So, what's the plan? That's increasingly the question around Albany and those in state government circles when it comes to New York's yawning billion-dollar budget gap created by the economic crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the moment, the plan from Gov. Andrew Cuomo remains this: Get the federal government to provide tens of billions of dollars in relief to avoid spending reductions to virtually every part of the budget.
But that increasingly seems unlikely. And good-government organizations Common Cause, NYPIRG, Reinvent New York, the League of Women Voters, plus the budget watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission on Wednesday urged Cuomo to layout specifics for how the state will close the gap.
Withholding some money, they argue, just creates more uncertainty.
"These indefinite delays in payments create enormous uncertainty for recipients of state funds, deny the legislature the opportunity to pass its own spending adjustments as the framework allows, and obscures the public’s understanding of spending reductions or other gap-closing measures," they wrote in a letter to Cuomo on Wednesday.
This, in turn, has left local governments and school districts unclear on what happens next for them.
"The lack of a detailed gap closing plan leaves schools, localities, non-profits, vendors, and state agencies mired in uncertainty, unable to appropriately plan for and manage potential cuts," they wrote.
"For example, some school districts recently cut their budgets and announced layoffs in anticipation that withheld State aid would not be restored and additional cuts would be forthcoming, only to be told that no additional payments would be withheld. Finally, delayed decision-making limits the State’s options, as state spending continues throughout the year."
Cuomo's office sees it differently. They are indeed preparing for a lack of funding from the federal government, but "clarity" is needed, said Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the governor's budget office.
“We have been very clear that while we are fighting for the federal assistance New Yorkers deserve, we are preparing for a failure of the federal government to act. The state’s pandemic-driven revenue loss is $30 billion over the next two years, and we have already lowered State spending by 45, or $4 billion, about 4%, by freezing hiring, new contracts and pay raises, and temporarily holding back $2.5 billion in payments," he said.
"The depth of permanent spending reductions, in the absence of federal funding, will be severe for schools, hospitals, police and fire departments, along with other services that support our most vulnerable New Yorkers, and it makes no sense to make those reductions permanent until there is clarity from Washington. In the meantime, we will continue to manage the State’s finances using the tools enacted by the state legislature in a way that maintains a balanced budget while funding critical services.”
Cuomo has outlined, in very broad strokes, what could happen without federal aid: Spending reductions, tax increases and more borrowing. But those can be catch-call categories for a state budget that is north of $170 billion in spending. The details will matter.