Published in
The Empire

Expectations run high for education, health care in Cuomo's budget

By Karen DeWitt, New York State Public Radio Capital Bureau Chief

Courtesy of the Governor's office.

Governor Andrew Cuomo is set to release his state budget plan on Tuesday. He will have the challenge of closing a $2 billion dollar budget gap.

But the good news is, it’s far less than last year’s $10 billion dollar gap. It’s smaller than it was projected to be as recently as a month ago. That’s because Cuomo and lawmakers in December struck a deal on major changes to the state’s tax code. The changes will bring an estimated $1.5 billion in additional revenue.

The bad news, for Cuomo, is that he does not have lot of options to close the gap. He’s already said he does not want to raise taxes. Yet he’s holding to a commitment to increase spending on schools and health care by four percent in the new budget.

That leaves the vast array of state agencies for finding savings. In his State of the State message, Cuomo says he intends to “redesign” government and get rid of what he calls “inefficiencies and redundancy.”

Public Employees Federation President Ken Brynien says he’s pleased that the Governor seems to realize that state government cannot continue in its current form, after years of budget cuts and staff attrition, and that it needs to be reorganized.

“His own commissioners have told him we’ve been cut to the bone, we can’t cut anymore,” said Brynien. “Or we’re not going to be able to provide services that people need.”

Brynien says the recently ratified contract creates a committee for the union and Cuomo’s staff to discuss money saving ideas, like reducing reliance on more expensive private contractors. The committee has not yet met.

Cuomo also said in his State of the State message that he intends to propose a new pension tier for future workers that offers fewer benefits. It would come just two years after the most recent new pension tier was approved. In his speech, the Governor said the pension system is not a “legacy.” PEF President Brynien is irked by that remark.

“It’s a simple scapegoat,” Brynien said. He says the union will oppose the new benefit tier.

Although school aid will likely be increased by four percent, there could be disagreements over how the extra money is distributed. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver spoke recently at an educational rally organized by Alliance for Quality Education, a lobby group that has backing from the teachers union. The Speaker said more funds need to be directed to the poorest children in the so-called high needs schools.

“It’s never enough,” said Silver of the four percent increase. “But in today’s economic circumstances it’s a positive.”

Many groups will be awaiting the governor’s budget address with a wish list in mind.

Government reformers would like to see Cuomo offer details on how he might achieve public financing of political campaigns, a goal that the governor mentioned in his speech on January 4.

Also, counties would like to see the state takeover their share of Medicaid costs. Mark Lavigne with the state Association of Counties says a panel assembled by Cuomo to reform Medicaid spending and practices has recommended that the state eventually take over the counties’ 25 percent share of the total costs. He says it’s the only way that counties can live within the two percent property tax cap imposed by Cuomo and lawmakers last year.

“We believe that we have an opportunity this year to provide a way to pay for the state to gradually, over years, take over the local share of Medicaid,” said Lavigne.

Lavigne says the federal health care act approved by President Obama and Congress will bring in billions of additional health care dollars and would help pay for the state’ s increased costs.

The groups will find out whether they get their wishes on Tuesday.