Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo yesterday unveiled a budget that's a blueprint to move the state forward at a time when the money has dried up. Last year, after he introduced his first budget and a list of ambitious legislative priorities, some guessed the governor was deluded. Now, mostly triumphant and with new goals, the question is whether anyone can stop him.
Balancing the budget is easier now. Where the deficit was $10 billion last year, it would have been $3.5 billion this year, until Cuomo finessed, with a surprising lack of debate, $1.5 billion in additional income-tax revenue out of the State Legislature. He'll cut that last $2 billion by ending spending hikes, like the annual jump in aid to localities, that had been automatic. By doing this, he can keep intact his promised 4 percent increases for K-12 public education and Medicaid, and a 2.2 percent hike for state and city universities. Overall, Cuomo's plan is solid and conservative, as befits the economic realities.
But Cuomo does have big plans, including a $25-billion economic development agenda he hopes to swing with just $1.5 billion in state money, leveraging funds from private investors, authorities and the federal government. That's a tremendous amount of money to bring to bridge repairs, to the rebirth of Buffalo, and to the Aqueduct convention center and casino plan, in a state where so many hands are always open. Transparency will be crucial to getting public support for these initiatives.
Cuomo is also tackling state mandates, starting with one he promised last year. Counties, which had complained that Medicaid cost growth exceeded their 2 percent property tax cap, could see their increases shrink to zero by 2015.
Cuomo's new pension tier would let future public workers choose the traditional plan or a 401(k) that's flexible and portable. He says this new tier would cut pension spending down the road by as much as 50 percent. Public pensions must change and employee contributions must increase, but more details are needed about these new rules before the plan can be fully evaluated.
Cuomo's biggest initiative is his bold move to use the budget as a blunt instrument to create sweeping change in K-12 education. The governor is giving the two statewide teacher unions and the State Education Department 30 days to finally adopt a teacher evaluation plan. If it's not done by then, he'll insert his own in the budget. The local districts and cities will have a year to implement it or lose their annual increases in state aid to schools.
Evaluations were mandated by a 2010 law two years ago, but union resistance has stopped the effort. As much as $1 billion in federal funds could be lost because of this, but far worse would be to lose a generation of students. Dean Skelos, majority leader of the Republican-controlled Senate, said the issue must be resolved, an encouraging reaction. Sheldon Silver, speaker of the Democrat-controlled Assembly, and long one of the unions' staunchest allies, was silent yesterday.
Cuomo is right to force this process forward, as the centerpiece of another sensible budget and another ambitious agenda for the state.