Despite New York being at the epicenter of a growing pandemic, Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers were able to cobble together a budget for the fiscal year that started on April 1st, “cobbled together” because it was a budget assembled under unprecedented pressure and based on the understanding that many of its assumptions may be dashed by what happens over the next few months. In that way, it is a budget more written in the sand than etched in stone.
The $177 billion budget was approved during the growing public health threat posed by coronavirus. In fact, five legislators have tested positive. Yet, the Legislature amended its rules in a way that allowed them to approve a budget deal hammered out by the governor and legislative leaders in near total secrecy and by waiving the normal review period for legislation.
Essentially, the approved budget mirrors the one introduced by the governor in January. But in one major way it is different: The final budget reflects the massive budget deficit projected as a result of the coronavirus epidemic.
According to the governor’s office, the state is facing a deficit that is growing and could be $15 billion. Yet, the economy could change and new federal bailout monies could flow that may alter that difficult situation.
As a result, the new budget allows the state expanded authority to borrow to “paper” over financial shortfalls in the hope that federal monies will be made available.
In addition to the borrowing power, the governor got the Legislature to agree to grant him new powers, providing the governor near-total power over budget spending until the end of the fiscal year on March 31, 2021. Under the budget agreement, the governor can act on his own to cut spending if the state’s budget situation worsens, without waiting for the Legislature – a co-equal branch of government – to act.
The logic of the decision is more about expediency than anything else. The formal schedule has the Legislature meeting and acting on legislation through the beginning of June. Despite that schedule, there is a feeling that lawmakers will not return to do their work and, as such, the governor will need to act without them.
In seeking the new budget cutting powers, the governor repeatedly said that lawmakers will be loath to cut popular programs when they are up for re-election this year. If true, the Legislature’s abdication of their responsibilities is simply indefensible. They are paid to act on the public’s behalf; if they are afraid to do so, then they are not doing their jobs.
On the substance, the budget agreement achieved funding for a number of programs, the Legislature made some changes in the governor’s proposed cuts, and policy initiatives were approved. Here are some key budget items:
In the area of the environment, the governor and the Legislature agreed to put on the ballot this November a $3 billion “Restore Mother Nature” bond act designed to provide funding to offset the impacts of climate change – an idea worthy of support and desperately needed. The agreement does not create a new funding stream for the borrowing – such as making the oil companies who have undermined the science of global warming pick up the borrowing tab – thus New Yorkers will foot the bill unless lawmakers develop a new funding stream.
The new budget maintains funding for environmental programs contained in the Environmental Protection Fund. The agreement also permanently bans fracking in New York, provides an additional $500 million in clean water funding and bans polystyrene food packaging and packing peanuts, beginning January 1, 2022.
The budget agreement also prohibits the sale of flavored vapor products, the public display of tobacco products, electronic cigarettes, or vapor product advertisements near schools, and requires disclosure pf the ingredients in vape products. Unfortunately, it does nothing to restore the massive funding cuts approved in previous years in the state’s tobacco control program.
Despite significant budget shortfalls, the higher education budget largely avoided cuts to programs and the agreement rejected the governor’s plan to allow additional years of automatic tuition hikes at the State University and City University of New York.
Of course, this budget is built for changes – possibly dramatic changes. If the economy stabilizes and adequate federal support is delivered, few changes will be needed. Whether the Legislature completes its scheduled work for the 2020 session can also determine if other important issues, policies that are outside of the budget, are debated and acted upon.
We live in unpredictable times. But elected officials get paid to solve problems, to the best of their abilities. The legislative session is not over yet. Let’s hope actions are taken.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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