Don’t ‘overcommit’ on budget

by E.J. McMahon |  | New York Post

Amid the smoke and confusion surrounding this week’s on-again, off-again budget dance in Albany, Gov. Cuomo made a point well worth repeating.

Noting big federal-policy changes afoot in Washington, Cuomo said Wednesday evening that his top priority was “to make sure we do not overcommit ourselves financially.”

That’s an eminently responsible position. Too bad the governor hasn’t followed his own advice.

Instead, he’s pushed big-bucks commitments to “free” college tuition, a range of porky “economic development” programs and — of all things — another cycle of generous state subsidies for wealthy Hollywood film and TV producers.

Over the next few years, Cuomo’s favored programs will further sap New York’s fiscal resources even as the state confronts the potentially severe budgetary impact of efforts by the Trump administration and a Republican Congress to repeal ObamaCare, rein in Medicaid and reform the tax code.

Take, for example, the governor’s proposal to eliminate State University of New York and City University of New York tuition for full-time, full-courseload undergrads from families earning up to $125,000 a year.

SUNY and CUNY are already tuition-free for the poorest, thanks to a $1 billion state program that also subsidizes low-income students at private colleges. For the middle class, average SUNY and CUNY 4-year tuition and fees (around $7,700) are a national bargain.

Nonetheless, successfully wooing an endorsement from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Cuomo pushed a new middle-class tuition subsidy program whose full annual cost he estimated at $163 million — a low-balled figure that failed to take account of the disruptive impact it would likely have on SUNY and CUNY budgets, not to mention New York’s vital private higher-education sector.

Based on a budget bill that surfaced this week, state lawmakers were ready to agree on a more constrained approach providing limited additional tuition aid, including a share for students at private colleges.

But through the tumult of this week’s talks, the fate of the tuition plan was unclear. Based on his latest budget comments, Cuomo still has hope of enacting a big-ticket version of “college affordability” among other “really exciting programs” funded by the next budget. The closer he comes to getting his wish, the more likely we’ll be looking at something with a price-tag considerably north of $163 million.

Another set of big-ticket Cuomo priorities was already baked into this week’s budget “extender” bill: nearly $15 billion in capital appropriations for purposes ranging from basic infrastructure (highways, transit) to a $400 million second phase of Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative, a $700 million “community healthcare capital investment” in Brooklyn, and more 8-figure allocations to the kind of “economic development” programs that have failed to rejuvenate Upstate.

Capital appropriations in the extender bill also included an all-new, $2.5 billion “Clean Water Infrastructure Act” minus specifics on where and how the money will be spent.

Cuomo’s added commitments are topped off by the extension of $420 million a year in state tax credits for film and TV production — the most generous giveaway of its kind in the country.

The program isn’t set to expire until 2019, but producers have already laid claim to the full $2 billion allocation approved in Cuomo’s 2014 budget, so the governor wants to make another $1.26 billion in credits available for allocation from 2020 through 2022.

Given the entertainment industry’s well-greased political clout in both the Senate and Assembly, legislative approval of the film-credit extender is all but a foregone conclusion. The only uncertainty now is whether the governor will also go along with the Legislature’s desire to add more tax-credit subsidies for music producers as well.

A budget more consistent with Cuomo’s warnings would be far more carefully prioritized, avoiding any new spending programs, beyond the kind of core infrastructure projects that should, in the end, actually line up with Trump’s stated priorities. That, however, is not in the cards.

While it remained unclear late Thursday when a final budget deal would come together, this much is certain: In the months ahead, you’ll hear more complaints from Cuomo that the feds are threatening to drown Albany in red ink — even as the state keeps cutting big checks to the producers of “Blue Bloods.”