Lawmakers react to state budget
ELIZABETHTOWN — The state has budget liftoff.
The $163 billion spending plan reached over the weekend includes most of the big-ticket proposals Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed in January, including free college tuition at state schools, upstate ridesharing, raising the age for criminal liability and a (modified) version of his consolidation proposal for local governments.
The state Senate inked the spending bill late Sunday, two days after the governor announced a deal had been reached — and nine days after the constitutionally-mandated deadline, making it the latest during his tenure.
Cuomo called the budget the “hardest” of his administration — but the best.
“Never has New York achieved more, built more or produced more impactful legislation,” Cuomo said in a statement.
The free tuition program for families making under $125,000 annually comes with a $150 million price tag. Nearly 80 percent of the state’s families will qualify, said the governor, and funds have also been earmarked to boost aid for students at private schools.
The budget also includes a 4.4 percent bump in education aid for a total of $25.8 billion; $203 million to combat heroin; a plan to cap Medicaid drug costs and a 6.5 percent raise for direct care workers.
The extension of the “millionaires tax” will generate $3.4 billion in revenue next year, a middle class tax cut will save taxpayers $250 on average next year, according to the governor’s office, and 6 million New Yorkers will receive $700 annually once fully effective.
The budget also establishes a statewide task force to study and deliver recommendations on accessibility needs to “protect and provide transportation to vulnerable populations” — including Medicaid patients who rely on medical taxis.
But the full details have yet to emerge on that proposal.
About $16.4 billion in economic development funds were approved last week as part of an extender budget, including funds for Frontier Town, Whiteface and Gore Mountains and the Plattsburgh International Airport.
And the 2 percent property tax cap remains the law of the land.
Assemblyman Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) blasted the budget process as “dysfunctional.”
“This budget contains too many controversial issues that are not budgetary, crammed into bills that should only contain revenues and expenditures,” Stec said in a statement. “It slowed the process and caused the major bill to be printed in the middle of the night, debated Saturday without adequate time for the public to vet the bill.”
Stec said Raise the Age, which will steer 16 and 17-year-olds into family court, will burden counties with additional costs while “allowing criminals the opportunity to receive a lesser penalty in family court.”
The lawmaker also said the free tuition program would be an additional cost to taxpayers.
“I was also disappointed to see the lack of necessary fixes to the STAR program that were proposed in both the Assembly and Senate one-house budget proposals,” Stec said.
Stec had previously hailed improvements to clean water fund and highway funding — both were included in last week’s $40 billion extender — and hailed ridesharing, citing the projected reductions in drunken driving and boost to the local tourism industry.
Companies like Uber and Lyft will now be able to start operating in upstate New York within 90 days.
The presence of operators is expected to bring in $16 million in revenue for the state general fund through a 4 percent tax.
Assemblyman Billy Jones (D-Chateaugay) praised the free tuition and vocational training and workforce development programs, including $200,000 allocated to the North Country Chamber of Commerce for the North American Center for Excellence in Transportation to help produce railcars and buses.
“We’re investing in opportunity, supporting those who need a helping hand and securing a brighter future for all New Yorkers,” Jones said in a statement. “This budget is really going to move hardworking North Country families forward.”
The budget also includes $2 million for repairs to the Whispering Maples Memorial Garden properties in Ellenburg and Plattsburgh.
Authorities initially pegged repairs at about $147,000, and Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) secured a $300,000 line item in last year’s budget.
“What has happened at Whispering Maples is disgraceful,” said Little. “Those interred and their families deserved much better than a business being run into the ground and the mausoleums being neglected as they have.
“I am really grateful for the support of my colleagues, including Majority Leader Flanagan, to get this money in the budget.”
Little said she was also pleased with workers’ compensation reform, a plan promoted by the Business Council of New York State and the North Country Chamber of Commerce.
That package, which includes expediting the hearing process and the creation of a new panel to examine claims, is projected to save businesses $700 million annually, Little said.
The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism hailed investments in infrastructure, tourism and economic development funding, including proposed new I LOVE NY tourism centers slated to be constructed around the state.
“One of these major new centers will be built between exits 17 and 18 on the Adirondack Northway, just outside the Blue Line,” said McKenna in a statement. “It will serve as another tool in our toolbox to showcase to first-time travelers to the area all of our assets — our attractions, amenities and natural beauty we offer.”
Cuomo was given the authority in the budget to accommodate for expected decreases in federal funding from what he has been referring to as an “ultraconservative” federal government.
If federal support is reduced by $850 million or more, the state budget director will develop a plan to make uniform spending reductions.
This plan would take effect automatically unless the state legislature passes their own plan within 90 days.
The governor defended the newly-minted “federal financial response system” Sunday in an appearance on CATS Roundtable Radio Show with John Catsimatidis.
“Now, if we get cut, I say to the legislature, ‘This is what we have to cut.’ If the legislature has a better plan, fine. Otherwise my administration has the authority to implement a plan to fund the cuts,” Cuomo said.