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Cuomo outlines another austere budget

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The difficult choices continue.

For the second time in two years, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed budget cut spending by taking aim at programs and policies that some vocal groups, such as public unions and agriculture advocates, covet. The $132.5 billion spending plan, which cuts total spending by less than a percent, sets in motion a two-and-a-half-month frenzy of maneuvering, lobbying and negotiating set to culminate April 1, when the Legislature must, at least by law, approve a budget.

“Budgets are not supposed to be traumatic,” Mr. Cuomo said Tuesday at his budget address in Albany. “Compared to what we faced last year, this is incredibly manageable, this budget.”

Although it already raised income taxes on the wealthy in December, the state still faced a $2 billion budget gap, so it had little choice but to trim programs and find efficiencies in government. And the effect on the north country could be profound. It would cut agriculture programs for the second year in a row. It would eliminate a program that one Watertown development group depends upon. And it would reduce funding for the Adirondack Park Agency.

The state’s legislative delegation pledged that some of the more unpalatable proposals could be tweaked, which should placate some north country groups that were concerned about the effects the cuts might have.

“There’s going to be some areas of the budget where funding is reduced, especially in areas such as agriculture and housing,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “Those areas, we’ll be able to have discussions about, and hopefully we’ll be able to reach some middle ground on those issues.”

But on many issues, it was too early to give a definitive prognosis.

“From what I’ve seen, and I’ll have to wait for the details, it looks like it was fair to the north country," said state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie. "But I’m just looking at it right now."

On agriculture, Mr. Cuomo cut the Farm Viability Institute by two-thirds, from $1.2 million to $400,000. A sacred cow for agriculture advocates, the Farm Viability Institute funds agriculture research in the state. It was targeted for elimination last year, but saved in legislative negotiations.

Mr. Cuomo also proposed eliminating a maple syrup program, a tractor rollover prevention program and a program that battles rabies on Long Island. He also proposed allowing the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Markets, Darrel J. Aubertine, to issue a market order on dairy farmers.

Essentially, that means that part of a dairy farm’s profits would go toward dairy research. Right now, the state funds a program that does the same thing.

“That sounds good, but at times, when farms have low milk prices, that nickel or dime, that could make the difference for a lot of farms when margins are very tight,” said Jay M. Matteson, the agricultural coordinator in Jefferson County.

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets would take a 10 percent cut, and a fund that was targeted specifically for food safety now will be directed into the general fund.

“When something is in a dedicated fund and it goes into a general fund, that general fund can be a big black hole,” Mr. Matteson said. “In the case of foods safety especially, that’s concerning.”

The governor also sought to eliminate the Neighborhood and Rural Preservation programs, which would save the state $12 million.

Gary R. Beasley, executive director of the Neighbors of Watertown, said the state funding cut would hamper the ability of the program to provide planning services to businesses in the community. If the cut is enforced, he said, the program would be forced to cut a number of key staff positions.

“I think that it’s a very counterproductive move on the part of the government,” he said. “The neighborhood preservation and rural preservation programs both leverage far more money than they cost.”

He said the program channels about $50,000 of the funds to plan revenue projects such as the reconstruction of the Franklin Building, 50 Public Square, Watertown, for which about $4 million was raised from private investors out of state. He said that project is just one example of the economic development work the program oversees.

“This program is designed to help groups in the community identify their needs, write applications and pursue funding to meet those needs,” he said, adding that studies have shown that every dollar invested in the program has a $30 return. “So by eliminating the funding, you’re eliminating the development of the funding to meet those solutions.”

He added that the Rural Preservation Program relies on the funding even more than Neighbors of Watertown to pay for staff and overhead costs.

“The corporation has a far lower volume of activity and relies more on the grant to help with staff and development,” he said, “so they’re going to get hit much harder than we are. Whether it would put them out of business, I’m not sure.”

The Adirondack Council was not happy about a reduction in the governor’s budget proposal of $105,000 for the Adirondack Park Agency, which the council said is already underfunded and short staffed. Director of Communications John F. Sheehan cited a number of cutbacks the agency already has made in recent years.

The APA has suffered staff cuts of 30 percent over the last five years and closed its Visitors Interpretive Centers in the spring of 2011, although they were reopened by the colleges that donated the land. Last summer, the APA modified its enforcement of land-use code violations, granting amnesty from civil penalties for all illegal subdivisions created before 2001, and offered after-the-fact permits instead because its enforcement staff was gutted and given additional duties.

The enforcement team staff dropped from six to three and a half. Overall employment at the APA dropped from a high of 74 in 2007 to 53, Mr. Sheehan said.

Soon after Mr. Cuomo wrapped up his speech, a deluge of news releases from public employee unions began to descend upon reporters in the state.

The New York State Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association, for example, lauded the governor for not closing any more prisons, but said it would not support his attempt to create a new pension tier.

Called Tier VI, it would reduce benefits for future government employees. It also would give them the option of enrolling in a defined benefit contribution plan.

The plan would save $83 billion over 30 years, Mr. Cuomo said. But it could put the current system at risk, some unions warned.

“We urge the legislature to reject this effort,” NYSCOPBA President Donn Rowe said in a news release. “Our members earn these benefits, and the Cuomo Administration must recognize that shifting the burden to those New Yorkers who can least afford it is an unfair and shortsighted policy.”

The governor also called for a new teacher evaluation system, and warned that schools that do not approve a teacher evaluation system in the next year will lose out on state funds.

“The 2010 law just hasn’t worked,” Mr. Cuomo said.

The union for teachers in the state bucked at the proposal.

While frustrated about the inability of all districts to pass an evaluation system, “we think there are better ways to achieve implementation rather than tying it to funding increases that benefit students,” New York State United Teachers President Richard C. Iannuzzi said in a news release.

The governor also proposed:

■ Flat funding to State University of New York schools.

■ A June 1 deadline for plans on the proposed “energy highway” that would link power sources in upstate New York with downstate New York.

■ A hike in taxes on loose tobacco products and cigars, dubbed the closure of a “tax loophole.”

Times staff writers Ted Booker and Martha Ellen contributed to this report.

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