ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday proposed using his first substantial budget surplus to fund a $154 billion spending plan that includes a $2.1 billion increase in school funding over two years and billions of dollars in legacy-building construction projects.
Cuomo said the spending is feasible because for six years he’s kept state spending increases under 2 percent, which helped put the state into a fiscal position that it no longer must face a “Sophie’s Choice” — choosing between fiscal restraint and funding progressive measures.
“There is no doubt this is an ambitious agenda,” Cuomo said. “But now is the time to double down.”
State spending would increase 1.7 percent under his 2016-17 budget proposal. Cuomo said the budget totals $145.3 billion, but that doesn’t include about $9.3 billion in federal aid. That includes some remaining aid from superstorm Sandy, some federal health care aid, and $2.3 billion in one-time cash remaining from enforcement settlements with Wall Street banks by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.
Cuomo said he also would authorize mixed-martial arts fighting matches in New York as a tax revenue producer, but that initiative has faced strong opposition in the Assembly’s Democratic majority. The budget is also partly funded by extending taxes and fees on gambling, waste tire disposal and other revenue streams that were to sunset. Cuomo also would continue annual increases in public college tuition that were supposed to end this year.
Legislators said they still don’t have enough information to decide whether they could support Cuomo’s proposals.
“There are a lot of numbers being thrown around,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport). “It’s extraordinarily ambitious, but the reality is if we don’t find a way to pay for all of this stuff, it’s not going to mean anything.”
Major spending increases under Cuomo’s proposal include the school aid hike — $991 million in the coming year to bring total school aid to $24.8 billion — and $900 million for transportation projects and repair. They also include $640 million for affordable housing and homeless programs; and $120 million more for the Environmental Protection Fund to bring it to a historic high of $300 million. The budget also includes $240 million to give a break in Thruway tolls to frequent travelers, and a $300 million cut in taxes for small and medium-sized businesses.
Cuomo also underscored his previous announcements that proposed billions of dollars in construction programs, including an overhaul of Penn Station in Manhattan, a third rail for the Long Island Rail Road in Nassau County, a possible tunnel from Long Island to Westchester County, the Bronx or Connecticut, and a $26 billion capital program for New York City mass transit partly paid by the city.
“There’s no lack of questionable gimmicks and waste, more than we’ve seen in a few years,” said E.J. McMahon of the nonpartisan, fiscally conservative Empire Center for Public Policy. “The creation and perpetuation of more tax gimmicks, such as the temporary Thruway toll rebate, won’t help the state’s competitiveness at all.”
Cuomo immediately faced questions of how he will pay for it all. “It’s tough to find the meat,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse). “The numbers are being talked about in the State of the State are astronomical and I have no clue how that adds up.” He said unlike previous years, the governor didn’t make his budget director available to lawmakers.
But supporters said some of the big projects and programs are intended to be phased in, with cost spread over several years.
“Some of these proposals are 10-year plans, some are five-year plans,” said Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chairman Herman “Denny” Farrell (D-Manhattan).