By Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s own description, this was a “very, very difficult budget.” That, no doubt, was true, but what started as a spending plan that raised taxes and made only few cuts was transformed into a blueprint that shows no immediate signs of having confronted a looming budget deficit of $4.4 billion.
While many of the decisions are either valuable or at least popular – including a significant increase in school funding – the deficit was the big issue when Cuomo unveiled his plan in January. Its resolution needs to be clarified.
The $168.4 billion spending plan adopted hours before the April 1 deadline, delivers $1 billion more in state aid to New York’s 700 public school districts for a total of $26.7 billion – notably more than Cuomo had proposed. The budget also defied the governor by retaining millions of dollars’ worth of tax breaks, including the critical state tax credits that have incentivized restorations in some historic Buffalo buildings.
The budget provided several million dollars to the region’s public transit system, offered sexual harassment language and addressed the dangerous intersection of gun ownership and domestic violence.
The budget also made a valiant attempt to protect well-heeled New Yorkers from the new federal cap on state and local tax deductions, although experts have expressed doubt as to whether they will hold up under challenge.
• Schools: While advocates for greater increases in educational aid insist the increase falls short for poor school districts, it is also true that New York spends more per pupil than any other state with no better than average results. The deal includes stricter accounting requirements for spending state money, but it also needed to focus more on results, specifically the graduation rates of students who are well prepared for the next phase of their lives.
• State historic tax credit: This is a revenue-generating program that deserved to flourish. The Legislature pushed back on the governor’s plan to weaken the program and, as a result, restoration projects such as those that have breathed new life in the Richardson-Olmsted Campus and the Hotel @ the Lafayette will continue. That is crucial for Buffalo’s revival.
• NFTA: Officials at the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority must be breathing a sigh of relief. The budget includes $9 million for much-needed improvements to its aging Metro Rail system, opened in 1985. Kudos to lawmakers, including Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, who leveraged New York City’s transportation needs into funding for Buffalo.
• Sexual harassment provisions: This provision offers more protection for public and private employees. It may not be as far-reaching as some critics wanted and there is probably room for improvement, but it requires bidders on state contracts to have sexual harassment policies in place and to conduct annual training sessions for employees, among other provisions. How useful such sessions are is the question.
• Domestic-violence cases: A bill lawmakers approved along with the new state budget and promoted by the governor would take away guns from people convicted of misdemeanor counts of assault, menacing, criminal contempt, unlawful imprisonment, aggravated harassment and similar charges if the victims are members of their family or their household. Critics of the governor’s gun-control measures contended that avenues already existed to keep guns out of the hands of such people. This move offers further protections to the public.
Removed from the final budget deal is the Child Victims Act, an important item that arguably should be dealt with in the next legislative session and not crammed into a budget process. At that time, the Senate should join the Assembly in passing a law to benefit adults who, as children, were the victims of sexual abuse.
Left out of the package: reforming campaign finance and open bidding laws, critical given the flood of Albany corruption cases. It’s simply not enough to continue to leave this matter unattended. It should be a priority from the remainder of the legislative session.