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Here Comes the Pain

One thing is for sure about Gov. Cuomo’s first budget—it’s going to hurt

by Jason Chura on February 2, 2011

For much of the past month, there has been an air of somber resignation as state government braced for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget. With Cuomo’s popularity soaring in the 70-percent range, most seemed prepared to brace themselves for anticipated harsh cuts. But with a budget that proposes a $2.85 billion reduction in school aid across the state and $2.85 billion in cuts to Medicaid, along with millions of dollars worth of proposed labor concessions, people are beginning to speak up—and loudly.

In a presentation chock-full of such ominous phrases as “functionally bankrupt” and “death spiral,” Cuomo laid out his 2011-12 budget proposal Tuesday. Just as promised, it was a proposal crafted out of difficult decisions that made apparent that “pain” would be the uncomfortable, but appropriate buzzword for many New York State agencies this year and perhaps for years to come.

“It was a very sobering speech, and one that wasn’t very surprising,” said Sen. Hugh Farley (R-District 44). “I think it was drastic action and I think he did what he had to do. And now it’s the Legislature’s turn to see if we can’t improve it.”

State operations funding sustained the biggest wound, with cuts totaling around 10 percent. According to the press realease that accompanied the budget proposal, this was a strategy intended to “lead by example” and “spare local governments the worst of the cuts.” Despite these measures, local government aid was reduced by 2 percent, but the cuts were accompanied by promises of assistance for municipalities through the reevaluation and reduction of state mandates.

“Everybody is going to have to tighten their belts,” said Farley.
It is hoped that most of the state’s budget woes will be eased by restructuring, reducing, and consolidating state agencies. However, the proposed budget could result in the loss of up to 9,800 state jobs. Though this figure is not as high as the 15,000 jobs rumored to be on the line earlier in the month, it is still an upsetting figure to state workers, state unions, and politicians.

“That would be devastating to the Capital Region, because we would disproportionately lose the lion’s share of them,” said Assemblyman John McEneny (D- District 104). The assemblyman went on to point out that, as these state workers do not exist in a vacuum, layoffs of this magnitude would likely be felt by every shop and restaurant in the region. “That payday dollar turns over again and again throughout the tri-cities and the counties around here,” said McEneny.

State unions were supportive of the tone and direction of the governor’s budget proposal, but condemned any loss of state jobs.
“CSEA has repeatedly said that we are prepared to do our part and work with the administration for a better New York,” said Danny Donohue, president of the Civil Service Employees Association in a press release. “We are not willing to see the necessary services that CSEA members provide to people in every community in the state used as a bargaining chip to maintain tax breaks for millionaires.”

Kenneth Brynien, president of the Public Employees Federation, echoed these sentiments in a similar statement: “We will work with the governor to do our part to help during this fiscal crisis. We are willing to sacrifice, but we will not be sacrificed.”

Other preliminary areas of contention in the budget included drastic cuts to education and Medicaid. Under current law, each of these programs would have seen a 13-percent funding increase; an expense Cuomo called “wholly unrealistic” in an opinion piece released the day before the budget. The governor called for a budget process reform in order to eliminate the “rates and formulas” responsible for driving yearly budget increases to “unsustainable levels.”

Education and Medicaid would instead sustain a 2.9-percent and 2-percent reduction in funds respectively. New formulas were proposed for both areas, which would limit their future growth. Individual school districts would be assessed for aid based on the districts wealth, need, efficiency, and property-tax burden.
Schenectady schools, for example, would see an 8-percent cut under the proposed budget, according to Farley, with other precincts in his district cut by as much as 15 percent. “That’s a poor school district that has had a lot of problems with performance and to take a dramatic cut like that could be really devastating,” said Farley
Overall, legislative response to the budget proposal seemed cautiously optimistic with most praising at least the theme of reform, if not the method. Legislators now look to examine and argue the details of the budget in hopes of ensuring the least damage to necessary services for the most possible gain in government sustainability, all with an on-time budget in mind.

“Eventually we’re going to get down to the wire and there’s going to be some philosophical differences,” said McEneny. “People will run to the Legislature to be rescued with their particular project or cause . . . a lot of which are severe human service needs. I feel an obligation to make sure that whatever pain is necessary—and there will be pain necessary—is spread fairly.”