Many of the governor's proposals would provide long-sought relief to localities and school districts struggling to deal with rising costs. Those struggles have been heightened by the 2 percent cap on property tax increases. If the legislature approves the measures, the Holy Grail of mandate relief may finally become visible, albeit off in the distance.
Perhaps not as "simple and straightforward" as he believes, Cuomo's budget does provide assistance to cash-strapped localities on the fiscal brink -- about two-thirds of the state's towns, cities and villages -- all while not raising taxes on New Yorkers, making it the third year in a row for that distinction.
The budget -- which starts at $136.5 billion and balloons to $142.5 billion with federal aid for Sandy recovery -- is a typical Cuomo balancing act: There are goodies for both parties: for Democrats, a hike in the minimum to $8.75 an hour and money to start the move toward universal prekindergarten, and for the GOP, help for businesses with reforms to workers' compensation and unemployment insurance. These should help smooth legislative passage of some much-needed reforms.
There are many lines in this budget to be fleshed out: spending of billions in Sandy aid in the best ways, opening motor vehicles offices on Saturday, and providing $11 million in bonuses for master teachers.
The highlights include, as expected, $21 billion for education aid -- a 3 percent increase or roughly $300 per student -- and a way for local governments and schools to smooth out soaring pension payments. By stabilizing the contributions, municipalities could take advantage now of savings promised under Tier VI, the newest level in the state pension system, that won't actually be realized for years.
The budget creates a task force that includes early intervention by the comptroller and the attorney general to help communities facing fiscal problems. It could stave off control boards and depoliticize the process of putting them in place as a last resort. Plans to reform workers' compensation rules and unemployment insurance could net hundreds of millions in savings for the state and businesses. Changing the costly mandatory arbitration process for public employees would cap awards for municipalities deemed in "financial distress" at 2 percent.
This plan, which also closes a $1.3-billion budget gap, is loaded with economic development initiatives, with a focus on promoting tourism and products like New York wine, cheese and yogurt; creating hubs for technology and green jobs; and building on Cuomo's regional economic councils with another $150 million for competitive grants.
Cuomo acknowledges there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to the state's financial challenges and the answer can't always be spending more. Some of the answers will take time -- and some may not pan out -- but the governor has shown that state government can work. If he can get the legislature to agree to some of these plans, and institute the exciting new programs as well as cuts to sacred cows, New York will remain headed in the right direction.