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Blair Horner: The Budget Battle Begins

The New York State budget fight begins this week with the governor offering his budget plan.  The governor’s budget will be massive – probably $135 billion of spending.  Over 95 percent of it will become law without much fuss.

The budget is really about two things: spending, and the policies that trigger that spending.  The budget includes two sets of bills – bills to set spending limits and bills that propose policy changes that are necessary for the governor’s proposed spending.  How the budget battle plays out will likely hinge on whether – and to what extent – the legislature agrees with the governor’s proposed spending and with his policy initiatives.

If state spending levels are maintained and adjusted for increased costs, New York is facing a $1.7 billion deficit.  The governor maintains that his budget will turn that into a surplus big enough to fund tax cuts worth $2 billion.

In order to pull off his plan, the governor would essentially have to keep spending flat at most state agencies over several years.  The governor has pledged to offer a budget that caps the increase in state spending to no more than 2 percent.  Yet Medicaid and education aid spending are projected to far exceed that cap – increasing somewhere around 4 percent.

And the governor wants to fund tax cuts.  How does all that add up?  The governor will either have to offer ideas for new revenues for the state, or he will have to cut other state programs.  And the governor has said that he will not increase taxes.

Last year, the governor’s budget was enacted with similar assumptions.  The increase in overall spending was kept to under 2 percent, and spending on education and health were increased by more than 2 percent.  How did he do it?

He cut funding to other programs.

For example, the governor demanded – and obtained – big cuts to public health programs.  So services to help people with Alzheimer’s, help treat lead poisoning, provide breast cancer screening – to name a few – were cut.  And that was without a cut tax.

Some observers are not sure how the governor can achieve his plans without cuts.  State Comptroller DiNapoli has said that, “My main concern is how does it all add up.  At the end of the day, it’s all about policy choices.”

Cutting services, like funding for breast cancer screening, may be one of the governor’s policy choices.  Or will he avoid cutting cancer screening by cutting other programs?  Will he offer new revenue ideas that can be generated without increasing taxes?  We’ll know soon enough.

In addition, the governor’s budget will propose policy changes to implement his spending priorities.  One of the governor’s top priorities is to advance reforms made in the wake of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption’s first report.

According to media reports, the governor will propose spending some money to create an independent campaign finance enforcing agency, presumably to replace the anemic state Board of Elections’ lack of enforcement, as well as “seed” money for setting up a voluntary system of public financing of elections.  According to the New York Times, the governor’s budget will propose $4 million to make both happen.

Given the incredibly complex and expanding world of campaign financing, whether $4 million will be enough to police the current system, monitor independent expenditures and do it all fairly is an open question.  Adding to that the cost of setting up a system of public financing – in which candidates have the choice of joining a voluntary system of receiving public dollars to fund their campaigns – and which would also have to be regulated by this new entity, may mean that $4 million is far too little.

But given the unending series of scandals plaguing Albany, the governor’s proposal – if the Times is correct – offers a starting point for the Legislature.  It’s a plan that lawmakers must enhance in order to begin to restore the public’s battered confidence in Albany.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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