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NY Lawmakers Stay Up Late Trying To Pass Overdue Budget

The state capitol in Albany
Dave Lucas
The state capitol in Albany

New York state lawmakers hoped to finish the budget overnight Wednesday — one day after the deadline —after reaching an agreement with Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. The agreement would give the governor broad new powers to add or subtract spending throughout the year, as the state continues to cope out with the fallout from the coronavirus.

Cuomo says it’s a “remarkable” achievement that the budget was agreed to at all, when he and state lawmakers are under such stress dealing with the steeply rising cases of COVID-19 in the state.

The Legislature agreed to give the governor special temporary powers to amend the spending plan several times throughout the fiscal year, based on how much revenue the state is actually collecting. Cuomo and his budget officials have said the state’s deficit could be as high as $15 billion, and they may need to make cuts mid-year to schools, health care providers, and local governments. But Cuomo says if the economy rebounds and there is more revenue coming in, then they might be able to increase aid.

“We can't spend what we don't have," Cuomo said. "If money comes in during the course of the year, we’ll spend it. If we actually lose money, we have to adjust it. That’s life." 

Money to schools will remain flat, and will match the same amount given to each district last year. Schools have rising fixed costs though, like pension payments — so they will likely feel the squeeze. Schools are getting some money from the federal bailout plan.

The Legislature also authorized the state to borrow money on a short-term basis for the next three months, since the April 15 tax collections are postponed until July 15. Advocates had pressed for increasing taxes on the wealthy, but the final spending plan does not include any new taxes on the rich.

The governor says, with the exception of the plunging revenue, he believes it will be a “robust” budget, with many unrelated policy items that the governor proposed in January included in the spending plan.

“With everything going, on we did not scale back our efforts or our ambitions,” Cuomo said. “You look at this budget, you would never know that anything else was going on.”

Those items include a $3 billion environmental bond act that will go before voters in November. Also, single-use styrofoam takeout containers from restaurants and fast-food outlets will be banned beginning in 2022.

Lawmakers were on track to approve a partial rollback of the state’s bail reform laws, after law enforcement groups said the end to cash bail on January 1 for nonviolent crimes in New York led some potential criminals to be set free. Bail reform advocates held a last-minute news conference via Zoom to condemn a plan that would make it easier for judges to order defendants held pre-trial. Marvin Mayfield, who spent 11 months in Riker’s Island because he could not meet bail, says the measure would lead to the mass incarceration of another generation of black and brown New Yorkers.

“What the governor is proposing will incarcerate an additional tens of thousands of New Yorkers across the state,” Mayfield said. “And take away the justice we fought for and won.”

The Legislature also agreed to create a new crime of domestic terrorism, in response to the mass stabbing last December at a Hanukkah celebration at a Rabbi’s house in Rockland County. One person died and several were badly injured. Lawmakers also enacted a controversial publicly financed system for political campaigns that weakens the ability of third parties to become eligible for the ballot.

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