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North Country leaders discuss issues facing the state

PLATTSBURGH Members of the community had an opportunity to hear first-hand the thoughts of state lawmakers as the Plattsburgh-North Country Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual legislative forum breakfast at the Holiday Inn Feb. 1. Sen. Elizabeth OC. Little, R-Queensbury, and Assemblywomen Janet L. Duprey, R-Peru, and Teresa R. Sayward, R-Willsboro, spent the morning discussing issues facing the state and Gov. Eliot L. Spitzers budget proposal, which was recently announced. Among the main concerns addressed by the legislators was the issue of property tax relief. Sen. Little said state officials were aware the issue needed to be addressed. A commission formed by the governor is a step in the right direction, but the senator noted she was disappointed with the make-up of the commission as she didn't feel any of the members serving have a problem paying their property taxes. Assemblywoman Duprey stated the property tax issue is huge and that relief must be achieved, but not on the backs of business owners. Im for supporting relief. We need to do it, but we cannot shift the burden, said Assemblywoman Duprey. One potential piece of legislation the senator feels would help achieve that goal is a bill she has sponsored called the Circuit Breaker. The bill calls for a cap on property taxes, targeted at helping low- to moderate-income taxpayers. A prime example of a person who would benefit from the legislation, said Sen. Little, would be one of her 93-year-old constituents. The elderly womans house was assessed at $75,000 three years ago and has since risen to $150,000, the senator explained. While the states School Tax Relief Program, commonly referred to as the STAR Program, and senior exemptions initially assisted her in paying her property taxes, she found herself faced with an even larger tax bill while having no increase in her income to make up for it. The scenario leaves a homeowner such as that woman with the question of whether or not she could afford to remain in her home, said Sen. Little. The Circuit Breaker idea is the fairest, because it takes into consideration your ability to pay, said Sen. Little. Under our bill, income would be used to determine the limit on how much you pay in property taxes. The excess owed by the taxpayer, she continued, would be then be applied to reduce state income taxes. When questioned about the idea of capping spending for schools and eliminating unfunded state mandates, the senator said the two must go hand in hand in order to make any ground. Theres certainly an advantage to capping, but we need to get rid of unfunded mandates, said Sen. Little. We need to look at the pension fund and offer a defined contribution instead of just a defined benefit. If we offer that as an option, I think were going to find a lot of young people will take it. Assemblywoman Sayward remarked capping shouldnt stop with school districts. Every level of government should be capped, she said. Not just our schools, because we spend like drunken sailors. We have been going up, and up and up every year, Assemblywoman Sayward said of the now unprecedented amount allotted for school aid. But property taxes have been going up and up and up every year, so theres been a great deal of spending that has increased. Some of that increase, she continued, has do with mandates. The issue has led lawmakers to ask school districts what mandates can be withdrawn, leading to tough decisions as to what is and what is not considered a valuable mandate. Some of the things that come before us are like apple pie and mom, Assemblywoman Sayward said of some mandates such as requiring employees have time off for mammograms or prostate exams. Theyre tough choices. When discussing the $124.3 billion budget proposed by the governor, the lawmakers did have some positive comments regarding proposed programs to be funded. Among them is Doctors Across New York, a new program that will provide grants and enhance reimbursement to encourage physicians to relocate to rural sections of New York, such as the North Country. Sen. Little credited the efforts of the administrations of CVPH Medical Center in Plattsburgh and Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone as being strong advocates of that need. Reimbursements in areas like the North Country, the senator said, arent as enticing as those in more metropolitan areas where there is a larger volume of patients treated. Assemblywoman Duprey credited the governor for paying attention to the doctor shortage in the North Country, one that was highly visible when he unveiled his budget proposal. I guess the bad news is when he put his Powerpoint presentation up and they highlighted the areas in red most severely affected by doctor shortage, it took in our entire region all of the North Country, the Champlain Valley, the Adirondack Park area but, its been recognized, said Assemblywoman Duprey. A proposal by the governor not favored by the legislators is a call to increase taxes for gasoline, said Sen. Little. While the increase would generate $13 million more in revenue for the state, its a cost that will be burdened on the backs of people in areas like the North Country, said the senator. And, not out of the pockets of the people in New York City, I might add, because they take subways and buses, said Sen. Little. Its out of the people in rural New York who have to drive to health care, to education and to work. We in the North Country are struggling to pay for gasoline and youre seeing it in our economy as people have less discretionary spending, she said. Seemingly minor changes at the state level could help reduce the amount of costs for the state. Reducing the amount of paperwork produced for legislators for proposed legislation and memorandums could add up in the end, Assemblywoman Duprey said. In the age of computers, many items could be transmitted via e-mail. We have binders worth of paper for proposed legislation, said Assemblywoman Duprey. Wed be better off putting an investment into having a P.C. on every desk. We must kill a forest a day. Weve got to change how were operating, she said.

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