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Blair Horner: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Of The 2016 NY State Budget

The big news last week was the new budget agreement.  As is increasingly the case, issues that had at best a tangential connection to the budget were part of the final agreement.  The issue that headlined the agreement included a hike in the state’s minimum wage.  The increase is phased in over a number of years and increases at different rates in different regions of the state.  The budget also included a requirement that employers offer paid family leave and lowered tax rates for New Yorkers making less than $300,000.

Here is a sampling of other issues that Governor Cuomo and lawmakers tackled  – “the good,” “the bad,” and “the ugly.”

“The good.”

The governor’s proposed extension of the “SUNY2020” annual tuition increase law was rejected.  No tuition hike for the first time in five years.  However, the $73 million additional funds that the SUNY Chancellor recently said was necessary to hold the line on tuition was not included, leaving the picture somewhat unclear.

The new budget adds a $100 increase per full-time enrolled student (FTE) in community college base aid over that proposed by the governor—an increase of $25 per FTE over the 2015-2016 final budget.  The budget restored the governor’s proposed cuts to the state’s opportunity programs and added additional funding beyond last year’s amount. 

The budget increased by $130 million funding for the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), boosting it to $300 million overall.  For the first time, the budget creates a separate Climate Change Account within the Environmental Protection Fund, which will include support for electric vehicle charging stations.  The budget includes funding for a $2,000 rebate for zero-emission vehicles.

“The bad.”

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”)—a greenhouse gas cap and trade program that auctions pollution credits to generate monies for clean energy programs—was raided of $68 million, including $30 million for diversion to communities where old, uneconomic power plants are shutting down.

Full implementation of the 2006 Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (“DERA”)—intended to reduce emissions of the microscopic particles spewed by diesel trucks and machinery that cause asthma attacks, lung damage and premature death—has been delayed again.

Governor Cuomo put into budget a package of ethics reforms in reaction to the staggering number of scandals that led to the resignations or prison terms for dozens of state lawmakers – including both the former Assembly Speaker and the former Senate Majority Leader.  Almost immediately, the governor dropped the issue and spent virtually no time marshalling public support behind his plan.  He says ethics will be a top priority for the second half of the legislative session.  We’ll see.

“The ugly.”

Undoubtedly the budget negotiating process was one of, if not the, ugliest ever.  Despite the fact that the $156 plus billion being appropriated is New Yorkers’ money, Governor Cuomo and the leaders of the legislative majorities did not even pretend to allow public involvement in the process.

Not only was the process being decided in secret among the governor and the legislative leaders, the meetings were often held at the governor’s mansion with no public notice.  The leaders were almost contemptuous in their disregard of their responsibilities to the public they are sworn to serve.

Bills were jammed through with no real opportunity for legislators to even read the bills, much less analyze them.  One end-of-session bill even moved to the floor without being written!

It was a godawful process.  I’ve been through many budgets.  In terms of process, one in which the public could feel confident that their money was being spent appropriately, it was terrible.

Governor Cuomo ran for office in 2010 promising to clean up Albany and to develop the most transparent government in state history.  Those are two promises he has not delivered on.  New Yorkers deserve better.

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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