For months, the state’s finances teetered on the edge as the Cuomo Administration attempted to keep New York’s budget in balance while hoping for a bailout from the Congress. The bulk of the Administration’s hopes hinged on two tactics: one, borrowing to ensure that revenues covered expenses; and two, “withholding" payments to government agencies and non-profit service providers to keep expenses down. The Administration “withholds” funding instead of cutting programs while waiting for a federal stimulus deal to fill up the state’s coffers.
This second strategy has been in place for half a year now and the “withholds” are taking their toll.
For example, last week a coalition of over 150 student, faculty, and community groups representing public and independent institutions from across the state delivered a letter to Governor Cuomo and state legislative leaders calling on them to increase state revenue – instead of cuts or “withholds” – to support public and independent colleges and to strengthen financial aid and opportunity programs.
Colleges and universities in New York have been hit hard by the Administration’s “withholds” approach. Higher education programs took the biggest hit in the first fiscal quarter of any category of spending – with over $400 million withheld in the April-June period. All told, the state has withheld $2.2 billion from all services and programs.
The groups cited an example of the impact of the Administration’s approach – the City University of New York has been forced to lay off nearly 3,000 adjunct teachers.
As part of a COVID legislative package, the governor received a massive expansion of his already powerful executive powers, allowing him to unilaterally suspend specific provisions of any law of any agency. A month later in the state budget agreement, those powers were further expanded to allow the governor to slash funds as he saw fit. In both cases, the Legislature retained the power to overturn the governor’s decisions retroactively – a power which they have not yet used.
In the seven months since onset of the pandemic, in addition to the billions of dollars “withheld” from public programs, the governor issued more than 70 executive orders, covering a wide range of issues.
With higher education taking a real financial beating from the governor’s decision to “withhold” hundreds of millions of dollars from New York’s system of colleges and universities, the groups were arguing for restoration and a freeze on budget cuts.
The groups argued that higher education is the state’s investment in its future and cuts harm the state’s civic life and damage the future economy. They argued that financial assistance is the way in which many low-income, working college students can afford a college degree. And it is these students who come from families that often include “essential workers,” those who have had to endure hardships and health threats from COVID to keep the state’s economy moving. It would be unfair to then make it harder for them to access a college degree.
They have already paid enough.
Therefore, the groups urged that any state action to address New York’s budget crisis meet the following goals:
- The state should enhance its support for public colleges and universities. The State University of New York and the City University of New York are already grappling with financial stresses. The state should boost its financial support for SUNY and CUNY and do so in a way that freezes the cost of tuition.
- The state should maintain support for independent higher education institutions. Many of the smaller, independent liberal arts colleges are teetering on the financial brink. State support should be advanced to make sure that no institution fails during this pandemic.
- The state should ensure that programs to maintain college affordability are strengthened. The state’s financial assistance programs should be expanded to ensure that students who are enduring financial hardship are not turned away from college.
The groups wrapped up their letter with a recommendation that the state boost revenues by collecting additional taxes from those with the greatest ability to pay them – the same New Yorkers who have been able to withstand the worst of the coronavirus ravages due to their wealth.
No one disputes that the finances of the state – and the nation – are in bad shape from the economic impact of the pandemic. But it is clear that those with the resources should shoulder the burden of balancing government’s finances, not those who need it most.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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