How do you put together a budget without knowing how much money you'll have? That's the kitchen-table problem facing Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York lawmakers in the coming weeks as Albany debates a spending plan and Washington debates a spending bill that could potentially send billions of dollars in aid to offset pandemic-related losses.
Here are three things to watch for today as Cuomo releases his budget plan:
1. School aid.
Education officials and advocates are bracing for a budget that could be quite ugly after a year of school closures, remote learning, and partial reopening. Schools have adapted, but the pandemic has thrown into relief the stark income and racial disparities facing school children.
Cuomo made only glancing reference to education in his week of rolling out State of the State agenda items. School aid could potentially offset potential property tax increases on the local level, which are once again this year capped at just over 1%.
But, again, the state has little money at the moment to commit. This is making for a level of uncertainty school districts have not seen in years as their own budgets (for many of them) are due to be put before voters in May.
2. Tax increases.
Cuomo did not embrace raising taxes last week in a way progressives would nearly like or want, instead pointing to the need to do so on the federal level. Nevertheless, state lawmakers are eager to find new revenue sources by raising rates on upper income earners.
Progressive groups have formed new coalitions this year to apply pressure on the issue. That includes many of the governor's longtime critics, including the Working Families Party. A new class of freshman lawmakers in the state Senate and Assembly, too, are pushing for taxing the rich.
The incoming Biden administration and pending Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate, however, could change the tax-the-rich calculus for the governor, who in the past has been hesitant to raise rates. Cuomo had previously warned a lack of federal aid would lead to borrowing, tax hikes and spending cuts.
The governor is expected to include additional revenue generators like marijuana legalization and mobile sports betting, but that is not considered nearly enough to cover the budget gap facing the state.
It's not clear how much money will come to New York or if it will come by March, when the budget is expected to pass at the end of the month.
3. Spending cuts.
This is the other part of the simple budget math and is even more politically tricky than tax increases.
Cuomo has raised the possibility of deep cuts in spending to make ends meet and even layoffs to cover the budget gap. During much of last year, state officials withheld state funding to cover costs as the pandemic froze revenue amid closures across the state.
What's the fate of that withheld money? A group fo good-government organizations led by the group Reinvent Albany in December urged the governor's budget office to detail those withholdings, which the Division of Budget pledged to do.
"We will be closely reviewing the state’s budget proposals to see if there is sufficient transparency in the governor's proposals to close the state’s budget gaps, as well as past state actions to withhold taxpayer dollars from state agencies, local governments, and vendors," the group said.