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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: The NY State Budget Deadline Looms

Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers are now into the final week of the fiscal year.  New York’s fiscal year starts on April 1st.  Given the holidays this year, there is a push to get a budget agreement in place by Thursday, March 29th.

During the Cuomo tenure the state budget agreement has occurred either by April 1st or within hours of the deadline.  Getting a budget in place more or less on time has been used by the governor to make the case that he has brought order to chaos in Albany.  Yet last year, the budget was nine days late.  Was last year an aberration or the beginning of a new trend?

New Yorkers will soon see.

Of course, there are other metrics to measure whether chaos besets state government – such as the number of public officials indicted and convicted of corruption, which tells a different story.  But the governor does rightfully get credit for pushing through state budgets that are “on time” or close to it, while keeping spending within growth estimates set by the governor.

This year’s budget, however, is being crafted in the shadow of the tax changes enacted by the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress.  And those tax changes could have a big impact on some New Yorkers.  Thus, how New York’s political leadership reacts to those changes (if at all) is one of the big questions looming over budget talks.  The governor has proposed significant tax changes to respond to the new federal laws, most of which have been untested, and which have not – to date – been publicly debated in Albany. 

But the challenges created by Washington are not the only problems the governor and the legislature must tackle.  There are a number of big state issues still under consideration.

First, what will the state do about climate change?  The biggest issue facing the planet is the result of the burning of coal, oil and gas.  New York took an important step forward a few years ago when it became the first state with any appreciable natural gas reserves to ban fracking.  The state has taken some additional steps – some forward and some backward – when it comes to allowing the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure – like pipelines – within New York.  Allowing such construction slows down the movement toward a fossil fuel free future since new pipelines are usually financed in a way that requires decades of use before debts can be paid off.

The world does not have years to wait for an end to the reliance on fossil fuels.

The track record of the Cuomo Administration’s investment strategies when it comes to new renewable power generation is also mixed.  The state has made many promises to push to generate half of its energy from renewable power (solar, wind, geothermal), but so far the investments don’t match the administration’s rhetoric.

The renewable power that the state touts is almost entirely generated by aging hydroelectric plants.  The state generates only one percent of its power from solar, for example.  Other states are doing much better, for example California generates about 10 percent of its electricity from solar; neighboring New Jersey gets nearly four percent of its electric from solar power.

It’s up to the governor to push New York into a national leader in solar power.  His first opportunity is this week, as New York wraps up its budget.  New York needs to invest more in solar power and it needs to do so now.  Will the new budget change that?

Second, will the budget reverse the Cuomo Administration’s cuts to college financial aid programs for struggling low-income students?  Last year, the governor advanced the Excelsior scholarship program, which made State University tuition free for those with incomes up to $125,000 and helped many middle income New Yorkers attend public college. 

Yet, he has frozen state support for higher education overall and proposed cuts to programs to help lower income students.  Will the legislature reject the governor’s cuts on programs that are proven to help low-income students and will they reverse the governor’s stagnant support for SUNY?

Third, will anything happen to curtail political corruption?  A top member of the governor’s staff was recently convicted of corruption and the former top Senate and Assembly leaders will be retried for corruption in the next few months.  The governor’s proposed measures would add new ethics oversight, but by entities that are reportable to him, not independent watchdogs.

Given the silence surrounding reform plans, will Albany kick the can again?

Budgets are about meeting the demands of the public.  With limited resources, and faced with unlimited demands, budgets are also the government’s primary tool to set policy priorities.

How Albany answers the budget this year will determine the quality of life for all New Yorkers, not just those who rely on the state for direct public help.

Blair Horner is executive 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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