Looking back on 2011, state Assemblyman Robert Castelli thinks New York is back on track. After years of developing a reputation as one of the countrys most dysfunctional state governments, Castelli believes in the past year the state has finally started to turn things around, though he cautions there is still a long way to go.
"When I first got there in early 2010, it was an interesting environment. Both sides indicated that it was one of the worst sessions theyd ever seen, said Castelli, who won a special election in February 2010 to replace Adam Bradley, who had resigned in order to become mayor of White Plains. This last session was a 100 percent improvement. Thats the good news. The bad news is we are still about 50 percent from where we need to be.
Castelli credited Governor Cuomo with helping to turn the tide in Albany.
One of the most dramatic changes was the effective leadership of our new governor, he said. Hes done an outstanding job and its my pleasure to support him.
Castelli said that partisan politics have played a significant role in polarizing the legislature and thus mitigating its effectiveness. But he said in this past session the climate began to change. In the first half of 2011, Castelli voted on 1,114 bills. Of them, almost 1,000 were passed unanimously. Of the remaining 144, he said around 80 were approved with minor dissent.
And when that happens its usually regional and not partisan, he said.
The remaining 25 to 35 bills, Castelli said, were voted on along straight party lines.
Think about how significant that is, he said. There is a lot more consensus [in Albany] than people believe and its a more collegial atmosphere than people think.
Looking back on 2011, Castelli cites passing a balance budget, establishing a 2 percent property tax cap, starting the process of supplying municipalities with some mandate relief and restructuring the tax code as some of the states biggest accomplishments.
You have the restructuring of the income tax code, which gives a tax break to individuals with an adjusted gross income of $40,000 to $2 million, he said. The structure has been changed to reflect balanced increments at all of the tax levels. The poorest are paying less and the wealthiest are paying slightly less. We have the lowest marginal tax rate in New York State in 50 years.
Castelli noted the tax cap wont prove viable until there is more rent control and mandate relief. He said he believes that is on its way.
[Town officials] should be frustrated by lack mandate relief, he said. In order for the tax cap to work there has to be substantive short- and long-term mandate relief. The governor is working on that and I will take him at his word for that.
Castelli said what he thinks will make a difference this time around is the creation of the Mandate Relief Council. He said it differs from the old Mandate Relief Task Force, which had no real power other than to offer suggestions.
For this one, the governor is subordinate to the recommendations of the council and must act upon their recommendations within 60 days, he said. Thats a big change. Before he could take it or leave it.
Looking forward, Castelli said one the biggest challenges that the legislature faces is making the state more business-friendly.
We are seen as one of the most unfriendly business states in the union due to overregulation, unfunded mandates and by virtue of taxes and fees, he said. Its just a very expensive environment to do business in. Locally, lets not forget that Westchester County is still the highest taxed county in the nation.
Castelli pointed to the Internet and e-commerce as the game changer. He noted because of it, businesses have more flexibility in where they can be located. Consequently, he said, the state needs to make itself more competitive.
The repeal of the MTA tax was key, he said. That was a tax directed at small business. In the recent bill, businesses with payrolls below $1.25 million no longer have to pay that all.
He also noted that the state recently provided some WICKS law reform, which eliminates a bureaucratic bidding process that has been costly and time consuming for projects relating to municipal governments and school districts. He thinks it could stimulate local economies and improve business.
You used to have to submit five competitive bids instead of just buying the lumber locally and have your highway department do it, Castelli said You can now use local contractors and expedite these projects.
Castelli, who will seek re-election in November 2012, said hes optimistic about the coming year.
I am very happy with what Ive seen this year and I see a more hopeful future for New York and the business community as we continue to work toward a better quality life, he said. To make a long story short, we did good work this year.
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