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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Lawmakers Return To Albany, And Whistle Past The Fiscal Graveyard

After a nearly two-month hiatus, state lawmakers returned to Albany last week to conduct legislative business.  Having wrapped up a limited agenda, they are not expected to return for the remainder of the scheduled session.

The focus was on thirty bills that were more or less connected to issues that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.  The bills ranged from new protections for renters and pandemic plans for nursing homes.  Three other bills addressed a wide range of issues:

The first one addressed the issue of how to protect residential utility consumers from possible utility shut offs.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, many New Yorkers have either lost their jobs or seen a tremendous loss of income.  As a result, many are struggling to pay bills for services generally understood as essential to living.  The approved legislation ensures services like water, phone, electricity, and other utilities are not cut off due to non-payment during the COVID-19 pandemic or similar states of emergency.

While some utilities have committed to ceasing water shutoffs during the pandemic, many have not, and all have been voluntary.  Approximately 18 million New Yorkers may not be protected by a moratorium on water shut offs, for example, unless the bill is approved.

The second legislation addressed getting an absentee ballot.  Recently, Governor Cuomo issued an Executive Order for the upcoming June primary that allows any voter to request an absentee ballot and mail it in.  The governor’s order relied on voters to request an absentee ballot, though.  Voters can obtain an absentee ballot application online from the state Board of Elections.

This legislation built on the governor’s action by making permanent the opportunity to request an absentee ballot online and to submit it in time for the state’s elections.  If approved by the governor, it would make it easier to vote in the November 2020 general election and beyond.

The third bill to pass both houses boosted protections from price gouging.  In times of disaster, epidemic or other shortages, some businesses see opportunity to boost their prices to maximize profits by gouging consumers and businesses when they’re at their most vulnerable.  The legislation will give the Attorney General an important tool to deter – and if necessary punish – businesses from exploiting public emergencies to profiteer by price gouging New Yorkers.

While these bills – and others – help deal with issues emerging from or highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Legislature ignored the very large elephant in the room: the meltdown of the state’s finances.

Governor Cuomo has stated that New York faces a $60 billion budget shortfall over the next four years.  Lawmakers did nothing in response.  The reason?  The governor and state lawmakers want to wait to see what kind of federal bailout emerges from Congress.  The House of Representatives recently approved a $3 trillion package that will go a long way toward helping all of the states manage their fiscal stresses, at least for the upcoming year.  But in Washington both the Senate leadership and the President were cool to the legislation.

However, it seems likely that some stimulus package will emerge this month, and so New York’s political leadership wants to wait before acting on budget matters.  Whatever emerges, though, it is unlikely that the Congressional action will fully fill the state’s budget holes.

Last week a coalition of 60 national, state and community organizations, labor unions, and faith leaders urged Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers to retain New York’s stock transfer tax revenues to help offset the four-year budget deficit. 

The groups included national organizations such as Public Citizen and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, New York civic organizations such as the Community Service Society, the Fiscal Policy Institute, NYPIRG, advocacy groups such as Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled and the Strong Economy for All Coalition, labor unions such as District Council 37 and United University Professions.

Since 1905, New York State has had a stock transfer tax, which acts much like a sales tax on the buying and selling of equities.  Since the early 1980s, the tax has been refunded to investors.  The amount of tax dollars rebated back to Wall Street ranges from roughly $5 billion to $16 billion annually.

New York began the year with a $6 billion budget shortfall and little was done in the state’s budget agreement to eliminate it.  The COVID-19 pandemic, plunging sales taxes and the resulting unemployment have greatly weakened revenues even further.  Governor Cuomo is contemplating massive cuts to vital programs, which he would be forced to enact unless revenues are raised.  

At some point soon, Albany will be faced with the daunting prospect of savaging important public programs or raising the money to offset the state’s financial deficit.  Last week the governor and the Legislature punted those decisions to another day.

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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