Expressing affection for upstate New York and promoting a phased-in minimum wage increase, paid family leave and a middle-class tax break, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo trumpeted this year’s budget, his sixth, as multifaceted and touching many lives and addressing many problems. It’s a fair assessment, at least on first blush. Moreover, it continues the largest investment in upstate New York in economic development and transportation.
The $156 billion budget stays within the 2 percent spending cap, making it the smallest increase since officials have kept budget numbers, according to the governor, who called it unique in breadth and sophistication. He credited legislative leaders for coming to agreement during a tumultuous political time in a presidential election year.
The governor promised paid family leave will be transformative for the lives of citizens across the state. The wage increase will occur in steps over the next few years and upstate’s position will be evaluated once it reaches $12.50 in 2021. That should make it more palatable for opponents, as will a promise by the governor that he will not hurt the upstate economy. Time will tell, but he has been its advocate so far.
From a multifaceted economic program to a middle-class tax cut in which the rate returns to the lowest in 70 years, 5.5 percent for incomes between $40,000 and $300,000, this budget is encompassing. The cut will be fully phased in by 2025.
On the education front, it eliminates the justifiably criticized Gap Elimination Adjustment that swept money from school districts. The budget also makes targeting funds for poor schools more precise. It increases state aid for Erie and Niagara counties by 6 percent.
That this budget represents the highest level of educational funding in the history of the state – at an increase of about $1.5 billion this year alone for nearly 700 school districts – does not necessarily signal better educational outcomes. New York State lags behind several other states that spend less. Still, the inclusion of about $75 million for expansion of community schools in high-needs districts addresses a critical need for students and families: legal services, social workers and mental health counselors.
The budget delivers a setback to the State University of New York, held frozen for at least one year and ending the system’s hard-won authority to raise tuition without legislative approval.
Measures benefiting the state and, specifically, Western New York: $200 million for a state-funded project to bring pharmaceutical drug manufacturer Athenex to Dunkirk, another transformative project for Western New York. Both the Town of Tonawanda and the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District stand to benefit by the inclusion of $30 million for communities affected by the closure of electric power generating stations. The NRG-owned Huntley power station in the Town of Tonawanda closed March 1.
Proponents of tripling Niagara Falls’ share of casino profits cannot be happy, since that proposal was not included in the state budget. An unfortunate loss in the budget was a proposed $300 million tax credit program for frequent users of the Thruway, although lawmakers telegraphed the rejection in earlier statements to the press.
There was some much-needed relief on infrastructure as lawmakers promised a massive, multiyear $27 billion capital program for roads, bridges and transit systems in upstate and on Long Island.
The budget, which the governor said is supposed to deal strictly with economic issues, does not address ethics. That does not lessen the urgency.
State leaders have done well in delivering a document New Yorkers can live with, and possibly thrive a little better on.