WILSON — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo defended the state's new license plates and their associated fees Tuesday, saying new plates are needed for the state to continue to expand cashless tolls on thruways throughout the state.
Cuomo, addressing reporters while promoting tourism in Wilson, said the cashless tolling systems often cannot read the older plates, hindering collection of tolls. Beginning in April, motorists with plates that are 10 years or older will have to purchase new plates at $25, and pay $20 more if they wish to keep their current plate number.
While announcing the change Monday, Cuomo's office said older plates are often oxidized, damaged or have peeling paint, making them illegible to cashless tolling systems as well as red light cameras and license plate readers used by law enforcement.
But on Tuesday, Cuomo said the older plates are "not designed to work with the technology that we are installing.”
“It is designing a plate that the EZ pass can actually read," Cuomo said during a press conference at Wilson-Tuscarora State Park. "It’s not about the color of a plate or the condition of a plate or the peeling of the plate.”
Cuomo also said the new plates will "save consumers in the long term," because it will reduce state spending on toll collectors and cut wait times at tolls, resulting in less gas use.
"We want to get to a point where 100 percent of the state is on EZ Pass," Cuomo said.
The state is conducting a survey to let New Yorkers choose the final design from five proposals. Three designs display the Statue of Liberty and another features the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in the background. The fifth design places Niagara Falls on the left side, upstate wilderness in the center and the Manhattan skyline — again with Lady Liberty — on the right.
Seneca casino dispute
Also Tuesday, Cuomo defended the state's inaction on a notoriously rough section of the I-90 that runs through the Seneca Nation.
Cuomo said the thruway section is part of the state's larger dispute with the Senecas over unpaid casino compact funds.
“The issue with the Senecas is larger than I-90,” he said.
"They are, I believe, holding I-90 and the repair of I-90 as part of the larger dispute," Cuomo said.
Under a 2002 revenue-sharing agreement with the state, the Seneca Nation paid the state more than $1 billion, a portion of which was allocated to towns and cities. In 2016, the Senecas stopped the payments, saying they had fulfilled the terms of the contract.
The dispute went before a three-member arbitration battle, which decided 2-1 in January that the Senecas owed the state $225.8 million in back payments, including $30 million owed to the city of Niagara Falls.
But rather than pay, the Seneca Nation has made several attempts to challenge the arbitration ruling. In April, the Senecas asked the U.S. Department of Interior, which has jurisdiction over Native American affairs, to intervene and block the decision. And in June, the tribe filed motions in U.S. District Court to overturn the ruling.
Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong Sr. has said the arbitrators' ruling effectively changed the terms that both parties agreed to in the contract.
“Their ruling creates an obligation on behalf of the Seneca Nation that does not exist in the compact as it is written," Armstrong said previously.
Cuomo suggested that by not following the arbitration panel's ruling, the Senecas were not acting in "good faith." He also said repairing the roadway could potentially jeopardize the state's ongoing legal battle with the Seneca Nation.
“I don’t want to give them a reason to say, well, New York breached the agreement by coming onto I-90 when they had no right to come onto I-90," Cuomo said. "That could actually jeopardize our position on the revenues.”
A fishing trip
Cuomo was in Wilson Tuesday with Connecticut Gov. Ed "Ned" Lamont Jr. to promote partnerships between the two states on tourism, energy use, transportation and emergency management. Cuomo said he wanted to expand collaboration between the states' law enforcement agencies, while Lamont said he wanted the states to purchase energy together.
"There are very few issues that we deal with today that are limited by our borders," Cuomo said. "There are so many issues that we're dealing with that we could do better if we work cooperatively."
Just before the press conference, Cuomo and Lamont, a Democrat who took office in January, went fishing on Lake Ontario. They returned with two steelhead trout they say they caught on the lake.
Cuomo has pushed to promote Lake Ontario as an "international tourist destination" as record-high water levels swamped shoreline areas for the second time in three years.
Cuomo said he and Lamont used the fishing trip to discuss policy issues, such as legal marijuana.
During the press conference, Lamont showed that he agreed with Cuomo on at least one controversial issue: providing driver's licenses to immigrants who are here illegally.
Cuomo signed a bill in June to provide licenses to immigrants here illegally, though many county clerks are refusing to follow the new law.
Lamont said he is "proud to be standing next to Gov. Cuomo on the driver's license issue."
"New York and Connecticut, our region is a global center. And people from around the world, we welcome here," Lamont said. "We're a much stronger state and a much stronger region when we welcome people."
"And that's not always the message they're getting out of Washington D.C. right now," he added.
After the news conference, Cuomo was confronted by an Albion woman and her two sons over a new state law, adopted in June, that abolishes the religious exemption from vaccination requirements for schoolchildren. The state Legislature ended the exemption amid the nation's worst measles outbreak in decades; federal officials put the tally at over 1,000 illnesses, according to the Associated Press.
The woman, who declined to give her name to reporters, said the law will prevent her children from attending school.
"My children are not going to spread disease, I promise you. They have a God-given immune system," she said. "They are not carrying measles. They are not carrying mumps. And measles, we are not afraid of it. ... It’s something that God has put on this planet. It's not a disease. It’s a virus. It lasts 10 days."
"I understand the vaccinations are very polarizing," Cuomo responded. "I also understand the overwhelming number of people in this state are afraid of their children getting a disease, and that's what the vaccinations are about. And I support the vaccination laws."
The woman also asked for more research into health outcomes of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children.
"I do agree with you we need to do more research, and we will,” Cuomo said.