What to watch for in the final week of state budget talks
With the New York state budget deadline pending and several issues left unresolved, here are the things to watch as the spending plan is finalized this week.
The state budget is due by April 1, which is both Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day, appropriate for a process that resurrects controversial issues year after year and strikes some observers as a joke.
With lawmakers scheduled to pass the budget on Thursday, March 29, before the holidays begin, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have been gathering to hash out the details. This annual tradition, originally known as “three men in a room,” expanded to four after the IDC broke away from mainline Democrats in the state Senate and partnered with the Senate Republicans. This year, the negotiations may as well be known as “four men in a mansion,” as the governor and legislative leaders are meeting in the Executive Mansion in Albany.
With the budget deadline pending and several issues left unresolved, here are the things to watch as the state budget is finalized this week.
The feud between Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has accelerated recently, as the two traded barbs over the crisis engulfing the New York City Housing Authority. Cuomo has visited dilapidated NYCHA facilities three times in recent weeks, after three years of not visiting any, and is taking the opportunity to criticize de Blasio’s management of the authority. However, being pawns in a power struggle may end up working out for NYCHA residents – on March 22, Cuomo pledged not to sign the state budget unless it included a “real remedy” to make repairs of NYCHA facilities. Cuomo would like to give NYCHA $250 million, contingent upon hiring outside contractors to do the needed repair work. City officials have called on Cuomo to release $200 million allocated for public housing in last year’s budget, with de Blasio accusing the governor of “hypocrisy.”
Combating sexual harassment
With the #MeToo movement highlighting sexual harassment, state lawmakers and Cuomo seem united on the desire to address it in the state budget. However, although the governor, state Senate and Assembly have introduced similar legislation that would create a uniform sexual harassment policy, block confidentiality clauses and prevent taxpayer-funded settlements, there are still key differences in the bills that need to be reconciled. There have also been criticisms over four men in a mansion handling sexual harassment legislation. State Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has argued that she should be included in these talks. Six women who have allegedly been sexually harassed by state lawmakers also released a statement on Thursday saying sexual harassment should be addressed outside of the budget process. Observers should watch for whether the different sexual harassment proposals can be reconciled – and whether women’s perspectives are truly being heard.
Child Victims Act
The Child Victims Act, which would extend the statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases, has been blocked by the Republican state Senate in previous years. However, with Cuomo and Assembly Democrats bolstered by support from celebrities such as Julianne Moore and Corey Feldman, this year may be different. However, the Catholic Church is opposed to a provision of the bill which would allow for a one-year lookback period for victims to bring their accusers to court, which Cardinal Timothy Dolan has said would be “toxic” to the church. Even though Dolan has personally lobbied Cuomo on the issue, the governor remains in support of the bill, and Democratic lawmakers are standing firm on including the provision. As in previous years, the pressure is now on the state Senate Republicans.
The FixNYC panel convened by Cuomo released its recommendations for a congestion pricing plan to much fanfare in January, which would implement tolls to drive in Manhattan’s central business district to raise funds for the struggling subway system. However, it also faced opposition almost immediately after its release from lawmakers concerned it would hurt their commuting constituents. Cuomo has named congestion pricing as a priority, but he seems to have given up on any comprehensive plan passing the state Legislature this year. He appeared to be pushing the controversial concept of value capture earlier in March, with administration officials circulating draft legislation that would allow the MTA to take property tax revenue from areas surrounding subway stops. Cuomo later appeared to back down on that proposal, although he didn’t seem optimistic on congestion pricing, as he said on March 23 the chances of it passing this year were “tenuous at best.” He said later that day that app-based for-hire vehicles like Uber could be subject to a surcharge in the first “phase” of a congestion pricing plan, which is similar to a proposal that Assembly Democrats have endorsed.
Addressing the federal tax plan
In January, when Cuomo gave his budget address, the new federal tax plan passed by congressional Republicans and signed by Donald Trump was one of the major focal points of the governor’s speech. He declared that New York would circumvent the law’s effects by restructuring the state’s tax system by shifting from income taxes to payroll taxes, and introducing charitable contributions for New Yorkers to give to a state-run charity and then deduct from their taxes. However, the conversation over tax changes has largely faded over the past three months, due primarily because of unalloyed Republican opposition.
Health care revenue
The state started out the year facing a $4.4 billion deficit this year, and Cuomo proposed introducing taxes on the health care industry to help make up the funds. He introduced a new 14 percent windfall tax on health insurers in response to the estimated 40 percent cut they are expected to get under the federal tax law. He also suggested raising revenue by taking money from health insurance conversions. Other “revenue raiser” proposals include a tax on opioid manufacturers. However, state Senate Republicans oppose any tax hikes in the name of raising revenue.
School aid would increase by 3 percent and $769 million under Cuomo’s executive budget proposal, but that is significantly less than the $1.6 billion the state Board of Regents requested. Cuomo has said that 70 percent of the funding will go to high-need districts, but his plans on education funding have been heavily criticized, including by new primary challenger Cynthia Nixon. Nixon and others argue that New York’s public schools are underfunded and unequal in quality. In response, Cuomo said that he was working to ensure that school districts statewide divulge how much of state money they give to schools, including ones in areas with high levels of racial minorities.