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State Senate leader says no plans for special session, urges state spending

New York State Senate file photo
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

State lawmakers have no plans to return to Albany -- either in-person or virtually -- before the start of next year’s legislative session, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in an interview Thursday.

Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, said on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom that Democrats don’t intend to reconvene until January, when the incoming class of state lawmakers is sworn in.

“Is there any definitive plan to have a lame duck session? No, there isn't,” Stewart-Cousins said.

The state Legislature never formally adjourned this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, giving them the option to easily return to Albany if they needed to. They haven’t been back in session since July, when a series of smaller, local bills were approved.

But while the state’s massive $14 billion budget deficit is looming, Stewart-Cousins said she’d like to see the state Division of Budget release any funding that it’s chosen to withhold in recent months, or is planning to withhold, to localities, nonprofit organizations, and other recipients.

The Cuomo administration has withheld state funding from certain recipients this year to stave off the budget deficit while Congress and the White House continue to negotiate a federal COVID-19 relief package.

It’s possible that such a package won’t be approved until early next year, when President-elect Joe Biden takes office and begins negotiations. Stewart-Cousins said some recipients of state funding may not be able to wait that long.

“There's been money that's been held back,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I think that under the circumstances that needs to start flowing.”

Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget, said the administration would welcome an open dialogue with the Legislature about balancing the state’s finances, and that they’ve been able to avoid widespread changes to the current spending plan.

“So far we have been able to keep the budget balanced while minimizing the impact on New Yorkers and fighting the pandemic,” Klopott said.

“In the absence of federal funding, the state must maintain a balanced budget, and as we have previously stated, the withholds are doing just that. We welcome a dialogue with the Legislature to make permanent changes to balance this year’s and next year’s budgets.”

The Cuomo administration has reduced spending this year by more than $4 billion in an effort to grapple with the state’s finances. The state Division of Budget is projecting a $30 billion budget deficit over the next two years because of the coronavirus.

It’s likely that Democrats, who hold the majority in both chambers of the state Legislature, will face a tougher legislative session than usual next year as they negotiate a new state budget in March.

During a normal year, Cuomo and the Legislature usually can’t agree on state spending until the final days of the state’s fiscal year at the end of March. That’s without a global pandemic that’s crippled the state’s economy.

Cuomo is hedging his bets on a multibillion-dollar relief package from the federal government next year, while some Democrats in the Legislature have called for higher taxes on the rich and other measures for raising revenue. Republicans have called for cuts in state spending.

Dan Clark is host/producer of New York Now.