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Déjà Vu in Cuomo's Highlight Accomplishments from New Budget

Cuomo property taxes

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo's April 10 announcement on the passage of the state budget cited several new initiatives and innovations that were included in the budget bills for the new 2017-2018 fiscal year, which began April 1.

But history suggests that at least three of them actually are not really new.

Tuition-free SUNY and CUNY
"With the 2018 Budget, New York leads the nation by making college tuition-free at SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year colleges for working and middle-class families making up to $125,000 per year," says the governor's announcement.

That sounds like a major step forward. Actually, it is something of a reversion to the original philosophy of the two public university systems. SUNY, established in 1948, was created in part as a result of the rising cost of higher education after World War II. Its units were mostly tuition-free or very low tuition until the 1960s. CUNY, established in 1961, was mostly tuition-free or low tuition until 1976. The tuition-free policy was discontinued that year as a result of New York City's fiscal crisis.

But since then, state and federal grants have been available to help low-income students at CUNY as well as at SUNY. The new policy at least partly hearkens back to policies and ideals of the past rather than departing from them.

"Raise the Age"
"The FY 2018 State Budget raises the age of criminal responsibility to 18-years-old and ensures that young people who commit non-violent crimes receive the intervention and evidence-based treatment they need," notes the governor's announcement. "New York was previously one of only two states in the nation that automatically processed all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, no matter their offense."

The governor is certainly right in calling attention to this as a major reform. He deserves credit for its enactment. But proposals to raise the age date back quite a ways. As Governor Cuomo's Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Juvenile Justice noted in its 2014 report, Recommendations for Juvenile Justice Reform in New York State, which advocated for the change, most states raised the age many years ago. New York was one of the few states not to take this step despite criticism from youth advocates, recommendations from its own State Crime Commission in a report dating from 1931, and other experts.

Shrinking local government
"The FY 2018 Budget continues the Governor's efforts to relieve the property tax burden and builds on the success of the 2 percent property tax cap," says the Governor's announcement. "The typical New York homeowner pays 2.5 times more in local property taxes than in state income taxes. The Budget will empower citizens to control the cost of local government by requiring counties to assemble local governments to find efficiencies for real, recurring taxpayer savings. To ensure transparency and an active role for citizens in reducing their tax burden, public hearings and input will be required as part of the development of the shared services plans."

New York has about 4,000 local governments. The governor's initiative is a fresh variation on an old theme: reducing the number of local governments, consolidating them, or urging them to share services in order to reduce the burden on taxpayers.

History suggests Governor Cuomo's new initiative may have a hard time getting traction.

New Yorkers may complain about taxes, but they seem indifferent to state initiatives to eliminate or consolidate services. Consolidation threatens the jobs of local officials. Citizens are apprehensive about changing something that is familiar even if it means greater efficiencies and more economical operation.

In 2013, Cuomo offered a program of state support to promote reduction of local governments through consolidation. There was little interest.

Governor Eliot Spitzer appointed a Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness.

Governor George Pataki had a Commission on Local Government Reform.  

Governor Mario Cuomo appointed a Commission on Consolidation of Local Governments.

None made any appreciable headway.

In 1935, Governor Herbert Lehman told the Legislature that "There are too many units of government in the State of New York and...the resulting complexity of local government cannot produce efficiency or economy." Legislators were not interested.

In 1929, Governor Franklin Roosevelt asserted "even the school children know that we maintain many useless offices in our towns, that many functions now exercised by town officials should be assumed by county the final analysis...the average taxpayer does not know why or where his tax money is being spent." In 1932, he cited "great waste and duplication" and "thoroughly unbusinesslike practices." But even then, with the Great Depression undermining local governments' tax base, very little happened.

In 1926, Governor Alfred E. Smith, who had reorganized and consolidated state government, called New York's complicated system of local government "costly, wasteful and obsolete...we have too many political divisions, too many officials, too little efficiency." The pattern of counties, cities, and towns had changed little since the beginning of the state. Over the years, special districts for sewers, water, etc., "were created without any understanding of the results that would follow because they overlap one on the other and set up within one township all sorts of overlapping special governments and special tax districts."

Two years later, Smith said the sprawling system of local governments represented "the old-fashioned, foolish way of doing things...inefficiency...we are still in the Middle Ages of government."

Among Smith's proposals: abolish the five counties in New York City; elevate densely populated Nassau County to the status of a city; merge Dutchess and Putnam counties, Rensselaer and Columbia counties, and Warren, Washington, and Saratoga counties into three large counties.

Smith made a strong case: consolidation would save taxpayer money, improve services, make government more responsive, and streamline management of state aid for highways, welfare, and other services.

But Smith's proposals produced very little public interest and support. The Legislature declined to take any action.

There may be more action under Cuomo's new approach. But history does not offer much cause for optimism.

These three examples suggest that looking back into history can often help inform current policy discussions. Often, there are reverberations of past policy proposals in innovative new ones.

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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