New York State’s Budget Finally Gets Done, But in Secret

Posted by NYPIRG on April 10, 2017 at 11:38 am

More than a week after the deadline, Governor Cuomo and lawmakers finalized a deal to wrap up the state budget.  The roughly $160 billion budget was from a procedural point of view a mess.  But there was good news as well.

One of the most notable budgetary matters was the agreement to make public colleges less expensive for middle income families.  Under a plan first advanced by the governor, certain students will be able to attend the State University system without having to pay tuition.

The agreement requires that the state waive the cost of two- and four-year public colleges and universities for families earning less than $125,000 per year.  The “Excelsior Scholarship” applies only to students attending the State University of New York or the City University of New York systems.

The budget deal also creates an Enhanced Tuition Award with a maximum of $3,000 for students who attend private colleges as long as the college matches the amount and freezes tuition while students receive the award.

The budget tries to offset the cost of textbooks by providing an $8 million investment in resources like electronic books. Other than that provision, there is no additional support for non-tuition expenses like rent or food—key drivers of student debt.

Other big changes in the budget:

The state’s income tax brackets stay as they are (they were set to expire). Keeping the tax brackets in place primarily impacts New Yorkers who earn over $1 million a year.

The budget grants $2.5 billion to improve the state’s drinking water systems by fixing septic systems and paying for other projects statewide.

As part of the budget deal, the governor and the legislature agreed to changes in criminal law that will result in the vast majority of 16- and 17-year-old nonviolent offenders being sent to family or youth courts, rather than adult criminal courts.

The budget also spends $200 million to expand and upgrade state hiking trails and bike paths.

Unfortunately, the governor’s proposal to cut funding for public health programs, including screening for possible breast, cervical and colon cancers was approved.

Some of the budget proposals advanced in the debate didn’t make it into the final product. For example, the governor’s proposal to collect taxes on internet retail transactions was blocked.  Despite the unprecedented scandals at the state Capitol and New York’s miserable voter participation, the budget deal does not include proposals to improve voting laws or the state’s ethics and campaign financing systems.

Inexplicably, there was even a proposal that the governor, the senate and assembly agreed to – a plan to regulate electronic cigarettes in the same manner as conventional cigarettes – that was dropped out of the final deal.  Dropping that supposedly universally agreed-to provision is a big win for the tobacco industry, which owns many of the e-cigarette companies, but what was the rationale for that decision?

Unfortunately, the process by which these decisions were made was awful and arguably worse than in the recent past.  Virtually all the deliberations in developing the budget were conducted behind closed doors.  There were no hearings, no open meetings, and with the three day legislative review period waived by the governor lawmakers were voting on bills that they had little time to comprehensively review.

It seems like Albany forgets just whose money it is spending.  New Yorkers deserve adequate services delivered efficiently and promptly, but they also deserve a role in the decisions over spending priorities.  The closed process only allows access to the politically well-connected; the public is left in the dark.

In 2010, then-candidate for Governor Andrew Cuomo promised that state government would be transformed into the most transparent in history.  If anything, Albany has become even more secretive.  New Yorkers deserve openness and accountability, not secrecy and scandals.