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Blair Horner: NYS Legislature Flexes Its Muscle In Budget Negotiations

Last week, state lawmakers and Governor Cuomo finally wrapped up a budget.  As it has in the past, the agreement was days past the deadline for the beginning of the new fiscal year – April 1st – but it was approved in time to spare state workers and the public of an interruption in services or paychecks.  In terms of the timing of the agreement, this year was not exceptional.

What was different this time around was the massive bailout sent from the federal government to Albany.  The Congressional stimulus deal wiped out Albany’s budget deficit and allowed the governor and legislative leaders to focus on the unmet needs of New York as well as establish measures to keep the state on firm financial footing while we all continue to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic.

The final budget agreement appropriated $212 billion – a massive increase from last year – and included important new measures.  For example, students at the State University of New York (and the City University of New York) will see not see an increase in tuition for the next three years, a significant change in policy. 

In addition, both public and independent college students will see the biggest increase in financial aid in memory.  Funding for water infrastructure was maintained, the governor’s plan to weaken New York’s plastic bag ban was rejected, new nursing home protections were put in place, and an environmental bond act proposal was approved to allow the state to borrow $3 billion to offset the costs of dealing with the growing threat posed by global warming.  Voters will get final say on that plan when they go to the polls in November 2022.

The state financed these proposals – and more – by raising tax rates on those making over $1 million.  Middle-income New Yorkers will see a reduction in tax rates and new help in offsetting property taxes.

Not surprisingly, it was the fight over tax hikes that was most controversial, with supporters arguing that tax hikes on the wealthy will help address New York’s needs, while opponents warning that the wealthy may pack up and leave the state.

The budget agreement was about dollars and cents; funding programs and deciding who will pick up the tab.  But the agreement also highlighted the shifting political dynamics of Albany.  It is now clear that a resurgent legislative branch has the oomph to impact budget decisions in a manner undreamed of in years.

The reasons for this tectonic shift are clear.

The governor is now deep into his third term and like other modern chief executives – from Governor Mario Cuomo and George Pataki as well as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – his political power is ebbing after a decade in office.  It has not helped Governor Cuomo that a new Democratic President has taken office and is now driving national policies, and President Trump is no longer available as foil for the governor. 

Moreover, the mounting controversies surrounding the governor – allegations of inappropriate behavior, failures of his Administration to accurately report nursing home deaths, and the harsh media coverage of his multimillion-dollar book deal – further undercut the governor’s public support and policy momentum.

Lastly, for the first time in modern New York political history, both houses of the Legislature now have super majorities and were willing to flex their political muscle.  After being relegated to a junior partner in the development of New York’s budget and policymaking, lawmakers have been chomping at the bit to reclaim their role as co-equal branch of government and a powerful check on the executive.

There is no doubt that the budget that was approved last week contained measures that could not have been approved in years past – things like hiking taxes on the wealthy.  Of course, the governor was not a bit player in the budget agreement; his constitutional powers make him the main driver of the budget. Yet a resurgent Legislature clearly left a deep mark on the final product. 

It’s hard to see how the current dynamic changes in the next year.  The allegations against the governor may end up going nowhere, but the third term blues will still hang over his Administration.  And those supermajorities are not going away before the November 2022 election, if ever. 

Until then, New Yorkers will see something that hasn’t existed for many years – two co-equal branches of government making policy.  They will sometimes clash, and other times cooperate.  In 18 months, the voters will render their judgment on how well Albany as currently configured is meeting the needs of New Yorkers.

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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