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Small budget provision would give Cuomo big power to cut aid

A little-noticed provision of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's

A little-noticed provision of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's budget proposal would give his administration extraordinary power to cut the spending plan without the Legislature's approval if revenues drop. Photo Credit: Governor’s Office / Kevin P. Coughlin

ALBANY — A little-noticed provision of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget proposal would give his administration extraordinary power to cut the spending plan without the Legislature’s approval if revenue drops.

Even supporters of the concept say the provision as written by Cuomo is too broad. Cuomo inserted the measure into his 2017-18 budget proposal he released last week.

The provision would give Cuomo’s budget director the power to make cuts, without discretion, a budget division spokesman confirmed. That would mean all funds, including school aid, would be cut as much as any other funding, such as parks and recreation aid.

“New York State needs flexibility built into its budget to address any loss of federal funding resulting from a policy shift in Washington,” Cuomo’s budget spokesman, Morris Peters, told Newsday. “This is especially important if federal policy shifts were to occur after completion of the legislative session in Albany. If there were to be a large loss of federal aid, it might be necessary to take action prior to January, when the legislature reconvenes.”

But a review shows the provision is even broader because it gives the Cuomo administration the authority to make cuts if “receipts, including but not limited to receipts from the federal government” decline from projections.

The Senate’s Republican majority and the Assembly’s Democratic majority wouldn’t comment, saying the provision is under review with the rest of the budget.

E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy think tank said he favors the governor having power to trim spending in certain circumstances but called this proposal “questionable on the specifics.”

“The problem is they have language that is very simplistic, saying, ‘If revenues are less than we assume.’ But it’s well known the Department of Budget overestimates some expenditures, partly as a cash-management technique,” McMahon said. “This is a pretty big concept and it’s a pretty big and important reform to just throw into the mix.

Noting the April 1 budget deadline, he added. “Our budget process is so tightly telescoped into a short time frame they [legislators] don’t have the time to look into a major provision like this . . . it begs more questions.”

Cuomo wrote the provision into his budget proposal as state revenue already was declining from earlier projections. Two weeks before he released his budget, he said the demise of Obamacare as promised by President Donald Trump would cost New York more than $3 billion in federal revenue — although his budget proposal assumed no loss of federal funds from Obamacare in the upcoming year.

The Cuomo administration noted federal aid — at $52 billion — is nearly a third of all revenue in the $152 billion proposed state budget, meaning that any changes in Washington under President Donald Trump would loom large in Albany.

“This language provides the state with the ability to react to sudden changes in federal support, should the situation arise,” Peters said. “As we do not yet know what actions might be taken at the federal level, any further details would be speculative.”

Under state law and a high court decision, the budget provides a governor with great leverage to enact measures over objections by the legislature. That decision, known as Silver v. Pataki for the case lost by then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver against then-Gov. George Pataki, restricts the legislature to voting only on Cuomo’s final, total budget proposal.

That leaves the legislature little power to alter a governor’s specific legislative proposals unless it is willing to vote down the entire budget and take heat for potentially shutting down state government.

Some past governors sought this power to reduce spending without the legislature’s consent. Former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch, at the beginning of the recession, proposed an overhaul of state spending to make it more transparent and attuned to revenue that included this provision. The overhaul was eventually rejected by his own boss, Gov. David Paterson, and the legislature.

But even Ravitch questions the broad power Cuomo’s proposal would create for the governor.

“My instinct is not to do it,” Ravitch, a Democrat, said in an interview Tuesday. “In an emergency, I can’t imagine the legislature wouldn’t support” spending cuts. But ‘a reduction in revenue’? That isn’t defined crisply enough. He could eviscerate the budget and castrate the legislature.”

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