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Blair Horner: Budget Questions New Yorkers Should Be Asking

Governor Cuomo is scheduled to release his proposed state budget this Tuesday.  His budget will be the first to comprehensively analyze the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state’s finances and it will also be the first budget of the second decade of the Cuomo Administration.

New York requires that state budgets be balanced.  How will he balance the budget?  There can be no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the state’s finances.  While there is some dispute over the size of the looming budget deficits over the next few years, there is no disagreement that the state’s finances have been badly damaged. 

Moreover, the state’s finances were in bad shape even before the pandemic hit.  Last year, the state faced a $6 billion deficit, a deficit that the governor and the Legislature were grappling with just as the pandemic emerged.  All those budget problems were swept into the state’s emergency plans as it faced the pandemic, but those imbalances are still there and continue to aggravate the state’s financial woes.

It is expected that there will be another federal stimulus, one that will help state and local governments.  How much of the state’s revenue shortfall will be covered by this stimulus? 

Will the governor add new revenues beyond his recent pledges to tax the sale of marijuana and online sports betting – both of which are currently illegal and therefore will take some time to get off the ground?

Will the governor make publicly available his Administration’s decisions to withhold from agencies state monies that were supposed to be spent?  The Administration has stated that in many cases they withheld as much as 20 percent of approved spending for the current fiscal year, which ends March 31st.  

Will the governor fundamentally reshape state government?  In his 2010 campaign, then-candidate Cuomo promised to fundamentally reorganize state government – stating that the former Governor Al Smith’s plan was his inspiration.  Nothing much has come of that pledge.  It is clear from fiascos like the efforts to get unemployment insurance to the pandemic-impacted unemployed and the recent roll out of the COVID vaccine that the years of cuts to state agencies have taken their toll. 

How will he reform health care?  Despite a decade of Cuomo Administration oversight, New York’s health care system continues to deliver uneven services, often ones that leaves the poor and underserved to face poor quality care.  The impacts of the COVID pandemic turned a harsh spotlight on New York’s health care delivery system and its woefully underfunded public health programs.  Will he offer a vision of reform?

How will he stabilize the higher education sector?  As colleges and universities moved to on-line, remote education in the spring, new challenges emerged in how to teach and equip students.  The pandemic also showed how the decades-long state pullback of support for higher education left some colleges teetering on the financial brink.  Particularly small independent colleges – those without large endowments – and public community colleges – those who normally see a surge in enrollment when the economy tanks, but have not seen that during the pandemic – are struggling to survive and may not unless the state steps in.  Will the governor do so?

How will he address the state’s crumbling infrastructure?  The governor spent a significant part of the State of the State presentations on how he will restore New York’s old, crumbling, municipal infrastructure.  How will he pay for it?  The cost of improving the state’s water and sewage infrastructure, for example, will costs tens of billions of dollars.  How will he pay for that and other mass transit and roadway needs?

How will he attack festering environmental problems?  The governor has stated that he will advance proposals to push New York toward a greener energy future.  Will he include a detailed reporting system so that the public can monitor progress?  And what about other environmental hazards, such as the legacy of industrial pollution that threatens drinking water supplies?

There are questions for lawmakers:  Will the Legislature roll back the unprecedented “super powers” it granted the governor to attack the pandemic?  Those powers are supposed to end at the end of March for his budget “super powers” and in April for his non-budget “super powers.” 

Unprecedented times demand bold, imaginative responses.  The big question in this year’s budget is whether the governor will seize on this opportunity to remake the state’s finances and governance.  New Yorkers will have a clearer picture on Tuesday.

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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