Over the weekend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York’s Legislature agreed on a $168.3 billion budget for the 2019 fiscal year. Before Albany moves on to the next thing – which could be nothing in an election year – let’s revisit what it just did and what it means.
We won’t mince words about the budget process itself. It’s a joke.
The governor, Assembly and Senate propose their own budgets. Hearings are held. Lobbyists lobby. Ralliers rally. It’s all for show. The real decisions on spending come down to last-minute horse-trading among the “four men in a room” – Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeffrey Klein.
The deal they made last week closed a $4.4 billion deficit without a tax increase. The Legislature rejected most of the $1 billion in new taxes and fees proposed by the governor, except for a $100 million “assessment” (don’t call it a tax!) on opioid painkillers to fund drug treatment programs in the state. To fill the budget hole, they relied on some one-time revenues: $2 billion from the sale of nonprofit Fidelis Care sale to for-profit Centene Corp., an unexpected surplus in tax receipts ($750 million), settlement money and trims to the health bureaucracy.
Hold your congratulations. Yes, New Yorkers dodged new taxes. But lawmakers and the governor did nothing to address the long-term, structural deficits the state will face until they break their spending addiction. Stop kicking the can down the road. Make the hard choices. Voters sent you to Albany to look after their interests, not yours.
Cuomo, Heastie, Flanagan and Klein had no qualms about pouring another $475 million into a $2 billion slush fund called the State and Municipal Facilities Program. SAM, as it’s known, is a source of pork-barrel spending by legislators and the governor. SAM is just part of $11.7 billion in nonspecific spending in the budget for vague purposes such as “economic development” and “infrastructure.” There is no transparency, no criteria for deciding who gets the money and no accountability for how (or even whether) it is spent. It’s an absolute outrage. Fix it now.
The Legislature also approved $600 million for economic development without any new demands for transparency or accountability, even after the Joe Percoco corruption trial showed how lobbyists and developers game the system. We join the Citizens Budget Commission and other watchdogs who clamor for a “database of deals” showing all recipients of state money; for more scrutiny of contracts by the state Comptroller; and for requiring developers to put more of their own money at risk before taxpayers are asked to kick in.
These open-ended appropriations are just an open invitation to corruption. Stop doing it this way.
The budget also raised school spending by $914 million, to a record $26.7 billion.
The increase was more than Cuomo proposed ($769 million) but less than what the Assembly wanted ($1.5 billion). So-called Foundation Aid – directed to the poorest urban districts under a court decision – amounted to $619 million, half of the $1.25 billion the state Board of Regents wanted.
New York spends more per pupil than any other state, with no better results, yet wide disparities remain in the distribution of aid among wealthy and poor districts. The governor and the Legislature must overhaul the complicated, antiquated school aid formula to sort out this inequity.
On the policy front, the governor and Legislature preserved the (rotten) status quo on ethics and voting. They punted on campaign finance reform and closing the “LLC loophole.” They did not take up a push for measures making it easier for New Yorkers to vote, including early voting. Did these elected officials forget who elected them? Get to work on these pro-democracy, anti-corruption measures.
Legislators did manage to create a commission to explore a pay raise for themselves. Give us a break. This should be the lowest priority.
Meanwhile, Cuomo and legislative leaders pushed most policy issues aside in their haste to get out of Albany for Passover and Easter.
Shame on them for not passing the Child Victims Act, which would extend the statute of limitations to allow sexual abuse survivors to sue as adults. Legislators must take it up when the session resumes.
Lawmakers did change sexual harassment laws in the wake of Hollywood scandals. Among the changes: barring most non-disclosure agreements to silence victims, declaring that sex between police officers and people in their custody can never be consensual, and granting protections for workers in the “gig economy.”
In a small victory for the little guy, they also created a state-sponsored retirement savings plan, like the 529 college savings plan, that will allow private-sector workers to sock away money at little or no cost to employers. That is, if they have anything left after paying their taxes.