By Richard Whitby
The Daily Star
---- — Reining in unfunded mandates, broadband expansion and improving the lot of dairy farmers were among the 2013 goals the area’s legislators set for themselves Monday during the Otsego County Chamber’s annual State of the State breakfast at SUNY Oneonta.
State Sen. James, R-Milford, told the crowd of about 100 at the Morris Conference Center that he supported the 2 percent cap on property tax levies when it passed in June 2011, but said the Legislature promised to enact mandate relief in tandem with the cap.
“There’s been precious little mandate relief,” he conceded. “There’s been some (but) we need to make good on that promise, to really deal with the issue of property taxes in New York state.”
Members of the panel — Seward; U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook; and Assemblymen Bill Magee, D-Nelson; Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie; and Clifford Crouch, R-Guilford — each were given a specific set of issues to address during the discussion, but that didn’t stop them from reinforcing what other panelists said.
Magee, called upon to discuss agriculture, for example, echoed Seward’s comments about mandate relief.
“Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough,” he said, pointing to the effects the cap was having on school districts.
“They’ve got problems,” he said, adding cuts in state aid dealt the schools a second blow.
Magee also said he was gratified by Gibson’s advocacy for a comprehensive farm bill in the coming session.
“Dairy farmers do have a very serious problem,” Magee said. “They work hard to produce a quality product. They put it on somebody else’s truck, pay that truck to take it to market and say, ‘Send me what you want.’
“They have no idea when it leaves the farm what they’re going to receive for that milk because it depends on a federal marketing order, something that really, seriously needs to be addressed.”
On the positive side, Magee said that he would continue to support microbreweries, adding that hops have be reappearing as a crop in Otsego County after a long absence. He pointed out that the area was once the biggest producer of hops in the United States.
Magee praised Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s interest in agricultural issues.
“In the number of years I’ve been in Albany and working on agricultural issues, this governor is the first governor that’s ever specifically looked at agriculture,” Magee said.
He also advocated for more direct marketing of farm products to downstate residents, an effort that Crouch also said he hoped would expand.
“We’ve been able to make some inroads getting New York state foods into the city,” Crouch said. “We are privileged to have the largest market in the Northeast within 200 miles of where we’re sitting right now. So I think that presents some real opportunities.”
He also saw some positive developments in regional agriculture.
“Being a former dairy farmer, I know full well the trials and tribulations of agriculture,” he said. “That being said, it’s one of the growing areas of our economy.
“Dairy certainly is difficult, and that’s the majority of agriculture, but we’re seeing the growth of small niche farms, organic farms and other grass-fed operations. So I think there’s some opportunity there. I think we’ll see those grow more in the future.”
Lopez discussed some of the currents at work on hydrofracking, an issue that he said would continue to dominate work in the Environmental Conservation committees of the state Senate and Assembly.
“The issue will never be resolved unless and until the governor says yes or no,” Lopez said. “And once he says yes, it still won’t be resolved, because we have local laws that have been put in place. We’ll have debate. We’ll have court challenges, I’m sure. So this issue will continue to command people’s attention.
“The big issue here is: Is there a way to balance protecting of the environment … against economic development and the availability of low-cost natural gas? That’s really the issue. I can’t simplify it any more.
“If (Cuomo) he allows it, my sense is it will be on a very limited basis and conceivably only communities that have welcomed or encouraged fracking. That would be my guess.”
Lopez also discussed getting some clarification on strict diesel-emission rules, originally intended to apply to state vehicles but extended to vehicles operated by state contractors. He said contractors were balking at the cost of meeting the requirements while the state was giving itself extensions on deadline.
Lopez said the he’d also like to see the issue of invasive species addressed, saying it is a “huge problem.”
Several of the panelists mention greater access to broadband in Otsego County as a priority, although few specifics were offered.
“Broadband (is) vitally important to growing the economy,” Gibson said. “It’s important to the delivery of health care. It’s also important for education.”
“At our economic summit last March that was identified as a huge, huge issue for us in this county,” Seward added. “And we’re going to hopefully be making some exciting announcements soon that will begin the process of expanding broadband in Otsego County and upstate New York.”
“I think it’s imperative we have full coverage for all cell phone ... and broadband coverage in every community,” Crouch said. “Because as we see people move into this area from metropolitan areas, they love our communities, they love the ambience, everything about it, the safety that we have. Yet, when they want to start up their business or continue their business here, they find it very difficult if they have the old line service.”
Among the other issues mentioned, Magee said gun control would rise to the fore as a result of recent shootings, such as the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Gibson said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must do more to create an accurate test for Lyme disease and work toward more effective treatments.