State Sens. Rob Ortt and Marc Panepinto and Assemblyman John Ceretto offered the following thoughts on the state budget:
With regard to education, Ortt, R-C-I-North Tonawanda, said, "This budget increases state education aid by over $1.4 billion across the state to bring total state education spending in my district to over $457 million - well beyond the levels that the governor proposed. It eliminates most of the disastrous Gap Elimination Adjustment, which will save our local schools nearly $18 million. We're helping our students by reducing over-testing and protecting our kids by removing convicted, violent offenders from the classroom."
"I also think it was important to take a stand against some of the governor's more extreme proposals, like basing teacher performance evaluations 50 percent on testing, or refusing necessary funding increases without dramatic overhauls of the system. Ultimately, evaluations will be left to the professionals at the State Education Department and the Board of Regents, who will then implement evaluations on a district by district basis.
"It was also critical to fight back against a New York City agenda that wanted to provide tax-payer tuition assistance to illegal immigrants, while so many hard-working New York families struggle to put themselves or their children through college."
Ceretto, R-C-I-Lewiston, said he was "disappointed" with this portion of the budget.
"Today I voted against a portion of the state's deeply flawed education budget," he said. "This legislation further entrenched the over-testing that has come to define our education system under Common Core. I could not, in good conscience, vote for legislation that was so unanimously opposed by the parents, students and teachers who will feel the effects of this firsthand. I have stood with them and will continue to stand with them as we work to fully fund our schools and enact education reforms with the input of the parents, students and teachers who know our schools best."
Panepinto, D-Buffalo, said, "While I am proud of a budget that provides increased investment in our aging infrastructure, protection of the STAR program, and extends the Brownfields tax credits to continue Western New York's economic renaissance, this budget process was fundamentally flawed. Never again should our state government resort to political hijacking tactics like linking high-stakes testing and flawed teacher evaluations to essential school district funding and ethics reforms. Never again should our state government and Albany insiders place petty partisanship and 'business as usual' ahead of meaningful bottom-up economic initiatives that would help all New Yorkers prosper and close the income inequality gap.
"It is unconscionable that the Republican majority failed to address common sense issues like raising the minimum wage, funding paid family leave, and finally ending the devastating Gap Elimination Adjustment. Unfortunately, we did not accomplish any of these priorities, which are critical for New York's middle class. Instead, the legislature passed a budget in the dark of night, which threatens to fundamentally alter our public education system for the worse."
Speaking of the entire budget, Ortt said, "This budget will help create jobs, fund education, and relieve local taxpayers. That's what matters most to me: improving our ailing economy, upgrading our infrastructure, increasing aid to local schools that have been constrained by budget cuts, and helping our working-class families, farms and small businesses overburdened with taxes and regulations."
He said the budget was on time for the fifth consecutive year, which helps maintain the state's high credit score. It was also held under the spending cap that applies to school districts and local governments. Ortt noted that, despite high-profile education negotiations, he was pleased with the finished product.
"This budget increases state education aid by over $1.4 billion across the state and approximately $25 million in my district," he said. "It eliminates most of the disastrous Gap Elimination Adjustment, which will save our local schools nearly $18 million. We're helping our students by reducing over-testing and protecting our kids by kicking convicted, violent offenders out of the classroom."
Ortt also discussed the importance of several education components that did not make it into the final budget
"I also think it was important to take a stand against some of the governor's more extreme proposals. ... It was also critical to fight back against a progressive agenda that wanted to provide tax-payer tuition assistance to illegal immigrants, while so many hard-working New York families struggle to put themselves or their children through college."
Ortt prioritized upstate infrastructure needs entering budget negotiations. He was optimistic regarding the budget's investments in upstate transportation, including $50 million for CHIPS funding, $250 million for Department of Transportation needs, and $25 million for upstate transit networks such as the NFTA.
He pointed to several additional measures that he said will strengthen the Western New York economy, including extension of the Brownfield Tax Credit Program, agriculture assistance, infrastructure investments, as well as measures to help small businesses.
"The Western New York economy is unique from other areas of the state, so I fought hard to make sure our concerns were not only heard, but addressed," Ortt said. "I would argue that most recent economic development projects we've seen across our region can be attributed to the brownfield tax credit, which is why its 10-year extension is so important. With low property values and high cleanup costs, the tax credit helps revitalize properties that otherwise would generally remain contaminated and abandoned.
"The other key element of local economic development is assisting our small business community. These businesses operate on the margins and have been struggling to adjust to the state's recent increase in the minimum wage. They simply cannot afford another New York City-driven effort to raise the minimum wage without killing Western New York jobs."
As the region's leading industry, Ortt also worked to ensure Niagara, Orleans and Monroe counties' agriculture continues to thrive. The final budget includes millions in additional funding for growing apple, berry, dairy, hops and barley, Christmas tree, wine and grape, and maple producers.
"Key to this year's budget is record funding and a market-driven approach to not only sustain, but to invigorate agriculture," Ortt said. "We provide key research, cost-cutting and education programs to increase supply. Additionally, through dedicated advertising and expanding markets, we will also stimulate demand. These measures will help our family farms by helping to ensure that agricultural products are grown locally, and demanded globally, for generations to come."
Ortt, a member of the Army National Guard who served in Afghanistan, also laid out veterans' priorities and millions in additional funding for service members.
"My greatest honor was fighting for my country as a member of the Army National Guard," he said. "It's now my honor to fight for our heroic men and women who served our country as a state senator."
Ortt noted this year's budget expands the Joseph P. Dwyer program across the state and will provide peer-to-peer counseling services in Niagara County. It also invests significant research and development for post-traumatic stress treatment and support affecting soldiers who have returned from service. Due to the unique challenges many veterans face, the budget also sets aside important services to veterans needing legal support.
Ceretto, meanwhile, said he voted in favor of provisions in the new state budget that include a $1.3 billion increase in state education funding and important reforms to the STAR property tax rebate program. He voted against what he called "highly controversial education reforms that leave our schools under-funded and double down on the failed over-testing of the Common Core standards."
"This year's state budget contains some positive and negative elements," he said. "On the positive side, we have increased state education funding by $1.3 billion and enacted reforms to the STAR program that allows homeowners who registered late for the program to receive a rebate.
"While no budget is perfect, I feel confident that Western New York families will benefit from the measures contained in this budget. I will continue working to fully fund our local schools, roll back the disastrous Common Core standards, and deliver meaningful tax relief to Western New York families."
Ceretto also pointed to beneficial provisions in the budget that improve the STAR property tax program. The provisions allow the Department of Taxation and Finance to make a one-time payment of 2014 STAR savings to homeowners who submitted their STAR exemption application to their local assessor late, but re-registered for the program on time with the state. It also allows the state to recoup money from improperly granted STAR exemptions.
In addition, Ceretto voted for measures to
•Extend the sales and use tax exemption for wine tasting to beer, cider and liquor tasting, which he said would benefit the businesses on the Niagara County Wine Trail.
•Provide a cost-of-living adjustment for service providers in the Office for Persons with Developmental Disabilities totaling $57.1 million.
•Provide $500 million to help people in need heat their homes through the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP).
•Restore $1 million in funding for the National Heritage Trust Program to preserve historic properties.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said, "I commend Gov. Cuomo and the NYS Legislature for working to pass an on-time budget that includes funding to continue the revitalization of upstate NY while investing in the infrastructure necessary to bring more business to New York.
"Part of that revitalization and investment includes the extension of high-speed broadband access across the state, which will bring millions more residents into the online commons, especially from underserved and unserved communities.
"Moreover, increased investments in the Environmental Protection Fund and the extension of the Brownfields Cleanup Program underline Albany's commitment to protecting and conserving our natural resources while being responsible stewards of our environmental legacy. At the western end of the state here on Lake Erie, we are very cognizant of the need to protect these resources for future generations, and that need is reflected in the priorities of this budget.
"Additionally, having borne the brunt of a difficult winter that featured large amounts of lake-effect snow, the inclusion of $50 million in local capital aid for infrastructure repair due to the extreme winter is very welcome. I thank Gov. Cuomo and his partners in the NYS Legislature for their action and attention to our region."