April 20, 2015
By NYS Senator Liz Krueger
New York, NY – This year’s budget process lived up to the old adage that laws are like sausages – it’s better not to see them being made. To meet the budget deadline, the legislature passed a series of bills over the final days of March and into the early hours of April, mostly with “messages of necessity” from the Governor, waiving the usual three day period before voting.
The use of these messages is particularly troublesome for thousand-page budget bills, and it was clear that in the rush to get these bills passed, even the Republican majority was unsure what was in some of them. Perhaps the “three men in a room” who signed off on the budget behind closed doors knew what was in them, but they shared little with their members until the last possible moment.
Some of what was in the budget was deeply problematic, including outrageous provisions granting tax exemptions for yachts and private airplanes. While these tax giveaways to the wealthiest were added to the budget, provisions increasing the minimum wage and enacting the Dream Act were removed. In addition, the final budget cut $22.5 million in funding for families in New York City homeless shelters. It is unconscionable for the state to be giving tax exemptions to those who can afford luxury items like private planes and expensive yachts, while claiming we lack the revenue to meet the needs of low-wage workers, immigrant college students, and the homeless.
When ridiculous tax breaks for yachts and airplanes suddenly appear in the budget at the last minute, it raises questions about possible connections between these items and campaign donations. The group Hedgeclippers has identified seven top hedge-fund-billionaires who gave over $5 million in campaign cash to Governor Cuomo and the Senate Republicans in recent years. Between them, these men owned or controlled at least eight private planes, one helicopter and five yachts, including one worth $37 million and another worth $60 million. In light of this, it is even more disturbing that the ethics reforms included in the budget we so limited. Without meaningful campaign finance reform, tinkering around the edges of ethics laws will not address concerns about our state government’s corrupt “pay to play” culture.
There are many problems with the Governor’s changes to education policy, but tying teacher evaluations to state test scores is of particular concern. The ever-expanding reliance on standardized tests has already distorted what goes on in the classroom, and the governor’s proposals will only increase the incentives to teach to the test. Furthermore, linking a portion of state aid to the implementation of the governor’s education agenda violates the educational requirements in the state constitution.
There were some positive things included in the budget. It provides $477 million for affordable and supportive housing programs (only some of which is new funding). Funding for a number of SUNY and CUNY programs was increased by nearly $70 million over last year’s budget; funding for the urban youth jobs program has been doubled to $20 million; and $4.5 million has been included in the budget for emergency food services and programs, which help more than 3 million New Yorkers each year.
Overall, this year’s budget process was a big step backwards. For the last several years, we have had on-time budgets without resorting to messages of necessity, which at least ensured legislators and the public had some opportunity to know what they were voting on. Also, in violation of budget law, the quasi-public process of budget conference table meetings was never completed. In an effort to rush the budget through, many additional issues that were discussed, such as mayoral control of New York City schools and more equitable property tax policies for owners and renters, were simply excluded. Hopefully when these issues are addressed later this session it is in a more deliberative and democratic manner.