Foss: Lawmakers must address state’s budget woes

The state Capitol Building in Albany.
The state Capitol Building in Albany.

I’m a procrastinator.

One thing I’ve learned, in my years of procrastinating, is that problems don’t get easier to solve the longer you put them off.

They get harder.

That’s the unpleasant truth that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature are refusing to acknowledge as the state’s dismal financial picture continues to worsen.

Rather than reconvene to address the state budget’s $8 billion deficit, lawmakers continue to pin their hopes on a Congressional bailout that might never come.

In the meantime, schools, non-profit organizations and public employees remain largely in the dark about what is going to happen, forced to navigate rocky fiscal waters with little in the way of guidance or insight. For example: State budget officials have said they will fully fund school aid payments due later this month, but potentially hard-hit districts like Schenectady have braced for the worst and already laid off hundreds of staff.

The state budget is a mess, and it’s only going to get messier unless lawmakers take drastic, immediate action.

Unfortunately, there’s no sign legislators intend to return to Albany before the end of the year to dismantle the ticking fiscal time bomb already blowing up the state’s balance sheet.

As a procrastinator, I get it.

I get giving in to the temptation to postpone an unpleasant task, and few things are bound to be more unpleasant than fixing the state’s deep, ugly budget gap. I get that this is an election year, and that nobody wants to be responsible for cutting popular programs – or passing unpopular taxes – before Nov. 3.

None of which changes the fact that inaction now will make fixing the budget deficit an even bigger challenge later.

Lawmakers ought to summon up some courage, return to the Capitol and get to work.

That’s about as likely to happen as the billions New York needs to plug its deficit turning up under my sofa cushions, or raining down from the sky.

Political courage is in short supply in the best of times.

And these are not the best of times.

As Buffalo News reporter Tom Precious observed in an article looking at why the Legislature is unlikely to meet before Election Day, “It would be extraordinary for the Legislature to reconvene to take up a fiscal package so close to its own elections that could result in things like cuts to K-12 classroom programs or benefits for low-income Medicaid beneficiaries.”

One of the few ideas being publicly discussed for closing the revenue gap is raising taxes on wealthy New Yorkers, but Cuomo has been cool to that idea. In the end, it’s hard to imagine New York solving its budget woes solely through tax hikes – cuts will also be needed, even if some federal aid does materialize.

What’s often forgotten is that New York was facing a significant budget deficit before the pandemic.

COVID-19 made the gap worse, but it was already shaping up to be a tough year, largely as a result of the Legislature and Cuomo’s poor stewardship of state finances.

The consequences of delaying the state’s inevitable budget reckoning will be more pain down the road, not less.

That’s because the state’s deficit is projected to swell to a whopping $17 billion next year.

“Next year’s (budget deficit) is a much bigger problem,” David Friedfel, director of state studies for the non-profit Citizens Budget Commission, told Spectrum News political anchor Susan Arbetter in a recent interview. “That’s another reason why the state needs to take action now. The more you do now, for this year, it makes next year’s gap easier to close.”

The case for dealing with the state’s budget gap as soon as possible is strong.

Very strong.

But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

Take it from a longtime procrastinator – you don’t think I finished this column early, do you? – lawmakers are going to put off until tomorrow what they can do today.

And that’s a shame.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: News, Sara Foss

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