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Will Hochul's 2023 plans come with a big price tag?

Hochul shaking hands in a candid photo, surrounded by people clapping
Don Pollard
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul greets state lawmakers at her State of the State address on Jan. 10, 2023.

Now that Gov. Kathy Hochul has delivered her State of the State message with all its ambitious proposals, it’s time to figure out how much they would cost taxpayers.

She’ll have to do that in her proposed state budget, which is due by the end of the month. But the spending plan is being forged at a time of economic uncertainty.

Among Hochul’s plans for the 2023 session is a program that aims to build 800,000 more housing units in the next decade. She’s also seeking to jump-start the failing mental health system with an infusion of $1 billion.

“I’m proud to announce to accomplish this goal, we are prepared to invest $1 billion, making critical policy changes to fully meet the mental health needs of our people,” Hochul said as lawmakers cheered. “It’s about time. Let’s get it done.”

Hochul also intends to keep her pledge to increase spending on schools by 13%, or $2.7 billion. The money would fully fund foundation aid for schools by the next school year, fulfilling a court order that was issued over a decade ago. And she proposed expanding some Medicaid programs for preventive health and for people with disabilities.

Andrew Rein, who heads the Citizens Budget Commission, a nearly century-old budget watchdog group, said while the governor’s goals are laudable, he has concerns about the potential price tag.

“There are some good proposals here, a long menu of proposals,” Rein said. “But of course, we have to wait until the executive budget to get the bill.”

He said there are some positive signs that show the governor is watching the bottom line. Her housing plan, which relies on construction largely financed by real estate developers, does not come with a big cost to the state and could help bring back middle- and working-class people to the state.

The governor is also pledging not to increase taxes this year, despite calls from some in the left of the Democratic Party to do so. She said that would just make problems worse if there’s an economic downturn, which many experts believe will occur.

“A majority of economists are predicting a recession,” Hochul said. “And that’s one of the reasons it’s clear to me, why we will not be raising income taxes this year.”

Rein said Hochul is wise to resist raising taxes. He’d like to see her go a step further and not renew a temporary income tax surcharge on the wealthy when it sunsets in two years. He said that could help prevent wealthier people from leaving the state and attract other higher-income people to live in New York.

“We need to keep our wealthy people because they pay disproportionate taxes that fund schools and transportation and all that,” Rein said. “They also often are business leaders and job creators.”

Rein said preventing taxes from rising could help slow the state’s outmigration of people to other states.

New York state’s finances are in relatively good shape going into 2023, thanks to recent federal COVID relief packages and better-than-expected tax and other revenue collections.

Spending, though, grew 12% over the previous years, a big jump compared to budgets in the last decade.

If that spending continues at the current rate, a “fiscal cliff” is looming. If nothing is done, the state would face a $6 billion budget gap by 2027.

Hochul spoke about her concerns for the future last month.

“I have to anticipate worst-case scenarios with respect to the economy,” Hochul said on Dec. 15. “And that’s why we’ll approach our budgeting with that framework.”

The governor already plans to increase the state’s rainy-day fund to $20 billion in the next two years.

But the Citizens Budget Commission and other fiscal experts say more than twice that amount is needed to offset the effects of a potential recession.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.