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Cuomo warns of widespread cuts to schools, others amid pandemic

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at the Jacob Javits

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at the Jacob Javits Center on Tuesday. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday warned of impending, widespread education spending cuts and said he’d seek authority to make rolling reductions on a quarterly basis as New York grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

That could impact schools, local government and others, but everyone must adapt during this crisis, the governor said.

"No one is held harmless. No one is protected from reality. Ask any family out there,” Cuomo said at his daily morning briefing about the virus that now has infected 37,000 New Yorkers and resulted in 385 deaths. 

Later, during a radio interview, the Democrat delivered a more direct warning: "New York State is basically bankrupt ... and you are going to see education cuts all across the state."

School districts typically approve their own budgets in May. Asked how they are supposed to cope with adjustments through the year, Cuomo said: “State governments are losing money. Local governments are losing money. It is a reality for everyone and everyone has to adjust.”

The prospect for midyear funding changes is a "pretty dramatic development," one school official said.

The governor’s suggestions come as he is trying to pressure Congress to boost New York's share of a federal stimulus package to deal with the pandemic. It also comes as the state faces a deadline to enact a budget by Wednesday, the start of New York’s fiscal year.

Lawmakers also said they aren’t ruling out the possibility of a public-sector pay freeze.

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While they are dealing with possible spending cuts, legislators also are hastily trying to put together a system — and pass a resolution to sidestep state law — to allow the 200-plus rank-and-file members to vote “remotely” rather than being in the State Capitol.

And they are wrestling with Cuomo’s attempts to get them to act on policy initiatives not related to the pandemic, such as allowing commercial surrogacy and amending the state’s new bail law.

In January, Cuomo proposed a $178 billion spending plan for the state’s 2020-21 fiscal year. That included a 3% increase on K-12 school spending.

But his plan banked on a growing economy and a $5 billion revenue increase for the state. The virus will significantly reduce the state’s revenue.

The Cuomo administration initially pegged the impact at a $4 billion hit, but has steadily increased that estimate, to a current $15 billion. The stimulus package Congress is weighing would send $3 billion to New York’s state government and $2 billion to local governments.

The governor said the revenue projection contained in his original budget proposal will be decreased — but he didn’t say how much.

“First, we are going to adjust downward our revenue projection from the initial budget,” Cuomo responded, when asked about ongoing budget talks with the State Legislature. “Then, we’re going to ask to do something that we’ve never done, which is to adjust the budget through the year to reflect actual revenue.”

Earlier Thursday, the Senate majority leader said she is open to the idea but expressed concerns about maintaining involvement.

“We understand the need to have the nimbleness to react if something has to happen,” Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said on "Capitol Pressroom," a public radio program. “But I would never be in favor of giving wide latitude without involvement from the legislature in most of these decisions.”

Stewart-Cousins said she, Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) have resolved a slew of less controversial budget items, but not so on the “big, big issues.”

Further, they are grappling with a law that mandates lawmakers physically be in the Senate and Assembly to cast votes. Each house is proposing a resolution to allow remote voting, through internet video connections, during an emergency.

One fiscally conservative watchdog praised the idea of ongoing budget adjustments, but said lawmakers would be far better off to cut spending dramatically first, then increase if possible.

“Flexibility for governor to ‘adjust’ budget a good idea, but better to make big cuts up front, & adjust forward,” E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center think tank, said on Twitter. “And give localities more flexibility to manage with less — i.e., massive mandate relief, including pay raise freeze.”

But David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, said, “This is a pretty dramatic development for school districts,” referring to the state possibly enacting midyear reductions. “It’s hard to go back in the middle of the year and say, ‘OK, we have to cut Mr. Smith’s AP history course.”

Albert noted many districts during the 2008-09 recession faced a choice of either getting wage and benefit concessions from unions or laying off employees.

“There’s some uneasiness in the county and state about what’s the outlook for next year," said Hank Grishman, longtime superintendent of the 3,200-student Jericho school district and former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "And, it is possible [Cuomo] would look to trim some of the other money schools are expecting this year, such as building aid," referring to aid districts receive to reimburse costs of school renovation and construction.

With John Hildebrand and Michael Gormley

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