LOCKPORT— Two members of Niagara County’s state legislative delegation took time to meet with county lawmakers Tuesday to discuss local concerns about the impact of expensive mandates from Albany—and left vowing to work closely together to control costs and increase local say in the management of mandated state social programs.
The top-level conference between Niagara County legislators and Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda and Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, R-Clarence, found county and state lawmakers agreeing broadly over the need for fundamental reform to the state’s Medicaid and “Safety Net” welfare program.
County leaders, led by Legislature Majority Leader Rick Updegrove, R-Lockport, had invited the full state delegation to attend Tuesday’s meeting after complaining last year to Gov. Cuomo about the ever-increasing costs of Medicaid, which currently accounts for 60 percent of local property taxes, and changes initiated by governor’s budget to the funding formula for Safety Net, or SNA, that had caused the direct costs to county taxpayers to rise by more than $2 million per year.
Among the solutions county lawmakers are seeking is passage of Senate bill S.429A, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, that would, over a 20-year period, lead to a state takeover of the full costs of Medicaid, or Assembly bill A.4072, sponsored by Corwin, that would allow counties to opt out of providing various Medicaid services not mandated by the federal government, but currently mandated by Albany.
“Unfunded state mandates are one of the major cost drivers for municipalities across the state,” Corwin explained. “Local control must be more common practice to allow local governments to keep costs to taxpayers down and operate a more lean and efficient government. A good, long overdue first step is allowing localities to ‘opt-out’ of our State’s burdensome mandates so savings can be passed on to taxpayers.”
Ortt strongly endorsed Corwin’s bill. “As the former mayor and treasurer of the City of North Tonawanda, I worked hard to cut costs, reduce spending and deliver taxpayer relief,” said Ortt. “Allowing counties across the state to ‘opt out’ of the costly, non-federally-mandated Medicaid services will provide some of that same relief by dramatically decreasing our taxes.”
County lawmakers also urged passage of any of several bills, including a Senate bill, S.1814, from Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst, that would impose a Medicaid residency requirement, as the county has, in recent years, seen a significant number of eligible applicants for taxpayer-funded medical care from outside the county—and even outside the state.
County lawmakers also raised the alarm about Safety Net—a supplemental welfare program that kicks in for people not eligible for the federal Temporary Assistance to Need Families, or TANF, program, either because they have exhausted the full five years of federal benefits, or did not meet eligibility guidelines.
That program, also known as SNA, grows more costly every year, costing local taxpayers $7.8 million last year—more than 10 percent of their total property tax bill. However, the program became particularly costly after Cuomo put forth a change in the funding structure in his 2011 executive budget. Prior to that year, the state and counties each paid 50 percent of the program’s costs; under Cuomo’s new funding scheme, counties pay 71 percent of the costs and the state pays a mere 29 percent.
This has increased local costs by $2.2 million per year, while the overall program’s costs, locally, have climbed by 167% since 2006.
“The added cost to taxpayers for the SNA program has gone on for far too long,” said Ortt. “What taxpayers need is relief, rather than an Albany mandate that only deepens state government’s pockets while burning holes in the pockets of local taxpayers. Instead of requiring municipalities to pay for the majority of the program’s cost, it’s only fair to have the state pay for half of the program as it did before 2011.”
Updegrove noted that SNA was not mandated by the federal government under welfare reforms signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996. For that reason, county lawmakers urged the state delegation to work to pass reforms that allow them to opt out of offering the program altogether.
Updegrove sounded an optimistic note that recent political changes in Albany provided an opportunity for the measures to at least receive a fair up-or-down vote on the floor of the Assembly, where former Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, had previously blocked Medicaid reform votes from ever even coming to a vote. Updegrove said he hoped the man who replaced Silver, Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, would be more even-keeled in running the lower chamber.
“We are calling upon Speaker Heastie to show he does not share former Speaker Silver’s heavy-handedness,” Updegrove said. “Give these bills a fair airing and a fair up-or-down vote.”
Corwin and Ortt thanked county lawmakers for the opportunity for two-way dialogue, noting they shared a great deal of common ground on reforming state law.
“I thank the Niagara County Legislature for their diligence on this matter and I will continue to work with my colleagues in the State Assembly and Senate to create more local government control throughout New York State,” Corwin promised.
Updegrove said he saw the meeting as an important step in achieving reform goals, and praised the two state lawmakers for attending Tuesday’s meeting.
“Assemblywoman Corwin and Sen. Ortt are fully committed to working with us as partners, and get that Albany has, over the years, forced too many unfunded mandates on the counties,” Updegrove said. “They have both shared their concerns with me and been absolutely candid, and they have a record of opposing and fighting such moves. They came to us as partners and allies Tuesday, not as the face of Albany’s dysfunction, but as the face of cooperative work toward mutually-beneficial solutions.”