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Albany completes budget passage, with fingers crossed for more federal help

The State Capitol building in Albany. Voting for

The State Capitol building in Albany. Voting for the state budget deal began Tuesday night and continues on Wednesday. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

ALBANY — With fingers crossed, New York lawmakers on Thursday approved a state budget that is filled with aspirational numbers, hinges on getting more federal help to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and grants broad gubernatorial powers to make cuts if it doesn’t.

The state Assembly gave passage to the last of 10 budget bills around 3:30 a.m. Friday, in an eerily empty chamber with only a few of its 150 members and staff seated at a time, some of them wearing  gloves and masks.

Lawmakers said their budget approves $177 billion in spending for fiscal 2020-21, nearly a 2% increase over last year, but acknowledge that figure is a placeholder that the state will reach only if it gets more federal aid to deal with the pandemic. They already are telling school districts and other constituents not to bank on the numbers it contained because spending could be slashed without more federal aid.

 Besides spending allocations, the plan gave authority for lots of short-term borrowing and counted on a federal Medicaid grant that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo initially suggested he'd refuse because it wouldn't allow him to shift some costs to counties.

 But the document  also was chock full of policy issues not related to the virus, such as amending bail, campaign finance and ballot laws.

  Working faster, the Senate approved all the bills by 3 p.m. Thursday.  

 “Our state’s financial situation has been thrust into a true economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. Our state residents, at this critical time, can’t bear the burden alone,” State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said as the Senate finished.

While thanking Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and New York’s congressional delegation for a stimulus package that drives billions of dollars to the state, Stewart-Cousins said: “I must also say that we need more help and we need it quickly.”

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Though state revenue has been plunging, the spending total matches what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed in January before New York became the center of the virus in the United States, triggering illnesses, deaths and economic freefall.

At the same time, legislators granted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo the unprecedented authority he wanted to cut or increase spending on rolling basis through the state’s fiscal year, which began Wednesday. He can make changes as soon as April 30 and on a rolling basis if receipts are 1% or more below projections.

Already, state revenue is about $10 billion below January projections, though it’s been somewhat offset by more than $5 billion in federal stimulus aid.

While school aid was frozen at last year’s level, $26 billion, some programs already face cuts contained within the budget legislation approved this week.

Medicaid payments to hospitals would be reduced $300 million as part of a Cuomo-backed plan to restructure the program, officials said. The governor originally sought a $400 million decrease.

Though cuts can be offset a bit by a $250 million fund for distressed hospitals and nursing homes, the state will no longer cover the cost. That will be done by counties — forcing them to pay a bigger share of Medicaid, as Cuomo wanted.

Spending in many other categories effectively was frozen, although there is a typical array of increases, including college dorm renovations and State Fair improvements.

To the dismay of some progressive lawmakers and activists, the plan rejected their call to raise revenue by raising taxes on the rich and legalizing marijuana.

“In every economic downturn for the past ninety years, Albany leaders demanded that the wealthy pay more to fund government services that benefit all of us. That didn't happen today — but it's gonna have to happen soon,” Michael Kink, director of the progressive group Strong Economy for All, said.

One thing the virus didn’t change: the Albany custom of packing the budget with plenty of nonfiscal and unrelated policy initiatives, especially from the governor.

The plan included adding dozens of crimes back to a list of those for which a judge can set bail, approving a mechanism to use taxpayer money to fund campaigns, and to fast track green energy projects (by reducing communities’ input),

Cuomo lauded legislators for not only working through the health crisis but also tackling other policies. He called it an “extraordinary feat of governmental accomplishment.”

Republicans said the Democrat exploited the pandemic to strong-arm legislators who were under pressure to meet the April 1 budget deadline.

Said Assemb. Michael Montesano (R-Glen Head), as he voted no on one of the bills: “He is taking advantage of this crisis.”

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