NCPR's two veteran reporters, Brian Mann and David Sommerstein, joined Martha Foley to consider the big stories of 2012, most of which are already projecting their influence into the coming year.
Brian, let's start this conversation with one of the biggest "Albany" stories we've covered this year: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Regional Economic development Councils. This is a competitive process to distribute a pot of state money around the state, and the North Country has been one of the top beneficiaries of that.
BPM: Yes, for two years in a row. It's been an interesting project, a lot of this money is sort of repackaged money, but it's been funneled this way through this process that's more competitive, and more locally driven, with these volunteer committees in the North Country helping decide how the money's going to be spent.
And one reason this is a huge story is that everybody talks about how it's forced North Country communities to talk with each other. You have Watertown in the room with Plattsburgh, with Saranac Lake, with Lake Placid, and everyone at the table says this is just revolutionary for us, we've never had these conversations before.
Obviously the big playout is that it's supposed to create jobs, but that conversation too seems pretty exciting to people.
I suppose the proof will be in the pudding for the actual effects of this. David?
DS: I think one of the big stories in 2013 is now that the North Country has gotten a lot of money two years in a row, what will that mean in terms of economic development and job creation.
Brian, I know you'll be watching how these initiatives develop in the Adirondacks, and also how this volunteer council is functioning?
BPM: One of the big questions, we've reported on this again and again, is that it's unclear how they're going to tackle more controversial projects. There are some things that some people want the state to invest in, like tourism trains through the park, like the rooftop highway up in northern Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties, Clinton County, there are real controversial debates there, and this volunteer council doesn't yet have a clear mechanism for adjudicating those kinds of things, and so there's still an experiment unfolding here and it'll be fascinating to watch and see how that plays out.
And there are a lot of small, grassroots initiatives in both years' proposals from the North Country, which was singled out as a strength of the plan, but again, we'll have to wait and see how those play out.
More specific to the Adirondacks, Gov. Cuomo presided over a huge land acquisition this year.
BPM: That's right, the governor arrived in Lake Placid in August, completely out of the blue, sat down at the table with the Nature Conservancy and signed a $47 million, five-year deal, to acquire vast new acreages, about 70,000 acres, for the Adirondack Forest Preserve. This is very controversial for some people. But it definitely moves the needle in terms of park conservation, in terms of the way recreation and snowmobile trails happen.
This is definitely a move on Cuomo's part that will put him in the history books for the Adirondack-North Country as someone who really changed the shape of what the Adirondack Park looks like, so in addition to the $90 million coming this way for economic development, this is another $47 million that will play out over the next five years, so a lot of state dollars coming into the region this year.
So there've been some positives on the ledger.
But this past year brought some financial tough love from the Cuomo administration – a tighter budget coupled with the new property tax cap, the second year of that. That's put a real squeeze on North Country schools. David Sommerstein, many say they're on the brink of bankruptcy….
DS: Yes, a quarter of all North Country school districts say they'll be financially insolvent in two years – half say they'll be educationally insolvent.
To understand what that means, we've been looking, and Julie Grant has done some great reporting on this, at Canton Central, which has become the poster child for school funding issues, really statewide. It's cut 42 positions the last two years and has a $2 million budget shortfall this year.
And this is not a big school district.
No, 42 is a lot of people in this district. Superintendent Bill Gregory says if no help comes in the form of more state aid, class sizes will go up to the mid-30s, 35, 36, and classrooms can't handle that many children. That's where the "educationally insolvent" part comes in.
So schools across the state are feeling this pain to various degrees, many have already marched on Albany this month for more state aid, and plan to again. Governor Cuomo's response was "tough love", he said, you can't get water out of a stone, there's no money for you here in Albany.
And he pointed out that schools did get a four percent increase this past year, and I know the schools up here say fine, but the distribution of that is where the problem lies.
They say the problem is in the school funding formula, that there are schools that are feeling no pain whatsoever, some schools that even have relatively luxurious offerings, while rural schools in particular, rural and urban schools, are being squeezed pretty tightly.
This is one of those issues that isn't going to go away with the new year. In fact, there's a meeting this Thursday night in Canton of the parent-teacher-student organization that's been lobbying hard.
BPM: Let me just chime in, that in addition to the public school pressure we've seen, we've also seen immense pressure on the private schools in the North Country. We had St. Mary's academy in the town of Champlain close its doors, another Roman Catholic school that's gone away in this year, and the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, a private school, facing immense financial pressure, and was even threatened with closure this year, and we'll see where that story goes in 2013, so education writ large really under a lot of pressure this year.
And of course that same combination of tight budget and the property tax cap affects our county governments as well, and we've done a lot of reporting on that, and that's not going to go away in the turn of the year. But we have to turn to a federal issue.
David, you've been keeping your reporter's eye on a national issue that has huge consequences for this region, the federal Farm Bill.
The 5-year Farm Bill expired at the end of September, leaving dairy farmers without any safety net if milk prices dropped. What's happened this fall, and will the Farm Bill be passed today, before the end of the year?
DS: This is one of the major issues sort of in the folds of the fiscal cliff negotiations today in Congress, so we'll be watching it closely. Basically the prices safety net, MILC, expired for farmers, and it put farmers in the national spotlight, because most crops were covered until next growing season, but dairy was hit hard.
This adds to the growing sense among small dairy farmers that they're struggling to see a hopeful future in their business. I spoke with Bob Andrews from Fowler about that, and he said it used to be "the harder you worked, the better you were off financially, today the harder you work, the further behind you get in this business."
Now, sort of the backdrop for this story is another huge story of 2012 which is the drought which affected the whole country, causing feed prices to go way up and further squeeze farmers.
There's talk of an extension of the old farm bill in Congress today, but it's not certain that'll come to a vote today. If nothing happens, we hit what's come to be known as the "dairy cliff" – tomorrow, January 1, 2013, the government would have to buy milk at very high prices – $35 per hundredweight, and that could be very bad for farmers because it could cause chaos in the dairy industry.
So everybody's watching this very closely today, and hoping at least a teeny-weeny extension happens before tomorrow.
Surely, the dominant story in most newsrooms this fall was the 2012 election…here, we saw a rematch between Democrat Bill Owens – the incumbent from Plattsburgh—- and his return challenger Matt Doheny, a Conservative Republican from the Watertown area….
You two divided the coverage between you. David, do you want to go first?
DS: Sure, this was really the first time these two could really just go head to head, there had been a third-party candidate, Doug Hoffman, a conservative, in the previous election, and it was, as expected, bitterly contested, lots of vitriol, millions spent, at one point in October, the race had the second highest of TV ads of any district in the country.
The narrative of the race was that Owens had a comfortable lead of 13 percent in an early poll. But another poll just before the election showed a dead heat, making this race very exciting on election night…
In the end, the power of incumbency and strong showing in St. Lawrence and Clinton counties carried Owens by a few percentage points.
Doheny surprised some people when he conceded and then said he was stepping away from politics. And he said the 22nd district isn't reliably Republican. "You'll see with the President Obama numbers," Doheny said, "it was very challenging."
Brian, Bill Owens was the incumbent, that gave him some big advantages, so why was it a big story that he won another term?
BPM: I think in this case Matt Doheny was spot on. This gave us an unambiguous read on the fact that the North Country's political climate has changed. This is a region where a moderate Democrat who focuses with laser beam intensity on local issues — rather than the kind of big ideological and partisan issues that Republican Matt Doheny focused on — can do well. Bill Owens talked about that during his victory speech, saying "it's difficult to explain, but the longer you are doing this, the more you feel the complexity of the issues we face and the greater need…for intellectual analysis of the issues, and then rational compromise."
Brian, one of the stories on your list today is the discovery by the FBI that Israel Keyes, the confessed serial killer who committed suicide in Alaska last month, spent some time in the North Country.
BPM: That's right. We learned last month that Keyes owned land in Franklin County and kept a weapons stash in St. Lawrence County. We know that he hunted down and killed two people in Vermont and robbed a bank at gun point in Tupper Lake - a case that had been an unsolved mystery.
This was an incredibly dangerous man who made it clear to the FBI that he desperately wanted to keep murdering people in brutal ways. In the rural North Country, this kind of story resonates, and really leaves people feeling vulnerable.
We can't leave this conversation without talking about the flashpoint issue in the Adirondacks this year, the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake. This project has been debated and fought over for nearly a decade, but it still made your list as one of the top stories of the year — how come?
BPM: That's right, going on 10 years, this is the largest single development ever proposed for the Adirondacks, so when the Park Agency gave the project the green light on a 10-to-1 vote in January, that was a huge story — potentially a game changer for the kind of development that's allowed in the Park.
You might have thought that would be the end of the story, but in fact that just sparked a year of litigation, intensely fierce debate. In March two green groups — Protect the Adirondacks and the Sierra Club — sued to cancel the permits, delaying the project for at least a year. This became a huge issue during the election season for politicians.
Looking ahead to the coming year, both of you are involved in significant new projects for the coming year. And I want to mention our news department is much more digital now, and on more platforms. David Sommerstein, you and Julie Grant are cooperating on a new blog?
DS: It's called "The Dirt", and there's already one post up there, and we'll be launching it on Jan. 1, 2013, and be talking about all things food and farming. Julie and I are going to have a lot of fun, we hope to have a lot of listeners and readers engaged in that.
And Brian Mann, you and Tasha Haverty are launching this month a pretty significant project for us called "Prison Time."
BPM: We're going to be looking at the 40th anniversary of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, that hugely expanded the number of prison inmates in New York state, and that led to the expansion of the prison industry in the North Country, and really changed the economy, the physical landscape, and the kind of work we do in the North Country.
And after 40 years, there's a real revisiting of these laws, what they meant, the ethics of the laws, how effective and how cost-effective they were. So we've been digging deep into that, and we'll be bringing that conversation to the public beginning next month—that'll be a big part of what we do in 2013.