The budget adopted by New York’s Legislature last week was described by Gov. Cuomo as “the best plan that the state has produced . . . in decades, literally.”
If this is truly the “best” New York can do, we’re in even more trouble than we thought.
Start with the budget-making endgame — which was vintage Albany, in the worst sense.
The governor and legislative leaders cut costly deals behind closed doors. Exhausted (and largely clueless) legislators voted on the package before anyone could question or even understand important details.
And the whole deplorable rush job was justified by the Cuomo-certified, fictional “necessity” of meeting a legally inconsequential March 31 “deadline” — which, in the end, the Legislature missed anyway.
With a little more time for deliberation, someone might have gotten around to questioning some of the Legislature’s more dubious additions.
For example, the budget added $385 million to the State and Municipal Facilities Program — a murky, $1.1 billion pork-barrel slush fund controlled by Cuomo and legislative leaders.
Plus, lawmakers appropriated $2.9 billion toward Cuomo’s pledge of an additional $7.3 billion in state support for the latest MTA capital plan. They also appropriated, or at least promised to spend, billions more for road and bridge projects across the state.
Left unclear was where the money will come from. At the start of the year, Cuomo’s capital financing plan projected the state will essentially reach its statutory debt limit by fiscal 2020.
The outlines of the budget deal suggest it will hit that limit even sooner — raising questions about whether promised investments in essential transportation projects will ever appear.
Among other increases and restorations pushed by legislators, the governor agreed to boost state aid to local schools by a total of $1.5 billion, or 6.5 percent. Cuomo nonetheless claimed the overall state operating budget of $96.2 billion (not including federal funds or bond-financed capital projects) had held spending growth under his self-imposed 2 percent cap.
Cuomo will need to keep the lid on spending for years to come, because the budget also includes New York’s biggest and broadest personal-income tax cuts in 20 years.
Between 2018 and 2025, tax rates for most households with incomes below $321,000 a year are scheduled to be cut by 10 to 14 percent, adding to smaller rate cuts approved in 2011 and previously due to expire at the end of 2017.
Based on a proposal by Senate Republicans, the cuts are expected to save 6 million New York households a few billion dollars a year when fully phased in, nine years from now.
Still uncertain is the fate of a temporary 29 percent surtax on income starting at annual incomes of $1 million. The so-called “millionaire tax,” twice extended at Cuomo’s prodding, remains scheduled to sunset next year.
To be sure, as the governor noted last week, many New Yorkers benefiting from the income tax cut will still be saddled with sky-high property taxes.
“The great riddle is how do you reduce the property taxes?” Cuomo said — although he’s actually taken an essential first step toward that goal by capping property taxes outside New York City.
The rest of the “riddle” can be solved by attacking state mandates that drive up local budgets, which is something Cuomo has largely failed to do.
In fact, at his urging, the fiscal year 2017 budget includes a three-year extension of one of the most costly mandates — a compulsory binding-arbitration law that has played a major role in making police and firefighter contracts more expensive.
From start to finish, this year’s state budget process was overshadowed by a major non-budgetary issue: the governor’s quest for a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Although Cuomo’s minimum-wage proposal was modified, most notably by holding the initial wage hike to $12.50 by 2020 in regions north of Westchester, the final deal largely reflected his priorities.
Now that the governor has saddled New York employers with a costly new mandate that could significantly affect hiring, what will Cuomo feel compelled to do for an encore?
Maybe his true “best” — or worst — is yet to come.