate relief to counties like Sullivan, where nearly 100 percent of the budget goes to fund state-mandated programs some with little reimbursement?
Lawsky said Cuomo is waiting for a mandate relief council’s report to be finalized.
“I’m very hopeful,” he said in response to an audience member’s question about such relief. “I hope I’m not being naive.”
Lawsky did acknowledge the absurdity of a two percent property tax increase cap on the county when Medicaid cost increases alone outpace that cap.
He said the governor plans to have the state take on more and more of that burden over the next four years.
The pension system also takes a heavy bite of local and state revenues, and Lawsky said Cuomo is proposing a cheaper defined-contribution plan similar to a 401K, rather than the traditional defined-benefits pension plan.
Notably, the proposed plan will exclude overtime and other payments from being figured into an employee’s retirement, in an effort to eliminate people trying to garner a wealthier retirement by greatly inflating their pay in the last year of work. (It will only apply to new hires, however.)
“What’s been done to pare down the operations of our elected officials?” asked former Legislator David Sager, who noted that sacrifices are being asked of all other state employees and taxpayers.
He felt the 401-K-like plan should be offered to those elected officials, as well, to eliminate double-dipping that has made headlines around the state.
“Many people are getting fat off the system,” said Sager, to which Lawsky replied that a new ethics commission has “more teeth” and can pursue such issues more effectively.
Currently in litigation with the teachers’ union over an evaluation system that $700 million in federal funds are dependent upon, the governor is seeking to force the adoption of such a system through the budget withholding additional state aid to school districts that do not implement the system.
“If we are serious about education,” said Lawsky, “we have no choice.”
Legislator Cindy Gieger asked him about the governor’s commitment to agriculture, with Lawsky pointing out that former farmer Darrell Aubertine is the state’s ag commissioner and is supportive of the growing farm-to-table and local foods movements.
Legalizing casino gaming was mentioned as a goal, as was building the nation’s largest convention center at Aqueduct, a Queens horse racing track.
“The governor, from a personal point of view, was embarrassed New York ranked 12th [in the size of convention centers across America],” Lawsky related, adding that “just the building of it is going to create a lot of jobs.”
But no mention of a Catskills casino or the existing Monticello racino was made in either Lawsky’s speech or the governor’s own budget address given days earlier.
When asked at Thursday’s forum about the governor’s stance on gaming in Sullivan County, Lawsky admitted he didn’t know but promised that he could get an answer shortly.
As of press time yesterday, however, no answer was forthcoming.
For the PowerPoint presentation and further details on Cuomo’s plans, head to www.governor.ny.gov/20122013ExecutiveBudget. The Governor’s Office has also created a special website about the issue: nygetinvolved.com.