Cuomo takes new approach in unveiling his 2017 state budget proposal

Rollout nothing if not unorthodox
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers a final State of the State speech Jan. 11.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers a final State of the State speech Jan. 11.

ALBANY, N.Y. — After a weeklong road show complete with grand PowerPoint presentations and standing ovations, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo outlined the fine print of his 2017 agenda with far less fanfare in the state capital on Tuesday, offering a $152.3 billion New York state budget proposal to a wary Legislature.

The governor’s rollout was nothing if not unorthodox: Gone were the traditional address to the legislators and the nuts-and-bolts briefing with reporters and financial analysts. Cuomo, a Democrat, instead opted for a series of closed-door briefings at the governor’s mansion with senators in two separate groups: Republicans who rule the chamber with a group of renegade Democrats, and a slightly smaller group of mainstream Democrats.

Members of Cuomo’s staff were scheduled to meet Tuesday evening with the Assembly, which is dominated by Democrats.

But details were scant about the exact scope of the budget proposal, including any additional spending — supplied by federal sources or other funds — that might come with the official $152 billion figure offered by the administration.

Still, with the afternoon briefings at the mansion, the governor tried to pay some deference to legislators after several weeks of tensions. Cuomo had devoted parts of his State of the State addresses last week to blaming legislative leaders for failing to sign an agreement on funding affordable housing and homeless services.

The private briefings drew criticism from the Albany press corps and from government watchdogs, who questioned Cuomo’s wavering over scheduling a public budget briefing.

There was reason to view the piecemeal rollout of the budget proposal with skepticism: Last year, for instance, Cuomo’s plan quietly included an idea to offload one-third of the annual costs of the City University of New York, as well as a larger share of New York City’s Medicaid bill, onto the city.

Then there was the matter of how to pay for all of it, an issue exacerbated by recent official projections that state income tax revenue will fall this year, creating a deficit of at least $3.5 billion, and by the uncertainty of how deeply President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress will cut federal taxes. Cuomo’s budget proposal included $98 billion in state operating funds, which the governor’s office said fell under Cuomo’s self-imposed rule against increasing state spending by more than 2 percent each year.

The proposals carried price tags ranging from a $42 million child-care tax credit for middle-class families to a $550 million state investment in life sciences research and development and a $2 billion plan to modernize clean water infrastructure across the state. A plan to extend the Empire State Trail, a hiking and biking path that wends through much of the state, by an additional 350 miles would cost about $200 million.

The proposals did not come with a payment plan, however, and some items lacked any details about their cost.

Among the proposals that had yet to be priced were a program to build 569 electric vehicle charging stations at workplaces and along the New York Thruway, as well as a proposal to lower the cost of tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for Staten Island residents. It was also unclear how the governor planned to finance a statewide program to ensure legal representation for the poor. The Legislature passed a bill to accomplish that goal for $800 million last year, but Cuomo vetoed it in December, arguing there was no money to pay for it and promising to propose a more fiscally responsible plan this year.

Two of the most expensive question marks concerned what are shaping up to be two of Cuomo’s signature proposals this year. He began the year by unveiling a pledge to cover the cost of tuition at state colleges for hundreds of thousands of middle- and low-income New Yorkers, a plan that his administration estimated would cost $163 million a year by 2019, but that experts have warned could ultimately cost far more.

He has also put a $10 billion overhaul of Kennedy International Airport at the center of his ambitious infrastructure agenda, but few details have emerged about its funding, apart from suggestions that up to $7 billion could come from private sources. At least $1.5 billion to $2 billion of it will come from the state Department of Transportation, which will improve the roadways leading to the airport, according to the proposal.

For Democrats in the Assembly, it was obvious how part of the 2017 budget should be funded — by extending the so-called millionaires’ tax, which covers state taxpayers making more than $1 million a year. It is scheduled to expire this year.

Carl E. Heastie, the Bronx Democrat who serves as the Assembly speaker, seemed to suggest on Tuesday that the millionaires’ tax would be a top priority for his conference, as would education funding and criminal justice reform. “There’s going to be federal action, we’re being told, that will probably make some of our millionaires even more millionaires,” Heastie said, apparently referring to tax cut plans hinted at by Trump. “So we believe that this is the time for us to do this.”

Last year, the Assembly proposed applying the state’s highest tax rate — 8.82 percent — on those earning more than $1 million, as well as creating new rates for higher wage earners. This year, the Assembly may extend that idea further, to even higher rates for multimillionaires.

Cuomo has said he is open to an extension of the millionaires’ tax, but, as expected, the Senate has already signaled opposition.

The Senate majority leader, John J. Flanagan, said he did not agree with the idea of the millionaires’ tax, saying it could encourage wealthy New Yorkers to flee the state. “A lot of those people, they can move tomorrow,” he said.

Flanagan said the governor had proposed a $1 billion increase in education funding. He added that “a lot of our members” have concerns about Cuomo’s tuition-free plan for state colleges, noting some concern from private educational institutions.

But Flanagan said there was consensus between his conference and the governor on limiting property taxes and cutting middle-class tax rates. He added that while Cuomo had noted the looming deficit, he did not offer details about how that would be addressed.

And while there will quite likely be many issues on which they disagree, both Heastie and Flanagan said that reports of bad blood between the State Senate and the governor may have been overstated.

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