March 26, 2004

Jobs and lifestyles big issues at Lifton forum

New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton held a public forum last night at Dryden Town Hall, and the audience brought issues very different from the ones I've seen at the Town Board and Planning Board meetings in that same room. The audience was focused on jobs, pay, and making sure that people could enjoy their lives, whatever income they might have.

Lifton began with a presentation on "another critical year in Albany," noting in particular the impact of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's lawsuit against the state over school funding. There are still lots of challenges to be faced, and the courts may end up appointing a special master to tell the state how to fix its inequities if the legislature and governor can't come up with a plan that meets their expectations. Lifton hopes to have it solved through legislation, as the initial case was only about New York City schools, while inequities in funding are all over the state.

On the budget more generally, she noted that while there is some agreement, it seems "less and less likely that we'll have a budget next week on time." Lifton noted some improvements in the process, like public conference committees, and a proposal to shift the state's financial year by a month from April 1 to May 1. (New York lawmakers only have six weeks for the entire budget process if they hope to be on time.) School funding could be agreed - at least in principle - a year ahead, making it easier for schools to plan.

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton talks about the state budget
Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton talks about the state budget

Lifton said that while SUNY funding had stayed flat this year, the overall effect of that has been a cut in the long term. She said that while the state once underwrote 75% of SUNY expenses, that fell ten or fifteen years ago to 50%, and it's now 26 or 27%. The SUNY system is going, according to a joke she told, "from being state-supported to state-assisted, and now it's state located."

She also suggested that people who think government just needs to trim the fat should take a look at what the impact of years of cutting has already done, pointing out that state income and corporate taxes have fallen 50% in the last ten years.

The first question from the audience was about lottery money and whether it goes to education. While Lifton said that lottery revenues represent about 10% of education spending, they aren't a dedicated fund that goes only to education. They flow into the general fund, and the state spends some of the money in that fund on education. There was a long discussion about accountability, auditing, and where the money goes, from which my conclusion was that you shouldn't buy lottery tickets to increase state spending on education.

County Legislator Mike Lane asked Lifton whether there was any chance of the state putting a consitutional convention on the ballot again in the hopes of resolving Albany's three-way division of power. Lifton made it clear that there wasn't interest in Albany for that kind of change.

Tony Hall, reporter for the Dryden Courier, asked about the prospects for same-sex marriage. While Lifton emphasized the importance of "equal protection for all New Yorkers" and felt that "government ought to get out of the wedding business", she didn't think there was much hope for the civil unions bill currently being worked on, though she plans to co-sponsor it.

I asked how mental health spending looked this year, given past years' battles over things like keeping the Elmira Psychiatric Center open. Lifton said that while it wasn't getting slashed, it wasn't getting the kind of investment it needs either. Planning ahead seems to be a consistent problem, with sudden changes in budget seasons.

A wide variety of questions about increased fees, from handguns to vehicle registrations to proposed tolls on interstate highways (that one is now off the table) came up, as did the issue of regressive taxation. Near the end of the session Lifton noted that the top 20% in income of New Yorkers pay an average of 9% of their income in state and local taxes, while the bottom 20% pay an average of 16% of their income in those same taxes. The rich are paying more in absolute dollars, but they're not paying nearly as much relative to their ability to pay. Medicare has been pushed down from the state to the counties, putting more burden on their property taxes, and Lifton found Governor Pataki's ten-year play for putting the county share of Medicaid back on the state's rolls inadequate, especially in this first year's tiny changes.

The prospect of an Empire Zone came up, though Lifton suggested it was unlikely that Tompkins County, which has the lowest unemployment rate in the state, especially when the program generally is plagued with questions of mismanagement. Lifton does support current efforts for Tompkins to lease some Empire Zone acreage from Schuyler County, however.

One large issue, made clear by the number of people wearing SEIU Local 200 hats and T-shirts, was the current state of labor negotiations at George Junior Republic. Bob Tompkins described the school, which employs 400 people, 200 of them union, and has $10-11 million in revenue on the agency side, as being "in the midst of potential disaster."

Some of the issues, Tompkins said, were strictly between the union and their employer, but others were caused at least in part by the state. Pricing issues, like the situation where the agency can charge more per day but faces a cap on the overall charge, has limited revenue. The state denied a cost of living adjustment pay increase for employees. The turnover rate for employees there has improved from eight months six to eight years ago to two to three years today, but that's likely to fall again given issues in current bargaining, notably management's wanting to halt payment of family health insurance. As one employee said, "this place has been paying people poverty level and then wondering why turnover is so high."

Other George Junior Republic members noted that $8.88 an hour, with minimal raises, just isn't enough for the work. State employees who do similar work get paid better, as do employees at newer agencies, like KidsPeace in Seneca County.

Lifton agreed that George Junior Republic is crucial, reaching kids to keep them out of expensive prisons and treatment later, and promised to look into what was happening. She noted that "we say we value work, but we don't want to pay for it, and we say we value children, but we don't pay people who work with children very well."

There were also concerns about cuts to vocational education. Lifton agreed that the governor "has a thing about BOCES", but said that this is something that needs to go forward, and noted that BOCES does a variety of different projects that districts can't do on their own. She said both she and the Assembly were opposed to the governor's proposed cuts: "He calls it flex-aid, we call it flex-cuts."

Lifestyle issues brought up near the end of the presentation had the audience buzzing: the smoking prohibition in bars and restaurants and possible repeal of the motorcycle helmet law.

Dirk Galbraith, one of the owners of the Moonshadow Tavern on the Ithaca Commons, noted that his business had shrunk from 11 employees to 8, and expected to pay less in sales tax in the future. He described it as "a draconian solution to the perceived problem" and noted that some bar owners had pretty much given up, concluding that they had to break the law to stay in business, and would likely be heading out of business soon. He noted a possible reprieve in a law being considered for proposal in the legislature which would permit smoking in places using new kinds of ventilators, suggested that restaurants and taverns should be looked at different, and encouraged Lifton to keep an open mind. Lifton, though defending her vote on the smoking ban on grounds of employee health, said it had been a difficult decision and agreed to look at the issue again. As he left, Galbraith gave Lifton a small stack of free drink tokens, and Lifton checked to make sure they were worth less than the $75 limit for gifts to legislators.

(Questions about the drinking age also came up during this discussion, with an audience member questioning our denying people old enough to serve in the military the right to have an alcoholic drink. Lifton agreed that our laws on the matter are hypocritical. It doesn't seem likely that the drinking age will come down any time soon, however.)

John Steele of Tompkins County ABATE, American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, brought up both a right of way bill that Lifton said sounded good and the prospect of repealing the law requiring motorcycle helmets. He (and others) said they do wear helmets, even in states where they aren't required, but would prefer to have a choice. Steele noted that many New York motorcyclists are now attending events in Pennsylvania, where the law has been repealed. Lifton agreed to look into it and get back to him.

The evening at Town Hall ended on a strange note, with a State Policeman escorting a man through people leaving the meeting for arraignment in Town Court.

Posted by simon at March 26, 2004 12:40 PM in , , ,
Note on photos