MAHONEY: Albany gets ready to fill its shopping cart — using your money

| Niagara Gazette

Joe Mahoney

ALBANY — Some call this city on the west bank of the Hudson “Cuomoland” though I prefer to think of it as the Villa of the Fatted Calf.

Governors come and go. The Fatted Calf will remain.

It used to take a small forest of trees to produce the paper on which the state budget is printed. You would need a hand truck to move the pile of spending bills cranked out to specify how the billions of dollars in New York’s fiscal plan were to be spent. Now you can download the document on a thumb drive.

Why is the document so important? There is not an industry, an institution, a local government or a school in the state that isn’t impacted by the budget. Your car registration is coming up for renewal? The budget has something to say about how much you’ll pay.

Is the big employer in town struggling because of high taxes and your neighbor fears she could be kicked to the curb? You can bet the executives at that firm are hoping Albany decision-makers ease up on the state taxes and fees the company remits to the state.

The fatted calf is the budget, with an annual sum today in the ballpark of $175 billion. It is the most important document Gov. Andrew Cuomo will produce this year. The plan is to make its public debut at 1 p.m. Tuesday. And right now there is much agita among virtually all dependent on state spending because New York is staring at a $6.1 billion deficit.

The calf is looking as though it is in for a trimming. The guy with the cleaver is Cuomo.

Typically, the governor gets much of what he wants. The lawmakers generally don’t do much more than trim around the edges, or, more typically, sprinkle in more spending for schools and programs important to them in the closing days.

Some lawmakers hope Cuomo doesn’t complicate things again this year by sliding policy initiatives into the budget that have no significant fiscal implications.

One of them is influential Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, who is the Senate Majority’s point person on the state fisc. Both chambers will draft their own budget response in the weeks following Cuomo’s presentation. Look for Krueger to quarterback that effort in the upper chamber.

“Health issues will be a huge topic for concern,” Krueger told me the other day. “We are talking about a deficit where the finger is being pointed at Medicaid.”

New York’s hospitals, nursing homes, private and non-profit health insurers and medical professional societies and associations will all be paying very close attention to Cuomo’s plan. The lobbyists have already been working the phones, in an effort to mine any morsels of advance intelligence they can pry loose.

Cuomo offered a hint of the direction he will take when he called current Medicaid spending “unsustainable” in his State of the State. He also suggested his administration is feeling frustrated because Medicaid is administered by county governments while the state picks up the tab.

“It is too easy to write a check when you don’t have to sign it,” he said before joking: “Just ask my daughters, who are here today.”

Krueger said the reason for escalating Medicaid costs in New York “is not a mystery.” The program has surged in popularity in recent years, growing from 4.7 million enrollees to 6.1 million now.

That gain, she said, coincides with the advent of Obamacare and the state government’s outreach efforts to try to make get as many New Yorkers as possible covered by insurance. It turned out many people were not even aware they qualified for Medicaid, a free program for poor and low-income people, until they talked to a health exchange staffer, Krueger noted.

The health budget is also soaring, Krueger added, because increases in hospital costs have outpaced inflation. And this has been happening despite the fact the state has been spending more on primary care and preventive care, all with the goal of reducing reliance on hospitals. So that will get a close look in coming budget hearings, she said.

Bill Hammond, health policy director for the Empire Center for Public Policy, offered a different take on the state’s Medicaid spending. In a recent report, he pointed out the state, by 2016, was spending $3,236 per resident on its Medicaid program, 79 percent above the national average.

Hammond argued Cuomo should take stock of his own health policy decisions, suggesting they have fueled the spending spiral. “The latest crisis is entirely inflicted by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature,” he reported.

So on Tuesday, we will find out how much Cuomo wants to spend in the coming fiscal year, and where he plans to add, where he plans to chop. .

On a related front, Krueger, who is a sponsor of legislation to allow for the regulated sale of marijuana, along with Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said she expects Cuomo will stitch his own pot legalization plan into the budget. While that is a policy initative, it also has a tax and revenue component, and envisions a new agency to oversee the industry. So Krueger said a weed blueprint belongs in the plan.

“You will also need to have money for law enforcement because of the DWI issues,” she said, referencing one of the reservations police have with the proposal: new headaches for traffic enforcement.

Upstate lawmakers will be watching closely to see if Cuomo offers parity in funding for transportation. While the New York City transit system has mammoth needs, so do the roads, bridges and public bus systems of the upstate regions.

Though the governor won’t show his hand until Tuesday, his administration has signaled in recent days it plans to limit the growth in Medicaid spending without resorting to broad tax increases.

One big unknown: Given the gaping budget hole, will the popular Property Tax Relief rebate checks that go out to homeowners each year survive the scalpel?

What is certain is Tuesday is just the starting point for Krueger and her fellow lawmakers. While there is suspense over the Cuomo plan, you can take it to the bank there will be even more drama over the final draft, usually negotiated behind closed doors, in the 11th hour, by the governor and the majority leaders.

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