The Journal News
April 2, 2014
As one reader commented on lohud’s Facebook page, “Election years are amazing!”
That’s an appropriate first impression of the state’s 2014-15 budget that was passed on time for the fourth year in a row, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo only had to employ a “message of necessity” for a couple of straggling bills. While the four men in a room (the governor and Legislature’s leaders) dealt in some change, many of the funding decisions and policy reforms in the state spending plan need sequels. Here’s some highlights — and shortcomings — of the $138 billion state budget:
Cuomo pushed for a so-called tax freeze that would offer relief to over-property-taxed New York homeowners. Relief is needed: Downstate homeowners pay the highest property taxes in the nation; upstate, homeowners bear the nation’s highest tax burden, that is, amount of taxes paid compared to the value of their property.
Cuomo dedicated $1.5 billion to the effort, which offers a “rebate” to homeowners whose taxing jurisdictions meet the state’s property-tax cap. (Subsequent years demand that taxing jurisdictions show efforts to consolidate and share services, although they can cite previous efforts to qualify.)
Lawmakers demanded some tweaks, but they, too, embraced the idea of sending rebate checks to residents’ mailboxes weeks before Election Day. (The tax freeze payment comes on top of the $350 check that’s due this fall for families with children under the age of 17.)
The budget, though, basically ignores what local leaders say drives up their tax demands: unfunded mandates. The question remains: Would more local control bring lower taxes, or does Albany need to provide leverage to keep taxes in line?
The budget bolstered the state Board of Elections’ enforcement powers, and adds an independent enforcement division. But, good-government groups point out, it’s doubtful the board will quickly transform from ineffectual to functional.
New ethics laws include a lifetime ban on political involvement for an elected official convicted of corruption: no holding office, no lobbying, no doing business of any sort with the state. The threshold for felony bribery is lowered to $5,000 from $10,000, and there’s now a new crime classification for bribery over $10,000. Legislators, who technically serve part time, must now provide information about clients or customers who were referred by lobbyists.
The budget includes a campaign finance reform “pilot program” that launches a public-fund-matching program in this year’s state comptroller’s race. Good-government groups, which have long championed publicly funded elections, call it an ineffectual cop-out, destined for failure. Oddly, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli last year introduced more robust legislation to bring publicly financed elections for the office he now holds.
Those reforms came at a high price: Cuomo announced that he would shut down the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. The panel had subpoena power (which Assembly and Senate leaders fought) and had launched several investigations that are ongoing. As Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, told The New York Times: “The fact that ethics reform was on the table as a bargaining chip suggests to me that we have much more work to do.”
Cuomo, who has portrayed himself as the “advocate” for children against various “special interests,” was pushed to increase education aid to $1.1 billion, a 5.3 percent increase over last year. Districts throughout the Lower Hudson Valley received more aid; Yonkers, where the superintendent quit after a huge accounting mistake left the district with a big deficit, received “one-shot” funding worth $28 million, plus the ability to borrow $45 million if the school district and city consolidate some services. There’s funding for full-day pre-K, but full-day kindergarten is still not mandatory.
Districts also were given back a portion of funds withheld via the Gap Elimination Adjustment. The GEA is a formula, instituted in 2010 amid a swelling state deficit, that basically claws back some portion of state aid from districts. The across-the-board GEA cuts hit poor districts hard. “Even with $602 million restored to GEA, the GEA still withholds $1 billion from school districts,” David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, told The Journal News.
The budget also “fires” inBloom, the controversial nonprofit hired by the state to store and analyze student data. Parents flipped over the idea that their kids’ private information, including disciplinary records, would be turned over to a private vendor; inBloom had refused to address legislators’ and educators’ myriad security and privacy concerns. The budget bars the state Education Department from releasing student data to private vendors and requires the education commissioner to appoint a chief privacy officer to oversee student data.
The statewide grade 3-8 standardized tests, which were realigned with the Common Core curriculum last year, also got plenty of budget attention. Students’ test results won’t go on their transcripts through 2018; Cuomo said during the budget signing, “The test scores don’t count.” That is, for the kids. There’s no such delay in the budget for using assessment results to calculate teacher evaluations, despite a major union push. On Tuesday, in a post-budget discussion, Cuomo said about teacher evaluations and test scores: “That is an issue that we have not addressed and we need to address before the end of session in my opinion.”
That’s not the only issue left for the Legislature to address. The budget’s general milquetoast reforms demand legislative sequels/repairs/teeth.