In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo submitted to state lawmakers what amounted to a doomsday budget: Spending reductions would be necessary, aid for schools would be stagnate and taxes would have to be increased to fill a gap made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But now, with weeks to spare before the budget is expected to pass by the end of the month, the state will receive $12.3 billion in direct, unrestricted aid. And that's not all: Local governments, as well as ailing mass transit systems, are also in line for funding support in the sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus measure that received final approval on Wednesday.
"This legislation confronts the dual health and economic crises created by the war on COVID by providing much needed relief to lift New York families out of dire economic straits, critical funds to expand and accelerate New York's growing vaccination efforts, and targeted relief for state and local governments," Cuomo said in a statement.
For local governments, which rely heavily on sales tax revenue to offset increasing the property tax levy, the development is welcomed news.
“This is a game changer for New York," said Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. "As the pandemic drags on for New Yorkers who have fallen ill, for workers who have lost their jobs, for families struggling with childcare and for small businesses desperate to stay open, we’ve received critical aid from the federal government when we need it most."
But there are still pitfalls in the budget-making process. Cuomo's plan anticipated a low-end package of aid for the fiscal year, about $3 billion from Congress. Cuomo also had presented a hypothetical best-case plan that anticipated $15 billion.
New York's finances have improved after initial projections painted a far worse picture during much of last year. Still, unemployment remains higher than it was a year ago, schools are still weighing out to safely and fully reopen.
Facing controversies and calls for his resignation by Democratic leaders amid allegations of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior, as well as scrutiny over his handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic, is also a complicating factor.
Cuomo has not ruled out tax increases for upper-income earners; his original plan proposed increasing rates for those who earn more than $5 million. Democratic leaders in the state Legislature are expected to back additional tax increases, as well as a suite of measures meant to hike taxes on areas like the financial services industry in the state.
And with more money a guarantee for New York, progressive education advocates like the Alliance for Quality Education won't stand down.
“Whether the funding has the positive impact that Congress intended now depends on whether the state will maintain its commitment and responsibility to funding schools. New York State cannot not use this as an opportunity to cut from the state’s education budget," said Jasmine Gripper, the group's executive director.
"The state must do its share to provide funding for the longer term so that districts can build back better and are able to maintain new and existing programs."