State budget battles begin taking shape

Legislators, advocates and the Cuomo administration are girding for a multi-front tilt in the weeks before the governor has to present his budget in January.

Governor Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

A new report concludes that more than $100 million per year could be saved through new limits on solitary confinement – a longstanding goal of reform-minded legislators like state Sen. Luis Sepúlveda, who is sponsoring the legislation to enact such limits. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has advocated administrative changes that have yet to be implemented, might not like this new effort to pass the legislation, but advocates say his own numbers show how the bill would help the state’s bottom line, despite his past claims to the contrary. “I’m sure that (the governor) and others will take issues with the report,” Sepúlveda said at a press conference today. “But no matter how you slice the report, there’s absolutely no doubt that it will save money.” 

Prison reform is just one of the issues activists and state lawmakers are preparing to push in advance of the first state budget process to be drawn up during the coronavirus pandemic. With the state still facing a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, Democratic state lawmakers and activists are increasingly leaning on fiscal arguments to push longtime positions on issues like school spending, criminal justice reform and economic inequality.

The governor and state lawmakers appear to share some enthusiasm for pursuing a new revenue stream by legalizing recreational marijuana, which, projections show, would raise a small fraction of what is needed to balance the state budget in upcoming years. Their level of agreement on other issues could change with time, especially if a new federal stimulus package becomes any likelier. The timing for this scenario is especially fraught: State law requires the governor to release a proper budget by Jan. 19 each year, but President-Elect Joe Biden doesn’t take charge until his inauguration on Jan. 20, and the state budget deadline is not until April 1. 

That leaves about six weeks for state lawmakers and activists to stake out their own positions. A new proposal to establish universal internet access for schoolchildren by levying a new tax on telecommunication companies is how state Senate Education Committee Chair Shelley Mayer and her political allies are looking to expand state funding for public education while doubling down on their position that the state has yet to make good on a legal settlement related to a years-long fight with Cuomo over education funding related to the 2006 state court decision in the case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity vs. State of New York.

“CFE has never been fully satisfied; it’s never been fully paid,” Mayer told City & State in an interview last week. “(It) used to be that you went to school, you didn’t pay for a blackboard, you didn’t pay for chalk, and you didn’t pay for paper and a pencil. (Broadband internet) is now the equivalent so, yes, it is quite tied conceptually to the CFE concept of a sound basic education.”

The lack of federal aid and the political costs of deep state budget cuts could pressure the governor to give ground on his previously staked-out positions. This suggests progressives will have new opportunities to either avoid spending cuts or increase spending on health care by targeting the increased wealth the super-rich have accumulated during the pandemic, which could set the stage for additional efforts like establishing a state-level single-payer health care system in the future. 

The governor’s approach to the budget will become clearer in January, but state Democratic lawmakers and activists are already making it clear that they intend on pushing the progressive envelope as their new legislative supermajorities and fiscal realities appear likely to give them a new edge.