WXXI AM News

Budget deadline down to the wire, as lawmakers struggle with coronavirus fallout

Mar 30, 2020

The deserted state Capitol, which is closed to the public, on March 26.
Credit Karen DeWitt / WXXI News

The deadline for the state budget is midnight March 31, and lawmakers, facing a massive deficit, are meeting at the State Capitol, which is off-limits to the public.

Meanwhile, yet another legislator has tested positive for the coronavirus. 

The latest to become sick is Sen. Jim Seward, a Republican from Oneonta who's the ranking minority member on the Finance Committee. Seward, who is receiving cancer treatments, has had mild symptoms from COVID-19 and will be discharged from the hospital shortly to recover at home, his office said. Seward's wife also has the virus. 

The Senate and Assembly passed a resolution to allow Seward and others to vote remotely when there is an agreement on the budget this week. 

In the days before the budget is due, the Capitol would normally be noisy with advocacy groups and lobbyists, but the building is closed to all but lawmakers and essential staff to help keep the virus from spreading. 

Groups have organized car rallies and are using online meeting apps like Zoom to hold virtual news conferences. 

A group of lawmakers and advocates from progressive-leaning groups say with the state facing a $15 billion deficit, taxes should be raised on the wealthy. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he's against doing that, saying the rich will leave the state. 

Michael Kink, with the group Strong Economy for All, said since the Great Depression, New York's governors, both Democrats and Republicans, have imposed higher taxes during severe economic crises.

"It really is unprecedented that Governor Cuomo is refusing to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share," Kink said.

Many Democrats in the Assembly favor raising taxes on the wealthy, but Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins -- who is from the New York City suburbs, where taxes are among the highest in the nation -- is also not in favor of the proposal. 

Cuomo warned that because of the decline on Wall Street and steep reductions in sales and income tax collections, spending will have to drop precipitously. 

"We have to make drastic cuts to the budget," Cuomo said on March 29. "Like you have never seen."

The governor's budget director, Robert Mujica, said the state will have to borrow money just to get through the first few months of the new fiscal year, because the April 15 tax filing date for state and federal taxes has been extended to July 15.

Cuomo said a federal bailout package will give $5 billion to hospitals for care of coronavirus patients. But he said other federal funding for health care is flawed because it would not allow him to make planned changes to the state's Medicaid program. One of those changes would have required local governments to pay more for the health care program.

Cuomo instead wants lawmakers to accept recommendations from a Medicaid redesign panel that lays out $2.5 billion in spending reductions.

The state's Medical Society is among those urging lawmakers to reject the redesign team's changes. Senate Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera said some of the very hospitals that are now overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, including Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, face reductions under the plan. 

"The same system that is going to keep people alive and healthy during this crisis, immediately afterward should be hit on the back of the head with a two-by-four," Rivera said. "That's what he is saying he wants to do."

Schools are also receiving just over $1 billion in federal funding, but they now will likely not get an expected increase in money in the state budget. Because districts have many increasing expenses, like pension costs and negotiated salary increases, they will likely have to make cuts. 

"The big problem is how you fund the schools?" said Cuomo. "That's where we have zero dollars."

Cuomo is asking the Legislature to give him new powers to make changes to the budget in the coming months if the economy continues to decline or if it begins to recover and there is more revenue available.

There are also some major issues lawmakers would like to get done as part of the budget, like legalizing the adult use of marijuana and making changes to bail reform laws that ended most forms of cash bail on Jan. 1.

Advocates of bail reform say there should not be any changes. Law enforcement groups and prosecutors have been pressing for changes that would give judges more discretion to hold defendants pretrial if they present a danger to society or might be likely to commit another offense.

But now, the state's Association of Chiefs of Police and Sheriff's Association said in a statement that they want lawmakers to wait until later in the year before negotiating changes. They said they are too overwhelmed dealing with the COVID-19 crisis to be involved in discussions and would prefer that the issue be discussed "in a calm, deliberative process after this crisis has waned."