OSWEGO, NY – The state’s Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald rolled into the Port City Thursday afternoon to discuss Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s legislative priorities.
The governor’s People First initiative kicked off about three weeks ago in Syracuse.
McDonald addressed a large crowd in the Council Chambers at City Hall, many of whom were either city or county officials.
“Gov. Cuomo’s administration is all about the people,” she said following the presentation. “I will be spending plenty of time out in the field, out in the state, learning about the local issues and addressing the local concerns. It is also my job to know the bigger issues and be responsive to that, too.”
The governor feels very strongly that he was elected for three primary reasons, the commissioner said.
The first is to get the economy up and running again.
Cleaning up Albany – ethics reform – is number two.
And third is restoring the legacy of social reform.
“We are off to a great start; the passage of New York State’s budget, on time,” she said. “This year, the governor came in and said he wanted a budget on time, it’s what the people said, it’s what everybody around the state said.”
“The people have said to us, ‘get your house in order; pass the budget on time.’ And it was honest, balanced and on time,” she continued. “There was a single-minded focus to get it done.”
It closed a $10 million deficit without raising taxes or borrowing, she added. “But there is a lot more to be done.”
And that is why the governor launched the People First campaign.
When measured by assessed valuation of homes, the top 15 highest taxed counties are in New York State. That’s not a good thing, the commissioner said.
“One of the governor’s priorities is putting a cap on local property taxes. As long as we stay the tax capital of the nation our economy will not grow,” she said. “Even though our property taxes are high, I believe that we are headed in the right direction.”
Investing money (in education) doesn’t always lead to improved test scores, she pointed out.
“That is something else we need to address. When we look at the state overall, enrollment in our public schools has gone down by 4 percent. Total expenditures have gone up by 120 percent and supervisory staff has gone up by 34 percent,” she said. “The same way the governor has directed all of his commissioners to see how we can make things more efficient, he thinks it is time for the school districts around the state to do the same.”
New York is first in education spending; and it is 34th as far as results, McDonald said.
“We always thought we were the best. And, the fact that we are now 34th in results I don’t like that. That’s not a good way to prepare future generations for staying in this state. We need to turn that around,” she said.
The governor wants to cap property tax rates at 2 percent or CPI, whichever is lower. The rate could be higher but it would have to be put to a vote – and approved by 60 percent or more of the voters.
Counties are also looking for relief from mandates as well as property tax, she added.
In 1980, Massachusetts was the second most taxed state in the nation. It the instituted a tax cap. Now, it ranks 23rd.
“We have got to change the way we do business here in New York,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure people stay focused on performance, on excellence.”
Also on Cuomo’s agenda is ethics reform in Albany, the commissioner said.
“This, to me, is a no-brainer. People had faith in their elected officials (years ago). That doesn’t seem to be the case so much today,” she said.
New York has a “part-time” legislature, she explained, adding many of them have another line of business.
“But, it is important to know – who do they represent and how much are they being paid; is it a conflict when they are voting on something as legislators?” she said.
The legislators feel they should police themselves, she noted. However, Gov. Cuomo said this isn’t an “Albany thing” it is what the people say, we are a state, and it should be what the people want, the commissioner said.
“We want an independent monitor,” she said.
The last item on his agenda is social reform, social progress.
“New York had always been the first in the nation in dealing with social issues,” McDonald said. “We’re not first in the nation any more. That has to change.”
Among the issues the governor wants to address here includes same sex marriages.
“It is about equality. It is about civil rights, access to health insurance and pension benefits, and more,” she said. “At one time, as many of us may know, it was illegal for inter-racial couples to marry. Thank goodness we’re not there any more.”
New York is lagging behind other states in this area, she pointed out.
The feedback to the governor’s campaign has been tremendous, she said, adding that the governor’s approval rating is around 71 percent currently.
“I think it’s working,” McDonald said. “We don’t have a magic wand to wave and make everything alright again overnight. It’s going to take some time and that is why we’re going to the people. We want the input from the people to help make this state great again.”
“The governor’s message is simple. If we demonstrate to the residents of the state that when we put an agenda out, we can achieve it. The momentum will continue and we will return to becoming the Empire State,” she continued.
It is up to everyone to be involved, she added.