YOU CAN UNDERSTAND why the county’s delegation to the state legislature felt like crowing last week as they gathered at Columbia-Greene Community College. Collectively they had followed directions, played well with others and gotten the right answers on the multiple choice questions before them. And to earn a gold star, they completed their work on time.
For all of that their critics still carp about how people elected to the Assembly and state Senate have an obligation to produce a state budget by the April 1 deadline and don’t deserve extra credit for doing their jobs. But c’mon, this is the fourth consecutive year that there has been a bipartisan agreement on the most important duty we require of the state’s elected representatives. They’ve set a positive example, proving that budgets can be completed in the allotted time. That puts the burden on them and their successors to stick to the budget schedule in the future.
This involves more than good manners. Late state budgets put schools–students, parents, teachers, boards, administrators and taxpayers–through an emotional meat grinder while waiting to learn how much state aid each district will receive. This year, even with an on-time budget, you could hear local school boards exhaling in relief all over the county last week when the final budget was adopted.
With pleasure, Hudson City School District Superintendent Maria Suttmeier told her board this week that she would now be able to add teachers, when just a few days earlier she was chafing at the less generous executive budget proposed by Governor Cuomo, which would have forced the district to make cuts to stay within the nominal 2% state cap on property tax increases. The budget agreed to by the governor and legislative leaders doles out more state aid than expected and school boards can now meet the 2% target. This gives voters a reason to support school budgets at the polls next month.
Seen as theater, lawmakers convinced that mean ol’ Mr. Cuomo of the error of his ways and everybody is satisfied… but not really. Assemblymen Pete Lopez (R-102nd) and Steve McLaughlin (R-107th) both reminded their audience last week that the $138-billion state budget is balanced on an assumption that the state will have a $2-billion surplus at the end of the 2016-17 fiscal year. Here’s the neat thing about that: as both assemblymen reported, the state is spending that future surplus now.
Only politicians, accountants and friends of Bernie Madoff know how this works, but the basic principle seems to rest on wishful thinking. In February State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli took a different view in his analysis of the governor’s executive budget released in January. Mr. DiNapoli said the state surplus this year is likely to be around $300 million.
It’s possible that the state will see a surge in economic growth that produces a flood of new tax revenue. The budget eliminates taxes on manufacturing, cuts rates for businesses and establishes incentives for municipalities to hold the line on property taxes. If these and other measures along with the investment state government is making in education manage to stimulate the economy in the short term, then the governor and legislators will deserve credit for placing a big bet on the state’s future.
But as the state’s chief numbers cruncher, Mr. DiNapoli adopted a more sobering view of future growth, basing it on recent past performance. His calculations predict multi-billion dollar “gaps” in the budget over the next few years, especially in the absence of specific plans to keep the growth of state spending in check, something the leaders of the two major party have shown little interest in doing.
Mr. DiNapoli concludes that if the rosy prediction for a big surplus fails to materialize “funding for State agency operations, and for local assistance programs including transportation, mental hygiene, social services and higher education, may be expected to bear a disproportionate share of future spending restraint.”
We want our leaders to have vision and hope. This year state lawmakers delivered both in the budget. Schools get a breather and a chance to rebuild. Taxpayers get a break. Thanks.
But if the surplus doesn’t pan out, then cuts will return and the people who need state services the most get hit the hardest. Voters who ask state lawmakers representing this county why the legislature and governor didn’t adopt a more fiscally prudent budget that takes Mr. DiNapoli’s numbers into account, will get a straight answer: It’s an election year.