Gov. Kathy Hochul has made it clear she's unwilling to increase taxes in the next budget, but members of the state Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus said conversations to change the state's tax policy in the final spending plan have just begun.
Caucus leaders want the state to collect more in personal income taxes from the wealthiest New Yorkers to fund the Medicaid Quality Incentive Program, and other Medicaid cuts and changes to education funding proposed in Hochul's budget. Caucus members are discussing the details of the proposal the group of lawmakers will back to increase taxes on New York millionaires and billionaires and keep the state more affordable for the middle class.
"There's a whole host of items we could think about funding, and bringing tax equity and fairness can help us do that," Caucus chair Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages said.
The caucus' budget priorities focus on funding programs to address economic, housing, health care and maternal health disparities affecting people of color. Solages, a Democrat from Elmont, argues to achieve that, wealthier New Yorkers must pay a fairer share of taxes — though it's the one budget item where Hochul has said she's not open to compromise.
"People should pay their fair share of taxes and unfortunately, that's not being done," Solages said. "And the middle class and low-income individuals are getting the brunt of this, so not only are they going to have a lack of services, but they're not going to partake into what New York is about."
Democratic lawmakers will soon start more serious discussions about what they want in the Legislature's counter proposals to Hochul's executive budget after the final three budget hearings conclude this week.
Bronx Democrat Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said it's too soon for conversations about increasing taxes on the rich — or any proposal — to be off the table, and will consider his conference's priorities.
With talks just beginning, caucus members are eager to negotiate and turn the tide.
"This is a budget process, so I respect all individuals in this process, but it's about a conversation," Solages said. "And I hope that we can come to a point where we recognize it's about tax equity and fairness."
The caucus will push for a host of things in the final state budget due April 1.
Caucus 1st Vice Chair Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz says funding is needed to properly implement the Clean Slate Act. Signed last year, the law will automatically seal the criminal records of New Yorkers after a certain period.
Cruz, who sponsored the law, said at least $20 million will be shared between district attorneys' offices, police and the state Department of Correction & Community Supervision for its implementation when it takes effect at the end of the year. Those details will be worked out in the next spending plan.
"All of the parties are speaking to each other to ensure that in a year form now, when the bill goes into effect, we are ready to seal the records of people who deserve it," Cruz said.
The caucus this budget cycle will fight to expand Medicaid coverage for children up to 6 years old.
Cruz says the state's tax structure must be revisited to properly fund Medicaid and avoid cutting services that will impact New York's low-income and minority communities.
"If you invest in the health care of New Yorkers now, you're saving billions of dollars later on," she said. "It's how we ended up with a pandemic."
Gov. Hochul is leery of the consequences of increasing taxes on wealthy New Yorkers amid the trend of hundreds of thousands of people moving to other states in recent years. Middle class and Black New Yorkers have largely led the outmigration while the number of billionaires in the state has increased.
Cruz argues the state must balance both in the 2024-25 budget: Funding programs that provide critical care for vulnerable New Yorkers and policies that incentivize affluent business owners to invest in the state.
"We should be looking at ways to get more people to invest in our state, but that should never come at the cost at cutting the services that the people in the state of New York need," the caucus leader said. "So, yes... Raise taxes [to] provide people incentives to invest in New York, because you can do both and make sure New Yorkers have social services and the safety nets they need and deserve."
Caucus members will push for an expanded state Working Families Tax credit in the budget, legislation to increase the minimum SNAP, or food stamps, benefit available for low-income New Yorkers to $100, higher eligibility for the state's Tuition Assistance Program grants for higher education and to improve maternal health care.
Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn, who carries several bills to improve the state's high maternal and infant mortality rates, says the needs are intertwined for more funding to support thousands of migrants in New York City's care.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams wants $400 million more from the state to provide services for migrants, he said during testimony to the Legislature last week. Gov. Hochul proposed a $2.4 billion allocation to the city for migrant costs in the executive's $233 billion fiscal year 2024-2025 plan.
Bichotte-Hermelyn, a Brooklyn Democratic leader, says it's important for everyone across the state to get their fair share of resources to help the newcomers build a life.
"I say spread the wealth across the state and, of course, the United States," Bichotte-Hermelyn said.
And as legislative leaders prepare to restart a tense budget debate to address an inadequacy of affordable housing, caucus members said the standoff between progressive Democrats and Hochul on stronger tenant protections versus building incentives is a racial issue.
Hochul remains focused on building more housing units to improve supply, but many lawmakers — especially from New York City — have said they will not give up on the need for tenant protections in the budget like Good Cause Eviction to institute rent caps and reduce eviction rates.
"We see the racialized impacts of a lack of tenant protections in our own neighborhoods and we see our neighborhoods where rents are going up 30 to 40% year on year," said Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani, a Democrat from Queens.
Communities of color experience higher rates of rent burden and eviction, and the assemblyman said cannot be unaddressed in the budget for another year after Hochul and the Legislature failed to compromise last session.
"One of the key things we've seen from the caucus in years' past is a vision for New York that is fair ... and recognizes it's New Yorkers of color being forced out of our state because of an affordability crisis," Mamdani said.