Ambitious State Budget Defies Coronavirus

State of NY
Governor Andrew Cuomo


New York taxpayers will learn the hard way if the state budget, passed in the middle of the night on April 3, turns into a nightmare.

The marathon negotiations took place while the state was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, and lasted until nearly 4 AM.

“I haven’t been that happy to leave Albany since I was a freshman coming home for Thanksgiving break,” state Assemblyman Fred Thiele said.

With many people out of work, and expenditures to fight the virus enormous, revenues are being deleted at a record clip, both public and private.

“A lot of this will depend on the [federal] financial aid package,” Thiele said.

Governor Andrew Cuomo defended his desire to move beyond the financial pratfalls of dealing with the virus.

“It would have been very easy to say, ‘Oh, this is an extraordinary year. Let’s just do the bare minimum and go home,’” he said. “We did the opposite.”

Many of the measures he championed over the past several years have been included: more tax breaks for the middle class, passing stronger hate crime laws, and addressing minimum wage discrepancies.

The budget also funds a paid sick leave package that is one of the most generous in the nation. It comes at a time when the state is bleeding money because of the pandemic.

“I understand we’re all consumed with the coronavirus situation, but we have to move forward at the same time, and that’s why passing the budget and these pieces of legislation were important,” Cuomo said.

Left unsaid, but almost surely to take a major hit, is school funding.

“I’ve told every school superintendent I speak to, you have to plan for a rainy day,” Cuomo said.

Thiele said the governor typically reviews school spending every quarter. There have been mid-year aid cuts before, most notably in 2010 during the financial meltdown, he said. Cuomo has the authority to withhold or reduce payments to schools and local governments during the year if necessary.

While the governor is proposing $826 million in new education spending this year, some lawmakers have been pushing for $2 billion they claim is owed to New York schools following a 2006 state court decision.

The problem is the discrepancy in per-pupil spending between school districts, some of which is supported by more robust local property tax bases, as is the case with Riverhead. New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta and other officials say the state’s foundation aid funding formula grossly underestimates what Riverhead should receive.

Educators and administrators say a lack of state funding has led to increased class sizes and the loss of after-school programs.

“The truth is that our district is in dire need of funding to help us address the growing needs of students,” said Riverhead Superintendent of Schools Dr. Aurelia Henriquez. She estimates the shortfall is $31 million.

Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming pointed out the Suffolk County Department of Health relies on state funding.

“It’s hard to say what money will be passed through,” she said. Compounding the problem is the county’s reliance on sales tax as its primary source of revenue. “That’s going to be really short. We’re trying to help out . . . people are in a bad way.”

Fleming said she is thankful the enhanced busing program she championed will be funded.

“From what I heard, funding will be at least at the 2019 level,” she said.

But Cuomo countered that more than 80 percent of the proposed $826 million increase in spending will go to “high-needs” districts.

He found money to fund a number of environmentally-friendly projects every year in office. For example, the creation of a $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act that will address, among other areas of concern, climate change.

The act will be a key source of funding for projects focused on reducing flood risk, investing in resilient infrastructure, restoring freshwater and tidal wetlands, preserving open space, conserving forest areas, and reducing pollution from agricultural and stormwater runoff. The budget also calls for a permanent ban on hydrofracking.

Cuomo has vowed to lower prescription drug costs for all New Yorkers and the budget addresses some of the inequities in the drug business, for example capping insulin co-payments at $100 per month.

The budget provides funds for student loan relief — the nation’s only state-sponsored need-based loan forgiveness program — and enacting regulation prescribing standards of conduct for student loan servicing companies. It also renews the Buy American Act that requires state agencies to use high-quality American-made steel.

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