ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo offered lawmakers a fiscal olive branch Tuesday with a $137.2 billion election year spending plan – giving Republicans property and corporate tax breaks, while handing Democrats tax reductions for apartment renters and eventually reductions for lower-income property taxpayers.
The governor, as is his style, praised lawmakers for helping with the progress he says has been made over the last three years but then lashed out at ethical and criminal lapses that have occurred within the ranks of the State Legislature as ammunition to get them to go along with ethics and taxpayer-funded campaign plans they rejected last year.
While Cuomo sought to offer a bit of something for everyone, the fiscal plan by the Democratic governor was criticized by one watchdog for blowing deficits into the state’s future finances and dismissed as inadequate by groups wanting more money for education and social programs who say some of the tax cut plans are aimed at helping the wealthiest of New Yorkers.
Legislative leaders, too, were already suggesting possible changes, including Democrats who raised the possibility of higher taxes to fund Cuomo’s ambitious plan for statewide prekindergarten classes and Republicans fretting over the back-loaded ways of the tax-cut package that don’t fully kick in for a couple of years.
The governor, who will be facing voters in his first re-election contest this fall, sought to accentuate the positive. “This year is going to be a banner year. … We are swinging for the fences in the fourth year,’’ Cuomo told lawmakers in a state theater near the Capitol.
The 2014-15 budget plan would:
• Freeze state aid to localities, cuts operating assistance to the state university system and raise or extend a number of fees.
• Boost state aid to nearly 700 public school districts by 3.8 percent, or $807 million, to $21.9 billion, a level more than $1 billion less than what school advocacy groups say is needed to help districts live in a new property tax cap climate.
• Add to the state’s debt load by asking voters in November to approve a $2 billion borrowing for technology improvements in schools.
• Make it harder for developers of abandoned industrial sites, known as brownfields, to get tax breaks; Cuomo wants the program to be used only for cleanup costs at sites vacant at least 10 years to help end tax breaks going to developers who would build on the sites with or without the incentives.
The budget includes an allocation of $680 million to fulfill the promise two years ago by Cuomo to spend $1 billion on job-creation efforts in Western New York.
The overall budget would total $137.2 billion, up from $135.3 billion this year, on an all funds basis, which excludes “extraordinary’’ aid from the federal government for Superstorm Sandy relief efforts that skewed the numbers. On a state funds basis, the budget plan requests $92.3 billion, up from $90.2 billion this year.
From tax cuts for property taxpayers to spending for education programs, some fiscal watchdogs worried the governor is making bold but backloaded promises that lock in state funding commitments years into the future.
E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a budget think tank, said Cuomo’s plan would not create budget surpluses in the future, as maintained, but instead would result in red ink ranging from $1.5 billion in 2016 to $3 billion by 2018. “It’s something close to a sham,” he said.
“It’s definitely a plan that puts a lot of spending commitments off to the future,” said Elizabeth Lynam, a vice president at the Citizens Budget Commission.
Cuomo’s property tax freeze would go to homeowners who live in communities where taxing authorities agree, in the first year, to stay within the state’s 2 percent tax cap and, in subsequent years, those localities that cut 1 percent per year in levy totals through consolidation or shared services with government neighbors.
Cuomo cited Erie County’s 1,044 units of local governments, from villages to water districts, that charge $1.6 billion in annual property tax levies. He said $48 million in taxes could be saved if all of them heed his call to reduce their levies by 3 percent over three years.
His budget also calls for opening a confidential hot line at a state ethics agency he controls for government employees to report cases of workplace sexual harassment against them.
Cuomo’s plan also reduces $1.6 billion in local assistance programs, including eliminating automatic increases for private health and human service entities that perform front-line care on behalf of the state. The Medicaid health insurance program also would see a 3.8 percent state aid increase, and the governor also wants to spend – presumably by borrowing – $1. 2 billion on improvements for health care facilities.
Cuomo also wants to eliminate the cost-of-living adjustment for the Enhanced STAR property tax program, which is used by qualified senior citizens. The STAR tax break has been adjusted every year since 2003 and Cuomo would keep the eligibility level at $81,900 in 20014 but kill the cost-of-living adjustment after that.
After angering many gun owners with his SAFE Act law last year, Cuomo proposed making more state lands available for hunters and creating a new program for discounted three- and five-year hunting and fishing licenses.
“The governor … has presented a budget that we can work within,” said Senate co-leader Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, who said, however,that he would prefer to speed up implementation of some of the proposed tax cuts.
Cuomo sought to define his budget as offering something to please everyone.
“It’s not a package that has been put together to provoke,” he told the gathering of Republicans and Democrats. “It’s a package that’s been put together to pass.”