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NY Budget Down To The Wire

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis

The New York state budget is due Wednesday. Lawmakers, facing a massive deficit, are meeting at the State Capitol, which is off limits to the public, as yet another legislator tests positive for the coronavirus.

The latest to become sick is Senator Jim Seward, a Republican from Oneonta, and ranking minority member on the Finance Committee. Seward, who is receiving cancer treatments, has had mild symptoms from COVID-19, and will be discharged from the hospital shortly, his office says, to recover at home. Seward’s wife also has the virus. 

The Senate and Assembly passed a resolution to allow Seward and others to vote remotely when there is an agreement on the budget this week. 

In the days before the budget is due, the Capitol would normally be noisy with advocacy groups, and lobbyists, but the building is closed to all but lawmakers and essential staff, to help keep the virus from spreading.   

Groups have organized car rallies and are using on line meeting apps like Zoom to hold virtual press conferences. 

A group of lawmakers and advocates from progressive leaning groups say, with the state facing a $15 billion deficit, taxes should be raised on the wealthy. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he’s against doing that, saying the rich will leave the state. 

Michael Kink, with the group Strong Economy for All, says since the Great Depression, New York governors, both Democrats and Republicans, have imposed higher taxes during severe economic crises. 

“It really is unprecedented that Governor Cuomo is refusing to ask the wealth to pay their fair share,” Kink said.  

Many Democrats in the Assembly favor raising taxes on the wealthy, but Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is from the New York City suburbs where taxes are among the highest in the nation, is also not in favor of the proposal. 

Cuomo warns that because of the decline on Wall Street and steep reductions in sales and income tax collections, spending will have to drop precipitously.  

“We have to make drastic cuts to the budget,” Cuomo said on March 29. “Like you’ve never seen.”  

The governor’s budget director, Robert Mujica, says the state will have to borrow money just to get through the first few months of   the new fiscal year, because the April 15 tax filing date for state and federal taxes has been extended to July 15.

Cuomo says a federal bailout package will give $5 billion to hospitals for care of corona virus patients. But he says other federal funding for health care is flawed because it would not allow him to make planned changes to the state’s Medicaid program. One of those changes would have required local governments to pay more for the health care program. Cuomo instead wants lawmakers to accept recommendations from a Medicaid Redesign panel that lays out $2.5 billion in spending reductions.

The state’s Medical Society is among those urging lawmakers to reject the redesign team’s changes. Senate Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera says some of the very hospitals that are now overwhelmed with COVID 19 patients, including Elmhurst hospital in Queens, face reductions under the plan.

“The same system that is going to keep people alive and healthy during this crisis, immediately afterwards should be hit on the back of the head with a 2 by 4,” Rivera said. “That’s what he is saying he wants to do."

Schools are also receiving just over $1 billion in federal funding, but they now will likely not get an expected increase in money in the state budget. Because districts have many increasing expenses, like pension costs and negotiated salary increases, they will likely have to make cuts.   

“The big problem is how you fund the schools,” said Cuomo. “That’s where we have zero dollars.”  

Cuomo is asking the legislature to give him new powers to make changes to the budget in the coming months, if the economy continues to decline, or if it begins to recover and there is more revenue available.  

There are also some major issues lawmakers would like to get done as part of the budget, like legalizing the adult use of marijuana and making changes to bail reform laws that ended most forms of cash bail on January 1.  

Advocates of bail reform say there should not be any changes. Law enforcement groups and prosecutors have been pressing for changes that would give judges more discretion to hold defendants pretrial if they present a danger to society or might be likely to commit another offense. But now, the county sheriff’s association, in a statement, says they want lawmakers to wait until later in the year before negotiating changes. In a statement, they say they are too overwhelmed dealing with the COVID-19 crisis to be involved in discussions, and would prefer the issue be discussed “in a calm, deliberative process after this crisis has waned.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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