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Governor Hochul presents her budget

The big Albany news last week was the unveiling of Governor Hochul’s 2023-2024 Executive Budget proposal. The proposed $227 billion proposal covers a lot of ground, calling for more money for existing programs, as well as offering new policy initiatives. The governor wants record increases in education and Medicaid spending. She also would set aside more than $1 billion to help New York City pay some costs of providing social services to new asylum seekers. Her budget offered details about her plan to build 800,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade.

When it came to climate change, her budget paralleled the plan offered late last year by the state’s Climate Action Council. The Council was created under state law to develop a plan for the state to meet its science-based greenhouse gas emission goals.

Hochul is calling for a $5.5 billion investment to promote energy affordability, reduce emissions, and invest in clean air and water. Her plan includes a “cap-and-invest” program that would establish a tightening cap on greenhouse gas emissions and invest the proceeds from polluter fees, with a focus on helping disadvantaged communities. The “cap-and-invest” plan is modeled on the state’s current cap-and-trade program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cooperative effort among eight eastern states that caps and reduces carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The governor’s plan would extend that concept to large-scale greenhouse gas emitters and distributors of heating and transportation fuels, requiring they purchase pollution allowances for their activities. Proceeds will support investments in climate mitigation, energy efficiency, clean transportation, and other projects, in addition to funding an annual Climate Action Rebate that will be distributed to all New Yorkers to help mitigate any potential consumer costs associated with the program.

Additionally, the governor’s budget proposes that all new building construction rely on non-fossil fuels for power. Her plan is to require by 2025 that there be no on-site fossil fuel combustion for smaller buildings, and by 2028 for larger buildings. In addition, the plan would bar the sale of fossil fuel heating equipment by 2030 for smaller buildings and by 2035 for larger buildings and related fossil fuel systems for all buildings. In a surprise addition, the governor proposed legislation to allow the New York Power Authority to build renewable energy projects.

The governor’s new construction plan lags behind a law already in place in New York City – the skyscraper capital of the nation. Why the governor delayed the implementation of the ban on gas and oil being used to power new buildings is unknown – a head scratcher given that new construction is considered the “low-hanging fruit” of moving off fossil fuels.

One of the biggest problems facing the state is the eroding finances of the downstate mass transit system, run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The federal government has provided $15 billion in aid to help the MTA recover from financial losses during the pandemic. Due to slower than anticipated gains in ridership, the MTA will spend that money fast. With projected budget deficits of $600 million in 2023 and $1.2 billion in both 2024 and 2025, the state must provide additional funding so that the MTA can serve New Yorkers and help New York City fully bounce back.

If approved, the governor’s plan would stop the MTA’s financial hemorrhaging, but not right the ship. The ongoing financial problems will continue to fester and the threats of rising sea levels and more fierce storms will add to that price tag. More will need to be done.

The governor advanced a plan that is likely to draw significant opposition. The governor’s budget, while keeping the statewide cap of 460 charter schools in place, proposes to eliminate regional caps and make 85 more slots available for new charter schools anywhere in the state. In addition to proposing an expansion of charter schools, the governor also advanced new public safety measures, which are also likely to generate legislative opposition.

The governor also embraced her predecessor’s plan to hike public college tuition, another initiative that will generate opposition. It was the former governor’s higher education budgets that contributed to the growing financial problems within the State University and City University systems. Governor Hochul also failed to propose any new help to independent colleges, which are also in bad financial shape.

In the area of health care, the governor proposed an increase in cigarette taxes and a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products – to track the current prohibitions on flavored cigarettes and vapes. Already the tobacco lobby and their front groups are mounting fierce opposition to these measures. The governor’s plan falls short – she does not use the additional proceeds to fund the state’s anti-smoking efforts or boost efforts to curb the sale of illegal tobacco products. That failure plays right into the hands of the tobacco lobby and their allies.

More will be learned as the governor’s plans get legislative scrutiny, starting this week. Under New York’s Constitution, the governor wins a lot more than she loses in Albany's budget fights. Too often, Albany forgets whose money it is they’re fighting over. In order for the governor and state lawmakers to get it right, we have to stay engaged. Stay tuned.

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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