It’s a grab bag of election-year goodies that cuts taxes, offers universal, full-day prekindergarten, and makes good on the remaining $680 million of the “Buffalo Billion.” It does all that while keeping the increase in spending under 2 percent, in part by putting some spending commitments off into the future, as one critic noted.
But if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed 2014-15 state budget is politically driven, so be it; there is still a lot to like about it.
The $137.2 billion spending plan focuses intently on education, beginning with Cuomo’s plan to provide all-day prekindergarten across the state, with Albany picking up the tab. It’s a wise idea – as far as it goes – and better than that of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who wants to hike taxes on the city’s wealthiest residents to pay for that service.
The value of prekindergarten is well established. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, children who attend high-quality prekindergarten programs are “less likely to be held back a grade, less likely to need special education and more likely to graduate from high school. They also have higher earnings as adults and are less likely to become dependent on welfare or involved with law enforcement.”
Those are powerful arguments in favor of the predicted expense of $1.5 billion over the next five years. They are also why it is disappointing that, like kindergarten, pre-K will not be mandatory. It should be.
Prekindergarten is just the start, though. Cuomo is also advocating a $2 billion bond act to build capacity for the prekindergarten expansion and also to pay for technology upgrades in the state’s school districts.
Bond acts are always worrisome in New York, which carries the nation’s second-highest debt load, after California. Still, some debts are worth incurring and while it is too soon to favor or oppose the proposed bond act, the plan is serious and deserves careful evaluation by voters.
The budget proposal also includes the traditional increase in state aid to education, and while the boost totaled 3.8 percent, the figure drew jeers from school advocates. They complain that it still doesn’t make up for losses incurred during the recession and will put schools under severe stress.
To some extent, though, this is simply part of the annual dance between the governor and the Legislature, which always ends up providing more education funding than the governor first proposes. New York is already the national leader in per-pupil spending, and for results that are too often dispiriting. It’s in taxpayers’ interests for there to be a debate over how much is enough.
The budget also seeks to keep the state’s top college students here by offering those in science, technology, engineering or math – the STEM subjects – free tuition if they agree to spend at least five years in the state after graduation to pursue their careers. The creative $8 million program is meant to help reverse the brain drain of the state’s top students to other states.
Other good news in the budget is that Cuomo has kept funding for Roswell Park Cancer Institute steady. That’s a big change from his previous plan to force the hospital off the state budget entirely. Roswell Park needs to find its legs and do more to support itself, but it is also too important to the Western New York economy to threaten its stability.
The budget also makes good on the pledge to send Buffalo $1 billion to restart its economy, a project that is already well under way. While it remains unclear when that money will arrive, it is at least committed.
The yellow flag here is the costs down the road, including that of tax cuts that don’t fully kick in for two years. Those issues will bear watching, but in total, the budget looks at first glance like one New Yorkers can support.