EDITORIAL: After covid, state will have to alter budget priorities

State can't keep doing things the same old way
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Categories: Editorial, Opinion

After the coronavirus crisis ends, the world will never be the same.

The very same thing should be said about state finances and New York’s spending and taxing priorities.

The coronavirus put government finances in a meat grinder, destroying revenue once generated by business and sales tax, and raising the priority level for spending on medical equipment, health care, social services and technology.

The pandemic will forever change the way we work, shop, do business, get an education and care for the elderly, sick and poor.

Even if the crisis ends tomorrow and the world goes back to work and school, it will take years, if ever, for the state and national economy to recover the jobs and revenue lost during just the past couple of months.

Many institutions, businesses and practices we once relied on will not be there, or will be there in substantially different form. 

A new state budget will require our lawmakers to throw out the standard old tax-and-spend playbook and look for new sources of revenue, and new ways to spend a smaller amount of money.

Excessive salaries for lawmakers and state employees, and wasteful discretionary spending will have to be examined.

Lawmakers need to look into a collective mirror and determine what we as a state really need, what’s worth spending taxpayer dollars on, where we can realistically expect to generate revenue, and what the people of the state actually want and what they’re willing to accept and endure.

Do we, for instance, want to be throwing good money after bad when it comes to educating our children? We must question whether our tax dollars have been used effectively up to this point. 
Should schools in wealthy districts continue to receive state funding they don’t actually need in the name of formulas and fairness, at the expense of districts with important problems that have been going unsolved? Should superintendents and administrators, and even long-tenured teachers, be getting the same level of pay and benefits as districts are forced to choose between providing programs and laying off staff? 

How much do we value higher education? Some colleges could actually close if we don’t get back to business soon, and most others will be forced to cut back. What should the future of higher education look like after this? 

Should the state be investing in colleges in the same way it once did, or has the distance-learning experiment given us new opportunities to provide higher education at a lower cost?

The coronavirus exposed giant gaps in medical services, everything from availability of hospital beds and vital equipment down to the amount of basic protective gear we provide to our medical personnel. It exposed safety gaps in our care for the elderly and infirm. It exposed issues with how we deal with the homeless and domestic violence victims. And it exposed issues with how we fund these services. How will we close those gaps to meet the new challenges and needs we’ve discovered?

The spread of the virus throughout prisons demonstrated flaws in our reasoning and justification for keeping people institutionalized, issues that we’d only begun to address through the recent criminal justice reforms. Should we continue to spend money imprisoning people for minor crimes and nonviolent acts and probation violations, or is there a better way to protect society while punishing or rehabilitating these individuals?

We also need to consider how state budgets will be funded in the future.

Can the state rely on New York taxpayers to continue to shoulder the full burden of unwarranted and excessive state spending? Will New Yorkers, many of whom will have lost their ability to pay such taxes after this, still be willing and able to pay into the system at the old rate?

What new revenue sources are available that we haven’t tapped yet? 

New York has been debating legalizing recreational marijuana and online sports betting for the past few years. If they are legitimate new sources of revenue that other states have initiated, why haven’t they been approved yet here in New York?

Everything from economic development funding to infrastructure to the size of the state workforce will need a fresh look as we work to recover from this unique moment in our history.

Only one thing is certain: We can’t keep doing things the way we did in the past.

State lawmakers and the governor need to be up to the challenge.

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