Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2018 state budget presentation Tuesday laid out a rosy picture of middle-class tax cuts, upstate ride-sharing services and infrastructure spending, but local state legislators saw deficiencies, as they reviewed the proposal on Wednesday.
The $152 billion spending proposal calls for a middle-class tax cut and continuing the millionaires’ tax, while launching new initiatives for tourism development, affordable housing and replacing aging infrastructure.
“The impression right now is that it seems from very macro view that the governor is proposing a budget that stays within the spending cap, which is very important,” said state Sen. George Amedore, R-Rotterdam.
But Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said things aren’t as rosy as the governor makes them appear.
“The problem is we have a lot of announcements of new programs, and we haven’t fully funded existing programs,” he said.
Steck also raised questions about Cuomo’s signature proposal to make state colleges tuition-free for state residents from households earning less than $125,000.
In his budget message, Cuomo said tuition-free college would begin immediately for students of families making up to $100,000 annually and would be phased in — over the next two years — for those making $125,000.
But Steck said it’s a system that will have losers as well as winners.
“So-called free tuition really isn’t that,” Steck said. “It’s just a scholarship program. I feel it will be unfair and divisive within the middle class.” Any plan based on that household income “means there are middle-class people who are still under tremendous economic pressure.”
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, agreed.
“The budget is looking to increase tuition at SUNY schools, yet we’re looking at free tuition,” he said. “There’s kind of a disconnect there.”
Santabarbara said the governor’s proposal doesn’t address the burden of existing student debt or ask students who get tuition-free college to give something back.
“There should be some sort of commitment on the students’ part, and there needs to be a commitment that the students will stay in New York — live and work here, commit to staying for maybe five or 10 years,” he said.
Legislators interviewed Wednesday back Cuomo’s $2 billion, five-year water infrastructure plan, though not without reservation.
Steck said awarding money through a grant competition is unfair to communities that don’t receive funding.
“With a grant-based program, it’s competitive, and you will have people who will compete unsuccessfully,” he said. “I think it’s a bad approach.”
Whatever money is allocated for water and sewer infrastructure upgrades, Santabarbara — a civil engineer who represents Amsterdam, where there have been ongoing breakdowns in 120-year-old sewer pipes — said some money should be held back for dealing with emergency situations.
“I can tell you that what we saw in Amsterdam could easily happen again, under emergency circumstances,” he said. “I can tell you we will see more of this, because of aging infrastructure.”
Amedore cited upstate communities as being in greater need when it comes to water and sewer pipes.
“I’d like to make sure that is predominantly upstate, because we have communities like Schenectady, Amsterdam and Kingston that have very old infrastructure,” he said.
Cuomo’s budget proposes allowing ride services like Uber and Lyft to operate upstate. Santabarbara said that’s something cities like Schenectady need, especially with the opening next month of the Rivers Casino & Resort, which will be a long walk from downtown.
“This is one more convenient option people have come to expect,” Santabarbara said. “When people come to visit, it’s really inconvenient that people don’t have access to it.”
Assemblyman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, said she supports ride-sharing but faulted the proposed tax on the industry and said she’s worried about more costs falling on local taxpayers.
“Language outlined in the executive budget would allow for cuts to local governments, education and healthcare should the state not receive its estimated funding from the federal government,” the freshman legislator said. “It’s unacceptable to leave taxpayers on the hook for filling this monetary void left by the state.
Santabarbara and Amedore each said the budget doesn’t address something they think is important — the low wages of direct-care workers who serve the physically and mentally disabled — many of whom haven’t seen significant wage increases in years.
“We lose people to other industries,” said Santabarbara, who has an autistic 15-year-old son. “Statewide, 10 percent of these positions are vacant. The turnover rate is above 20 percent. These are items missing from the budget that need to be there.”
“We will be working hard on direct-care workers,” Amedore said. “This disparity is here, and it’s unfair. We need fairness, especially for those who take care of the most vulnerable in our society.”
St. Peter’s Health Partners of Albany issued a statement Wednesday praising a budget proposal to regulate and tax electronic cigarettes, which have come under increasing criticism as an alternative to conventional cigarettes.
“The governor’s proposal to begin regulating vapor products this year makes a strong statement,” St. Peter’s said. “Clearly, his administration deems it a public health priority to protect youth and adults from the dangers of nicotine exposure and the cancer-causing agents in e-cigarette emissions.”
Lawmakers said the unusual manner in which the proposed budget was released — not until well after sunset Tuesday, after a series of verbal briefings for legislators and their staffs — left them scrambling on Wednesday.
“It’s unfortunate that this year he’s chosen to carry out the process in an unorthodox and less-than-transparent fashion,” Walsh said.
Lawmakers face an April 1 deadline to adopt the budget, with any modifications the two houses of the legislative approve.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.