UH, OH. MAYBE WE GOT what we asked for. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a state budget that might impose some fiscal discipline in Albany. That’s a scary thought. But whatever it does in the longer term, neither the process nor the immediate results will be pretty.
The governor released his first executive budget Tuesday, calling for a cut of over 7% in aid to public schools, a 10% cut in state agency spending and a huge hit to the Medicaid program, among other reductions. The school cuts will be amplified if the Assembly finally gives in and follows the lead of the state Senate in adopting a 2% cap on real property tax increases statewide.
Even before the budget emerged, Ichabod Crane had begun holding public meetings to discuss such unpleasant options as closing one or both of the elementary schools that serve as anchor institutions in Valatie and Kinderhook. Those venerable community schools may be luxuries that taxpayers can no longer afford.
The district is also preparing to share or consolidate services with one or more districts in Rensselaer County. Other districts will undoubtedly have to follow the same path very soon.
Those approaches promise savings down the road, but what about now? Can districts handle the double whammy of aid cuts and a property tax cap?
The governor seems to think so. He points out that the $1.5 billion he proposes cutting out of education is less that 3% of what school districts statewide will spend this year. True, but educating kids doesn’t happen statewide, it’s a local function, so it’s worth looking back at the current school district budgets adopted last May.
It turns out that all six public school districts in Columbia County proposed and won voter approval of budgets that actually reduced spending on a year-to-year basis. Each of the districts continues to function. The real cost came in districts where scores of people lost their jobs. That’s a bad deal for laid-off educators and their communities, and yet it’s unclear what effect those job losses will have on educational performance. But because we’re experimenting with the minds of our children, we’d better get some answers quickly.
The political reaction so far to the governor’s proposed budget has been muted. People expected cuts, and no one disputes that the state faces a $10 billion deficit that must be addressed. But I think two other factors play into how politicians have responded.
For one thing, this budget avoids the trap of naming villains. Sure, the governor says the state spends too much; state spending grew at more than twice the rate of inflation over the last decade. But he doesn’t blame a particular political party or group. And by leaving it at that abstract level, Mr. Cuomo opens up the only other reasonable interpretation of how we got here: that everybody who lives in the state has contributed a little bit to this mess, and the burden for correcting the problem falls on all of us.
The approach he takes to addressing some of the most contentious budget problems also deserves notice. He has appointed “teams” of people to recommend ways of accomplishing difficult tasks, like determining which prisons and related facilities should be closed. Nothing new in that, except that he would put money in this austere budget to help cushion the impact on regions hurt when state jobs suddenly disappear.
Only a few years ago during a far less severe money crisis the state summarily announced its plan to shut the prison in Hudson. The decision seemed arbitrary, opaque and oblivious of the harm it would do to the local economy. Once again the prison could end up on the list for extinction. But at least the governor has acknowledged that wherever prisons close, people need help to cope with the economic impact of the loss.
The governor’s budget will undergo many changes before state leaders settle on some sort of dismal spending plan to get us all through the next fiscal year. But Mr. Cuomo has done a good job in setting both the policy goals and the tone for the debate ahead. For the first time in years, there’s a budget before the state that isn’t about bad guys or whose side you’re on. Like all big plans it won’t accomplish all it sets out to do. But it’s a worthy start and it should give us all reason to hope.