By Andrew M. Cuomo
Special to The News
This is a pivotal time in our nation’s history. Ultraconservatives in Washington are challenging our values, ignoring the middle class and trying to tip the balance in favor of the wealthy. In recent weeks, the federal government has tried and failed to devastate our health care system and tried and failed to create a religious test for immigration. Now Congress is moving to cut taxes for the few at the expense of everyone else.
That’s not what New York is about. We believe that government can and should be at the service of the people, and we are forging our own path. With our agreement on a $153 billion budget for 2017, New York State has issued a bold and forward-looking statement of our values.
This budget invests in our middle class, cuts taxes for working families, strengthens our economy and expands opportunity for all. And it does so while keeping spending growth to 2 percent for the seventh consecutive year. With this responsible and balanced budget, we are saying without equivocation: New York is moving ahead.
Nowhere is that more true than in Buffalo. Six years ago, we made a commitment to breathe new life into the city and restore its legacy of innovation and growth. With the support of the Buffalo Billion, the city has exceeded all expectations. Today, jobs are up, wages are rising and new industries and new families are putting down roots in the city.
We can’t let the momentum slow. This year, New York State is doubling down on the success of the program and investing another $500 million to continue re-energizing the region. The Buffalo Billion II builds on the success of the program with strategic investments focused on creating jobs, enhancing entrepreneurial business development, strengthening our communities and spurring the tourism industry.
Buffalo Billion II continues the transformation of the East Side and commits $20 million to redevelop the DL&W Terminal and extend Metro Rail to reinvigorate the Cobblestone District. It makes targeted investments to improve the Outer Harbor, and it increases waterfront access points along the Buffalo Blueway, building 18 new docks and boat launches to connect residents and visitors with waterways across the region.
The second phase of the Buffalo Billion also maintains the initiative’s laser focus on creating jobs. Along with new investments in innovation and entrepreneurship, it adds $10 million into the Workforce Development Fund to meet the growing demand for manufacturing and other jobs in the region. We are also moving the Buffalo Manufacturing Works to Buffalo’s East Side and establishing the Western New York Workforce Training Center for manufacturing and energy in Northland, which will drive growth and job creation throughout the Buffalo/Niagara area.
Recognizing that tourism is an engine of the regional economy, phase two of the Buffalo Billion also invests in the continued transformation of Niagara Falls and in the revitalization of downtowns across the region. In addition, we are investing $36 million to advance cancer research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Expanding on the state’s historic $100 billion infrastructure program, this budget will also dramatically improve travel across the region, bringing ridesharing to upstate New York while including $170 million to strengthen roads and bridges across the region. We are not just planning what we will need in the 21st century, we are building it. And by continuing to strengthen organized labor by allowing members to deduct dues from their taxes, we are ensuring that while these workers build the new New York, they will continue to sustain our middle class.
Our budget makes clear that progressive beliefs, far from being impediments to the middle class, are in fact the foundation upon which the middle class was built in the first place, and on which it will grow stronger. With this budget, New York becomes the first state in the nation to provide tuition-free college at our excellent public universities for families making up to $125,000 per year.
Nearly 80 percent of families in Western New York qualify for the program, which will ensure that our young people will have an opportunity to go to college and compete for high-paying jobs without assuming a mountain of debt in the process. To further ease the financial burden of college, the budget also increases access to e-books.
We are also making record investments in educational outcomes all across the state. With an additional $1.1 billion statewide, New York State’s total educational commitment amounts to $25.8 billion, the most in history, ensuring that our children and teenagers are provided with every opportunity to succeed.
The budget includes other significant measures to protect our middle class. For too long, the soaring price of prescription drugs has prevented our most vulnerable from accessing the lifesaving treatment they need. Not anymore. We are capping the price of prescription drug spending in Medicaid to ensure equal access for all.
This budget also advances the pursuit of social justice. Draconian punishments for youthful offenders have ruined countless lives, so we are finally raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18.
There is no doubt that challenges lie ahead, especially with a radically conservative Congress committed to policies that will hurt the middle class and the most vulnerable among us. As part of our commitment to fiscal responsibility, this budget incorporates enough flexibility to allow for as yet unknown federal policies, and to protect New Yorkers’ rights.
Since the days that the Erie Canal turned New York into the Empire State, New York has always served as a hub of industry and innovation and an example for the nation. Today, during a time of deep uncertainty, New York is again shining a beacon of hope and prosperity for the whole nation to see. Never has New York achieved more, built more or produced more impactful legislation. We will continue to rise ever upward. Excelsior.
Andrew M. Cuomo is governor of New York.