Property Rights Foundation of America®

Speech from Proceedings of the Seventh Annual New York Conference
on Private Property Rights

Property Rights Bills in the New York State Legislature
Jeff Williams
Assistant Director of Government Relations
New York State Farm Bureau, Glenmont, N.Y.

Farm Bureau, 34,000 members strong, is the most grassroots organization in the state. When I talk to legislators, the Governor, whoever, I don't talk from my perspective. I talk from my members' perspective. They essentially put the words in my mouth. We have a very responsive county system. We have 52 county Farm Bureaus across the state ranging from Chautaugua county way out west down to Westchester County in the lower Hudson Valley out to Suffolk County on the east end of Long Island. So we are broad ranging.

Each of those counties meet in the fall in kitchens and VFW halls and fire halls across the state and talk about how the last year impacted them on the farm, how the coming year will impact them on the farm, and what new laws, what changes to laws, what new regulations, what regulations we need to change—what we need to be done for the coming year. I've talked about this in years past. Each of those counties then sends those resolutions (which is what we call them) that they adopt to the state annual meeting, and we go through the whole line of delegate sessions at their state annual meeting which is three days long. We end up with a book, this big, and in a very small part it is everything that the folks think in the transportation, environment, equine, pesticides, hunting, state budgetary process. That is a fun one to talk about. It is a very, very diverse policy book. We are a very, very diverse state agriculturally.

So, that said, 34,000 members strong, and, you know, I am just happy to be here. I am happy that I am speaking here this morning, and tonight I will be speaking at the Rensselaer County Farm Bureau annual meeting. So it is going to be a fun day, a full day.

Are there Farm Bureau members in the room? I definitely know there is one there, Sheila Powers. Last year at exactly this time Sheila was in that horrendous car accident, and she was laid up for quite some time. I am really happy to see you back here, Sheila. Now there are Farm Bureau members, farmers, in the room, so I know my audience. I know what I can say. I can speak freely.

The issue of private property rights in this state is in trouble. It really is. There are a host of bad bills out there, not just that will affect your normal property but your fiscal property as well, These bills affect your insurance bill, your taxes. It is a downward spiral. It really is.

I think the main reason, at least from the Farm Bureau perspective, that we see this happening is that we see 150 members of the Assembly in New York State and you can count Assembly District 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,6, 7, 8, you get up to 99 until you can get to Westchester County. Everything starts on Long Island, New York City, so that leaves us a little over 50 people to represent upstate New York in the House, and it isn't much better in the Senate.

Carol mentioned a little bit about the "Canned Shoot" bill, which I'll talk about in greater specifics later on, but the Farm Bureau has seen a general decline in the ability of people who are sympathetic to our viewpoints to stand up, which they do willingly, but be heard by the leadership in both houses. And therein lies the problem for us. The bills that I'm going to outline are rank and file party line Farm Bureau issues. I'm sure Sheila can sympathize with this. She is the president of Albany County. If you lock, closed, ten farmers in a room to say okay you have four hours, here is one issue you are going to talk about, come out when you've reached a consensus, but after four hours they will not only have not reached a consensus, but those ten farmers will have eleven different opinions on the issue you are talking about. In this case, that is not the case.

I could spend a lot of time on smoking bans for bars and restaurants. My wife told me, don't talk about the smoking ban because I can spend 20 minutes or half an hour talking about that. Just from a private property rights perspective, to have a bar owner or restaurant owner not be able to allow his clientele to do something that they legally can do outside the bar surely is a bad thing, not to mention the private property impacts on the people who live next to the bar and restaurants who have people, 50, 60 people, smoking at 3:30 in the morning, who are drunk, screaming outside their front doors. It's a real concern, I know, in New York City, and I think something will change as far as giving a little more leniency if only because the winter months are coming on and smokers are going to get real cranky when they have to stand outside in 20 degree weather.

Canned Shoot, though, was the main focus of our legislative efforts this session, certainly this summer after the legislature passed the bill. Four years ago, the interested parties—environmentalists, animal rights advocates, the Farm Bureau, the hunting organizations, as well—sat down and said okay, Canned Shoots, I think we ought to agree that staking the animal up, crating the animal, tying an animal and then paying to shoot the animal, may not be the best thing in the world. I got one letter from one of our members who said she didn't see much of a problem with that because, fundamentally, dead is dead. It doesn't matter how you kill the animal. Dead is dead. But we sat down and said, okay, these things are bad and penning the animal so that it is really fenced in is not really a sporting chance for the animal. That's a Canned Shoot. We weren't entirely happy with that. I know the people pushing for the bill weren't entirely happy with that, because once that was passed, they immediately said, okay, what can we do next to strengthen that and broaden that bill, that statute.

So, what we saw is what Carol has referenced—legislation where you still can't stake, tie, hobble, crate an animal and shoot it for a consideration, but they removed the 10 acre fenced-in area and they didn't change it to 30 acres or 40 acres. They just said any acreage. Any acreage at all. There are over a hundred hunting preserves in the state. Those hunting preserves have at a minimum 100 acres, at a maximum 5,000 acres. I believe I'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who would think that a 500-acre hunt is not fair game, fair shoot, but apparently there are two legislators in the Legislature, the Assembly and the Senate, both incidentally from Manhattan, who thinks that is a Canned Shoot. We always knew this bill would go through the Assembly. As I mentioned, the 99 people down-state it has gone through before, but I will tell you in the Senate I never thought—we had no indication—that the Senate would pass this bill. We had every indication that it would be held up in committee. In fact it was until the very last session when the majority leader, and he has been very helpful to us in many other issues, when the majority leader, despite, without talking to any member of his conference, put it out on the floor, and the problem is that we had great friends in upstate New York, 22 voted against the bill. Everyone that we knew would vote against the bill stood up and voted against the bill, but the majority leader depended solely on the minority, the Democrats in the House and members from Long Island to pass the bill. It has never happened before. It has never happened before that a bill has carried. I mean, unfortunately, it is true but the minority in the Senate doesn't matter. They are inconsequential, but in this case the majority leader, despite the wishes of his conference, passed the bill.

This session has been a bellwether for that change. We have seen it coming where the Senate majority negotiated with unions giving them much, much more than they deserve and at the expense of people like us. But this year's smoking ban, Canned shoot bill, and some others really have shown us that we are going down the wrong road in the traditionally friendly Senate.

So we worked with the Governor. Mary Tyler Moore, incidentally, was the mean advocate on the support side for this bill. She made daily calls to the Senate majority's leader, the Assembly's speaker, the Governor, and laid it on very thick. We were lucky enough to have two good people, the Governor's counsels, who were interested in the bill, knew the problems, the complexities, but unfortunately the problem was to try to spin it so the Governor wouldn't get bashed as an anti-animal rights person. They knew the business impacts, but they needed to figure out a way not to upset the Governor's side, which we didn't really care about, but the governor obviously did. We brought the Governor's staff out to a couple of hunting preserves, a couple of deer farms, because 40 percent of our deer farms in this state—and there are over 500—40 percent of their business is marketing deer to hunting preserves, and much of their profit. It is a $38 million business in upstate New York. When you look at major company going out of Syracuse—and we're losing business—and this economy, and to lose more, especially from the agricultural sector, was a bad thing. Thankfully, the Governor vetoed the bill. And we are very appreciative. I have spoken since with the sponsors of the legislation, and they are each planning to resubmit the bills. So we are going to do this all over again next year.

Other bills that passed and were signed into law—a dog shelter bill requiring that, regardless of climate or breed of the dog, you need to have an insulated, waterproof, large doghouse. Be careful, because this is one the animal rights crowd is going to infiltrate and make your lives miserable.

You know, we didn't take a stand on that because we are not dog farmers, but one step down the road is cows.

Other bills we've seen that weren't passed are local regulation of hunting and fishing, DEC, which is a friend of ours, would no longer be allowed to set seasons or bag limits. It would be for your town or county. You could hunt in one town and take two deer or three deer through their system, perhaps, but not use a muzzle loader or a shotgun. You would never know because once you cross the municipal line, the rules could change.

The same thing with pesticide use. I would hate to be a farmer spraying corn and having to change my rate of application, or the date of application, or be prevented from applying pesticides once I crossed my tractor over one municipal boundary. It's just another way and you can all think of areas in the state where that certainly would happen. I can think of at least two that would go organic right off the bat.

One other bill that's interesting, and I really enjoyed the last talk talking about especially the information about preserving land and national parks. There is a bill which would make it illegal to pollute with your light on your property. So you could be fined $1,000 if you turn on your security light on your property and it bleeds over to a neighbor's property. Your light is now "trespassing" and it's a very real issue and not only does it make a penalty for it, it also creates nighttime preserves. So you would restrict the lights, light pollution, in certain areas of the state so you could better see the stars, and actually I brought the bill memo from the sponsor of the bill. I was reading a little bit about it because this is the kind of thing that people think about in the state if we don't think about the impact in upstate New York. To quote, "One fifth of the world's population and more than two thirds of the U.S. population, more than one half of the youth population have lost naked eye visibility of the Milky Way. As a result, they conclude, the night sky appears more seriously endangered than commonly believed. Due to the threat to the night sky, it is important to articulate a strong state policy on its value." If it gets passed in the Assembly and goes on to the Senate, it is so strong that just from a farm perspective during harvest when you are out in the fields at night with the lights on the tractor or lights for apple picking, you will have to be very careful because there are people just waiting to take pot shots at you.

Another issue is open burning. This is something we have been following very closely. There is legislation introduced that would prohibit statewide open burning on your property. So, therefore, if you live in the North Country and you have one refuge disposal company and it is a hundred bucks a month, you apparently will have to use that hundred-buck-a-month refuge disposal company because you can't dispose of any of your garbage or your garden debris, or your land clearing debris, by burning on your property. Farmers generate a lot of waste by virtue of the business and is something that certainly concerns us.

I will talk about one other issue because Carol brought it up, and it is labor law. You don't think of labor laws, as in contractors and subcontractors, as things that are private property rights, but due to the unions and their strong presence in the state, the scaffolding law for contractors is some of the most lenient on behalf of victims in the nation. I admit it, I like beer, and if I were to go out and drink six beers, which I wouldn't, at lunch and go back to work, the worst thing that would happen would be that I would fall asleep or fall off my chair or something. There are construction workers that drink six beers at lunch and then go back to work, climb ten floors of scaffolding, and go to work. Regardless of the amount of beer they are drinking, the amount of drugs they have taken, if they fall, the land owner and the contractor is fully liable for all the victim's pain and suffering and any other judgements awarded by the jury. It is driving home builders out of the state because they can't get insurance anymore. We need to reform that. There are bills in that would reform that.

And, very briefly, the same thing with car leasing agencies. You cannot lease a car in the state anymore because if GM leases a car and it's a three-year lease and two years down the line the person driving the leased car is drunk, kills somebody in an accident, the family of the victim can sue the car lessor for damages despite the fact that no one from GM was in the car. The last time they saw the car was two years ago. The liability laws in this state are exceedingly of concern.

Here is good news, I have to say. The Farm Bureau doesn't have a policy on this because it is relatively new this year, but there are some tax relief bills out there that would impact you financially in this state. I read in the Wall Street Journal last week that New York State is the least-taxed state in the nation. I'm joking. We are very highly taxed in this state. I can show you my tax bills, but what we, also, are is a state where immense land that is not taxed. Non-profits in this state don't have to pay any tax on their land. One third of all the real property in the state is tax exempt. We are looking at educational foundations, the churches, the camps, the mental health organizations. Let me back up before I go even further. I've got one third taxes in value. That's $431 billion in property value in this state that is non-taxed. When you think about all of that being shoved onto you, the landowners and the taxpayers, it is certainly distressing. For example, the Storm King Art Center in Westchester—I seem to be beating up on Westchester a lot today—there are 524 acres of non-taxed property, $4.5 million in taxes that they don't pay. All that is being swept off onto Westchester property owners. In the year 2000, $1.5 billion with a capital B was lost to local governments because it was tax exempt status. Forty percent of the properties in Tompkins County are tax exempt. In St. Lawrence, 45 percent; Rensselaer County, my home county, 30 percent; Alfred, the village, 75 percent tax exempt. I picked Alfred because I grew up in Alfred. Ogdensburg is 72 percent.

What has happened is the courts have watered down the law. It used to be that the property had to be "exclusively" used for church purposes or camp purposes. It is now "primarily" used for those purposes. In some areas in some camps, I can tell you stories about YMCA camps, I'm not going to pick on the YMCA, but they hold 400 acres, I believe, in Orange County with beautiful ski type lodges that were just built two years ago, and they use 50 acres of it for their camp in the summer for 30 days or 60 days. The whole amount of that land is tax exempt. Same thing with the property in a church. They can sell timber off that land and keep the profit and still not pay taxes on that land. So these are the kinds of things that as farmers, as large landowners who pay a lot of land taxes, that are of concern. We don't have policy on this because this is new. We are hauled into Sen. Betty Little's office last year to sponsor this bill, saying, you will support this. We don't have a policy. As I mentioned, we are a grassroots organization but we are talking about that right now as far as our annual meetings go.

There is legislation introduced that will help alleviate this problem, and I have some bill numbers for you if you want to write these down. S.1127A, which would require a State reimbursement of lost local taxes if it passes. We are $6 billion in deficit this year and we were $6 billion last year, and we project another six the following year. I don't anticipate the State making up any of this lost revenue. Another bill, S.1398, looks at the local division to offer a tax exemption, which seems to me personally ultimately fair. S.1124, all land again owned by the state subject to taxation so when you buy new parcels for Adirondack Park or Catskill Park, those towns are reimbursed. Another bill, S.1126A, is a land-banking bill. It prevents land-banking. Therefore, if a person who passes away in Manhattan, who is relatively wealthy and has farms and acreage in Orange County and leaves it all to his or her church, that church has to show a plan of how they are going to improve that property in order to keep the tax exempt status. They can't just keep that vacant land as tax exempt. And then S.1123, non-profits must annually prove their tax exempt status and the status of their lands that they hold.

Farm Bureau doesn't have a policy on this because we go to church and we have churches that do have the same strategy. Camp Oswagatchie, a day camp in the country, is tax exempt, so I don't want to go too far on this position, but it is certainly something that we are looking at organizationally and certainly worthy of your consideration today.

I don't want to take up too much time, but I want to talk about Assemblyman Prentiss's wetlands bills, the Homeowner Relief Act, the bill for financial help, the bill to correct the problems when they re-map wetlands. We are also certainly following these and are supportive of these bills. These are certainly worthy of your consideration today.

Just finishing up, I thought the last presentation was fantastic. The grassroots is so important to try to make these changes, to get these bills through, or to stop the bills that would negatively impact us. It is true that if you live in Chautaugua County or Suffolk County, it is a long way to Albany. We ask our members to do it once a year for our lobby day both in Washington and in Albany, but one ought not to discount the idea of knocking on your legislator's door in the district offices because you get a lot more time in the district offices. The legislator is much more relaxed and you can get a lot more done. Thank you very much.

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