Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1049 Sun, 27 Sep 2020 16:52:43 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Colossal Failures by New York Budget Division Bring Turmoil and Danger to Medicaid Program https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9142-colossal-failures-by-new-york-budget-division-cuomo-endanger-medicaid-program https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9142-colossal-failures-by-new-york-budget-division-cuomo-endanger-medicaid-program Cuomo state budget

Gov. Cuomo & Budget Director Mujica (photo: Governor's Office)


The New York State Division of the Budget surprised the public this past November with an announcement the State faced a $6.1 billion deficit to close for the 2021 budget due by April 1, 2020. The DOB disclosed in its Mid-Year Update that Medicaid costs were exploding -- dramatically more than anticipated -- in both the budget adopted in April 2019 for the current year (fiscal year 2020), as well as for the next one (FY 2021). The budget agency said the situation demanded immediate cuts to both Medicaid and the overall budget.

The Cuomo administration, in its January 24 submission to the Legislature of the new budget plan, proposed $2.5 billion in new reductions to the Medicaid program for FY 2021, as well as incorporating almost $900 million in cuts for the current budget year that began being implemented in November.

The governor’s $2.5 billion cut to projected Medicaid spending would be implemented through the appointment of the Medicaid Redesign Team, which includes representatives from providers, unions, and some other groups, and is tasked with reconfiguring services to achieve savings that would reach the target reduction. If unsuccessful, or if the Legislature fails to adopt the MRT redesign, the Cuomo budget plan includes a fallback to an across-the-board $2.5 billion cut. At a joint legislative budget hearing on January 29, the Greater New York Hospital Association testified that those cuts would amount to 10% of the entire Medicaid program in New York.

The City of New York expressed alarm about another proposal in the governor’s budget proposal that would require local governments to pay for increased Medicaid costs that the State of New York has been absorbing in recent years. Mayor de Blasio testified in Albany on February 10 that the city has very little control over the state-run federal program and that this potential cost-shift could force the city to pay $1.1 billion more for Medicaid expenses in its own budget and warned the city’s public hospital system, Health + Hospitals, could be severely affected. The Cuomo administration has disputed the city’s estimates.

DOB Knew A Year Ago Medicaid Costs Were Escalating Rapidly
Despite the public’s lack of awareness of spiraling Medicaid costs, the Division of Budget and the State Health Department knew a year ago, before last year’s budget was adopted, that Medicaid spending was wildly out of control. The Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-based think tank and budget watchdog, accused the Cuomo administration of concealing the deficits in a detailed analysis released in December, following months of similar criticism from both the Empire Center and the Citizens Budget Commission. The Empire Center’s work helped blow open the Medicaid budget crisis and helped guide my own analysis.

DOB released documents after the budget was adopted last year that severely under-reported Medicaid spending, creating the impression there was no serious problem. The DOB’s Mid-Year Update was issued late, in late November, for the period April 1, 2019-September 30, 2019, seven months after the April 1, 2019 adoption of the 2020 budget. 

As the State Legislature and the governor were finalizing enactment of the 2020 budget in late March of last year, the State Health Department was informing the Division of the Budget that the payments of Medicaid bills were so much larger than anticipated that the State would violate a spending cap on the Medicaid program by $1.7 billion for the fiscal year ending March 30, 2019.

The DOB and the Health Department then deferred the payment of the $1.7 billion to Medicaid providers several days into the new fiscal year that began on April 1, 2019. The deferral meant that the State Medicaid budget for 2019 had run over its projection from a year earlier by 10%, and Governor Cuomo and the Legislature had just adopted a budget, with a baseline Medicaid spending for the start of 2020 that was already $1.7 billion higher than 2019. The whole budget was out of balance as well and not being reported as such.

Despite DOB and the Health Department’s decision to push the Medicaid payment into the new fiscal year, DOB’s 2020 Enacted Budget Financial Plan released in April 2019 contained Medicaid spending numbers that were obviously wrong, 

The FY2020 Budget Released by DOB in April 2020 was Clearly Erroneous
Below are the FY2019 and FY2020 DOH Medicaid spending projections taken from the Enacted Budget Financial Plans. The extra $1.7 billion deferred Medicaid payment, which should have been reported in either FY19 or FY20, is nowhere to be found in the excerpts of the Medicaid budget below:

     

FY'19 Enacted

FY'20 Projected

FY'21 Projected

DOH MEDICAID ENACTED 2019

20,358

21,490

22,535

           
     

FY'19 Results

FY'20 Enacted

FY'21 Projected

DOH MEDICAID ENACTED 2020

20,476

21,685

22,699

Instead, the deferral and the extra spending appear in the November 2019 Mid-Year Update all rolled into 2020, which now appears as $3.34 billion higher than FY19, bringing the expenditure to $23.82 billion.

   

FY'19 Results

FY'20 Updated

FY'21 Projected

DOH MEDICAID

20,476

23,821

26,193

       

Even though the $1.7 billion Medicaid payment was due in March 2019, meaning fiscal year 2019, it is not incorporated into the 2019 results. But DOB knew in April 2019 the payment had been deferred; after all, the agency had ordered it. The real result for FY19 should have been $22.1 billion, presented in April, with a correct projection for 2020. Instead, the Mid-Year Update put all the spending into 2020.

Following October 2019 New York Times reporting, and criticism by budget watchdog groups that the state had delayed Medicaid payments in 2019, DOB acknowledged major problems for the first time in a public document released on October 17, 2019, called the Annual Information Statement, intended for investors in state bonds. The State Comptroller reported on the problem a few weeks later, but it was not until the Mid-Year Update that the state was restating the problems as severe.

Going back to April 2018, the adopted FY2019 budget contained a colossal underestimate of the costs of the Medicaid program, which would affect the 2020 estimate and the 2021 estimate by billions of dollars. Medicaid spending projections simply had no basis in reality. Here’s the Mid-Year Update again, presented in November 2019 but this time with a serious Reality Check:

   

FY'19 Results

FY'20 Updated

FY'21 Projected

DOH MEDICAID

20,476

23,821

26,193

As stated above, the real baseline for 2019 was $22.1 billion after accounting for the deferred spending. And this made the spending forecasts for 2021 even more spectacularly mistaken. The Mid-Year Update forecasts what the spending would have been but for the abrupt and drastic curtailments implemented months ago and proposed for FY2021.

In April 2018 (FY2019), the Enacted Financial Plan showed Medicaid spending rising from $20.35 billion that year to $22.53 billion in FY2021. But the Mid-Year Update shows Medicaid spending rising to $26.19 billion in FY2021, an increase of $5.7 billion, or 28%, in just two years.

Why the stupendous error?
Frankly, the State Division of the Budget did not have a handle on all the many forces the state had set in motion for the Medicaid program:

The minimum wage increased.

DOB knew in 2016 that the multi-step minimum wage increase enacted in that year would bring the wage floor from $9 an hour to $15 an hour in New York City by the beginning of 2019, while a phase-in toward $15 an hour continued to take place in the suburbs and Upstate New York in 2020 and 2021. The April 2019 budget for FY2020 estimated the impact for FY2020 would be $1.1 billion. The Mid-Year Update estimated the FY2020 impact would be $1.5 billion and for 2021 $1.8 billion. DOB underestimated the impact of the increase.

The Federal government’s 100% reimbursement for the Medicaid expansion for Obamacare was scheduled for reduction to 90% in 2020; Comptroller DiNapoli reported in a budget analysis that this reduction would cost the State Medicaid program $1.7 billion in FY2019 and FY2020.

The State increased Medicaid rates. 

This happened in 2018, adding $140 million to costs, as reported by the New York Times in October.

Obamacare implementation increased Medicaid enrollment significantly.

The administration of the Medicaid program was shifting. As Obamacare began to be implemented in 2014, New York State created a new platform to apply for Medicaid called the New York State of Health. Medicaid enrollment grew from 5 million people in 2013 to about 6.2 million today, a 25% increase in enrollment. As a result, the State of New York began to share responsibility with local governments for determining eligibility for Medicaid for persons applying through New York State of Health.

The state also created other avenues for Medicaid enrollment. 

The elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill, and persons with substance abuse problems were required to move into managed long-term care. This included home-care services for existing and new beneficiaries, and a new “consumer choice” program allowed beneficiaries to hire family members, frequently with the assistance of enrollment agents called Fiscal Intermediaries, who could apply for the program on behalf of the potential new recipients.

Applicants could also attest they needed immediate support. While the local government still had to determine eligibility and assess their need for care, beneficiaries were moved into managed long-term care right away. Concern has been expressed that people who are healthy are being moved into the “consumer choice“ program, called Consumer-Directed Personal Assistance, without adequate monitoring.

The state absorbed all cost growth in local government Medicaid spending. 

According to the Empire Center for Public Policy, the state, starting in 2015, has absorbed about $1.3 billion in local spending, with New York City the main beneficiary.   

All of these factors seem to have meant that the Division of the Budget and the Health Department just couldn’t keep track of the combined impact of so many new drivers of Medicaid spending.

What now?
The state (and the Medicaid program) got a lucky break at the beginning of 2020. Tax revenues were reported up by $1.5 billion over the April 2019 estimate, and the state used the money to absorb much of the added Medicaid spending and eliminate the need to keep deferring payments to subsequent years. The state also now projects tax revenue will rise by $2 billion more than anticipated for FY2021, allowing more of the FY2021 deficit to be covered without spending cuts.

The state is still sitting on $6 billion in reserves that could be used to mitigate spending cuts. Mayor de Blasio and others have urged consideration of tax increases on the wealthy. The state could increase assessments on Medicaid providers, and use the money as a way to leverage federal Medicaid dollars, another way to mitigate cutbacks. Negotiations with the Legislature on the Medicaid program and the overall budget will no doubt bring adjustments to protect the Medicaid program and protect recipients and providers.

The Health Department, DOB, the Comptroller, and the Legislature need to figure out what went wrong. The State also needs to bring more transparency to reporting on the costs of the Medicaid program, and go back several years step by step. The Comptroller may need to require a restatement of the state’s books, too, and make sure there is no repeat to the colossal mistakes by the Budget Office.

***
Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
Colossal Failures by New York Budget Division Bring Turmoil and Danger to Medicaid Program Sun, 16 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
How Cuomo Closes Budget Gaps and May Approach Largest Deficit Since His First Year https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9052-how-cuomo-closes-state-budget-gaps-may-approach-largest-deficit-since-first-year https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9052-how-cuomo-closes-state-budget-gaps-may-approach-largest-deficit-since-first-year 2014 exec budget

(photo: Governor's Office)


When Governor Andrew Cuomo took office in 2011, the state faced a $10 billion budget gap that necessitated massive cuts in spending for the next fiscal year. The state’s Medicaid program was redesigned to cut $2.7 billion in spending. School aid was also cut by about $2.7 billion. There were cuts to state agency spending and redesigns that reduced another $1.5 billion. The rest was covered with new resources, revenue enhancements (though, no new taxes, the governor emphasized at the time), and one-time funding streams including debt management and reestimates of spending.

The governor received widespread praise at the time, including from leaders of both major political parties, for that budget and for leading the state through particularly challenging fiscal times.

Fast forward to 2020 and the state is yet again grappling with a huge projected gap for the coming fiscal year -- $6.1 billion -- and the governor has indicated he believes state education aid and Medicaid spending need to be revisited, and that he will not support raising taxes or creating new ones. It’s the largest gap the governor has had to deal with since his first budget and, to the particular concern of fiscal watchdogs, comes amid a period of sustained economic growth rather than in the tumultuous years after a global recession like the last time around.

In other words, the state currently faces more of a spending problem than a revenue problem. And it also bodes ill that state reserves are far from robust, particularly relative to the $177 billion annual budget (of which, $102 billion is state operating funds), and that the governor continues to push spending down the line rather than dealing with it immediately.

Next week, Cuomo will present his executive budget for fiscal year 2021, which begins April 1, and he’s expected to rely on some tried and true methods, some of which have been questioned as fiscal gimmickry, but he’ll likely have to expand the toolkit given the size of the projected deficit.

Most of the gaps in past years have been far lower than $6.1 billion, requiring minimal maneuvering by the state. In fiscal year 2013, the gap was $3.5 billion; in FY 2014, it fell to $1.35 billion; in FY 2015, it was $1.7 billion; in FY 2016, $1.8 billion; in FY 2017, $1.78 billion; in FY 2018, however, it jumped to $3.5 billion; and in FY 2019, it hit $4.44 billion.

Cuomo Restrains Spending and Closes Budget Gaps, with Risks
After the 2011-2012 budget, the governor was successful in passing eight on-time, or nearly on-time, budgets that kept within, or close to within, his self-imposed cap of 2% annual growth in state spending. But he’s used various maneuvers for which the governor has become infamous and which in part led to the budget problem the state must now contend with.

Year after year, the state has managed gaps through, among other measures, cutting hundreds of millions in projected costs of agency operations and reduced spending on aid to localities (including cuts to education, social services and housing, public health and mental hygiene services). That approach would have likely worked again for the 2021 fiscal year, for which the projected gap was expected to be about $3.9 billion when the current year’s budget was enacted.

But, in the mid-year financial update published by the state Division of Budget in November, that number was modified to $6.1 billion, taking into account an additional $3 billion in increased Medicaid costs, driven by several factors, and setting off a flurry of concern and finger-pointing about the state’s fiscal picture. The out-year budget gaps are projected to be even larger, given current trends, with a $9 billion gap in 2023 if nothing significant changes.

The state has taken at least one step to rein in the Medicaid cost uptick, cutting payments by 1% starting earlier this month – affecting hospitals, doctors, nursing homes, home care providers, and others – while also looking to find $1.8 billion in savings in the program.

Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica, has also stressed that the budget gap is nothing to worry about. “There is no doubt it will be a challenge, but it is a challenge that is manageable. The Governor has closed gaps much larger than this,” he wrote in a Medium post in December.

The governor contended in his January 8 State of the State speech that the overall increase came from the state covering the costs of Medicaid that is capped for localities, which to some sounded as if he may call on municipalities to pay more. In a gaggle with reporters on Monday, however, he sought to provide reassurances that such a proposal was not forthcoming. “I’ve not yet proposed how we believe we should resolve it,” he said of the budget gap. He added, “Nobody should worry. Life is good. Be optimistic.”

That may be a stretch for budget monitors, who say that the budget gap is manageable but also preventable. They warn that the governor’s budget tactics, though restrained, may be unsustainable and prove disastrous if a recession hits and urge him to look elsewhere for long-term savings and budget cuts, particularly areas such as economic development spending where the governor has been reluctant to pull back.

Closing the Gap: Dos and Don’ts and Surprises
“It’s a gap that’s closeable. Revenues are coming in at or above projections,” said Dave Friedfel, director of state studies at nonprofit watchdog Citizens Budget Commission, in a phone interview. But he emphasized that the gap was one that the state should have expected and prepared for, particularly owing to deferred Medicaid payments.

The 2019 fiscal year pushed $1.7 billion in Medicaid payments to the 2020 fiscal year, and the current budget pushed another $2.2 billion in Medicaid payments to next fiscal year. The governor’s mid-year budget update says that the Department of Budget plans to make such deferred payments “permanent,” setting up what some watchdogs call a dangerous practice.

“Deferring that payment was really damaging because it pushed the costs from last year into this year, and it also undermined this year's financial plan because they didn't account for that,” Friedfel said. Though in the short term, it may not affect the state’s fiscal health, it would complicate the state’s choices in a recession, where, according to CBC estimates, the state would face as much as a $35 billion shortfall over three years.

“It's never a good fiscal practice, but it's even worse when the revenues are coming in and the economy is doing well,” Friedfel said. “This was completely preventable and it wasn't the result of any type of an outside shock. The federal government didn't suddenly change reimbursement rates. There was no surge in Medicaid enrollment...So this was definitely a preventable budget gap.” (New York does have a significant population enrolled in Medicaid, about 6.27 million individuals, and the Cuomo-driven minimum wage increase to $15 has significantly increased costs for health care providers).

Friedfel has several prescriptions for state officials: cut economic development spending and find long-term savings in retiree health insurance benefits. He also said the state could save $800 million with a more focused approach to Foundation Aid, the supplemental funding given to schools to provide a “sound basic education” under a State Supreme Court ruling. He cautioned against any effort to force localities to absorb Medicaid costs.

“It really is a progressive thing that the state did, that Governor Cuomo did by capping out the local share [of Medicaid],” he said. “If you reverse that, you're saying to localities because you have a lot of poor people, people on Medicaid, that you therefore have to contribute more to the state which is the opposite of progressive. That would be regressive.”

E.J. McMahon, founder and research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog, is hoping against but expecting that the governor will use “cash flow timing maneuvers” again to balance the budget. “He's rescheduling a hunk of the payments to [Medicaid] providers and basically making his cash flow issue their cash flow issue,” he said in a phone interview. “It's not the most prudent approach because it is basically meant to hide the problem rather than deal with it.”

Based on past experience, McMahon said the governor may also tap reserve funds on a one-shot basis. “He can't possibly actually save $2 billion in what's left of the fiscal year so there will be a lot of gimmickry related to timing and reserve funds that will, I think, largely paper over the problem,” he said.

The most striking part of the problem, he said, echoing Friedfel, is that the state has not seen in more than 40 years a budget deficit of this size at a time when the economy is expanding and revenues are on target. “Usually our problems occur when there's an economic downturn and our revenues fall short. This is purely, totally due to excess spending in a category [Cuomo] manages and has more control over than any previous governor has had,” he said.

McMahon noted in a blog post on Wednesday, based on state tax receipts through December, there’s an additional $1.3 billion above revenue projections at the state’s disposal. But that does not solve what is an over-spending problem, he said.

He did give the governor some credit for his fiscal moderation in earlier years, however.

“If you adjust for the bookkeeping tricks that he's used to make it appear like 2% [annual growth rate]...still adjusting for inflation, his nine years as governor have been on the whole the most restrained nine years of any governor in modern history,” McMahon said.

“Cuomo showed considerable fiscal discipline during his first years in office, especially in his first budget in 2011, and he still has considerable power to shape a budget that basically reboots his first-term approach and lowers the spending trend going forward,” McMahon also said. He noted that the Legislature has little power to add spending other than separate line items which the governor could veto. To override those vetoes, the Legislature would need votes from the entire Senate Republican conference and from eight upstate Assembly Democrats, he said.

“Now, as recently as Pataki’s last term, gubernatorial vetoes were repeatedly overridden by a Republican-controlled Senate in partnership with the Assembly’s Democratic super-majority,” he wrote. “But that could only happen now if Cuomo goes (further) out of his way to alienate Senate [Republicans], assuming he also can’t retain the loyalty of suburban Senate Dems. In short, it’s unlikely.”

Both McMahon and Friedfel pointed to the pitiful amount of reserve funding the state has put aside, barely $2 billion relative to the more than $102 billion in state operating funds budgeted for this year. Cuomo has, McMahon pointed out, relied on $12 billion in monetary settlements from financial institutions following the recession as a stand in for reserves, of which about $6 to 8 billion has already gone out the door.

“His whole attitude with the now $12 billion windfall settlement is a classic have your cake and eat it too,” he said. “The actual statutory reserves are puny by national standards...but he also gets the cite that money as part of his reserves...I'm not gonna be too speculative [but] he'll tap some of it and help solve his budget problem for next year in some fashion,” McMahon said.

“Without wanting it to happen, I anticipate gimmicks,” he said, “but we'll see.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
How Cuomo Closes Budget Gaps and May Approach Largest Deficit Since His First Year Wed, 15 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Uncertain Future for Secretive State Pork Program Tied to Renegade Democrats https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8461-uncertain-future-for-secretive-state-pork-program-tied-to-renegade-democrats https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8461-uncertain-future-for-secretive-state-pork-program-tied-to-renegade-democrats cuomo klein via gov

Cuomo and Klein (photo: governor's office)


Few New York residents have probably heard of the State and Municipal Facilities Program, or SAM, but in recent years, it has been one of the top avenues by which state lawmakers “bring home the bacon,” providing many millions of dollars in funding for district projects. Otherwise known as “pork,” these projects include things like new or renovated parks, schools, libraries, and more, with far greater funding going to legislators based on their political power.

However, in this year’s recently-adopted state budget, there are no new appropriations for SAM. And SAM is also different because it is lump sum appropriation, with specific project funding decided outside the budget process by the governor and legislative leaders.

Started in 2013, SAM is a creation of Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders. It is controlled by the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY), one of the state’s many public-benefit corporations, responsible for assisting state and local governments, as well as non-profits and colleges, with construction, financing, and other services. Currently-planned SAM projects include everything from renovations to the Brooklyn Public Library to creation of a skateboard park in Albany to new fire trucks and patrol vehicles in Poughkeepsie.

DASNY’s board consists of five gubernatorial appointees, an appointee from the President of the State Senate, another from the Assembly Speaker, and four ex-officio members: the State Comptroller, Education Commissioner, Health Commissioner, and the Budget Director.  The health commissioner and budget director are both appointed by the governor and the education commissioner is appointed by the state’s Board of Regents.

The program has long been criticized as an unnecessary discretionary fund -- in other words, a politically advantageous “slush fund.” SAM is one piece of the state’s larger capital budgeting, mainly for construction projects.

In his assessment of the 2018 state budget, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli criticized “the state's use of lump-sum appropriations that leave broad discretion for use of funds with limited disclosure.” He specifically cited SAM, which received a 25% increase in appropriations that year, saying “the need for additional discretionary spending authority was not made clear.”

Criticism has also come from good government and fiscal watchdog groups. E.J. McMahon, research director for the Empire Center for Public Policy, said last year that state lawmakers were “basically like teenagers with credit cards” when it comes to using SAM.

“It’s just pork. There is nobody even pretending that there is statewide importance to any of these,” McMahon told The Buffalo News. “There is no process. No airing. There’s complete discretion.”

David Friedfel, the director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, told Gotham Gazette “these lump sum appropriations are not a wise investment of state resources. The allocations are a product of political expediency instead of a thorough analysis of the state’s needs. It’s nice for the communities that receive these grants, but the state taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill.”

Surprisingly, in this year’s state budget, there were no new appropriations for SAM. However, Friedfel notes that state lawmakers “have not allocated all of the money previously appropriated so they may have decided to just spend down existing appropriations this year.” There still remains over $1.9 billion in SAM appropriations that have gone unspent since the program’s creation in 2013, and that money is carried over into the new fiscal year 2019-2020 budget that took effect April 1 of this year.

As of April 8, 2019, there are over 1,800 grants currently administered by DASNY under SAM that amount to over $900 million in planned spending. This leaves a little over a $1 billion in discretionary funds for state lawmakers to access, which is more funding than SAM has ever spent in a single year.

Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state’s Division of the Budget, which is under the governor, said in a statement “there were no capital additions to the Budget and, as we have said already, additional capital funding will be addressed in June at the end of legislative session when we have a better sense of the State’s fiscal picture.”

There has been little indication from Albany leaders if there will be additional SAM funding in the capital budget when it is decided. The state’s current fiscal outlook, the availability of reappropriated funds, and the demise of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) all appear to make additional SAM appropriations unnecessary or unlikely.

The program’s 2013 introduction coincided with the first state budget following the 2012 state legislative elections, in which Democrats won a majority of State Senate seats. However, the IDC partnered with Senate Republicans to maintain the Republican-led majority. The addition of a new discretionary spending program a few months after the deal was struck was suspicious to many. There has been reporting to indicate, as well as widespread belief, that Governor Cuomo, now a third-term Democrat, preferred and encouraged the creation of the IDC and its coalition with Republicans.

SAM was utilized over the years to benefit members of the IDC handsomely, while the funding also benefited Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats.

Several years after its creation, in the 2018 budget, an additional $90 million was added to SAM’s annual appropriations. This was a few weeks before the IDC’s dissolution -- a deal Cuomo brokered -- and five months before that year’s primary elections, when six of the eight IDC members were defeated by Democratic challengers.

Former State Senator Jeff Klein, who had been the leader of the IDC, was one of the primary beneficiaries of SAM projects before his loss to Alessandra Biaggi in the 2018 state legislative elections. A 2015 article in Politico New York explained “Jeff Klein’s alliance with Republicans has paid off.” Klein received almost $12 million in earmarks, much of which came from SAM, over three years between 2013 and 2015, according to Politico. Klein’s earmarks were triple that of any other state senator at the time, though other members of the IDC also reaped significant benefits, as did other legislators.

In an April 1 interview with WAMC Northeast Public Radio, Cuomo acknowledged that the capital budget and capital projects were not “fully included” in the recently-passed state budget. He said that “we have to negotiate on the capital side and we’ll do that in the coming weeks.” He also reiterated that the state’s $150 billion infrastructure plan “is the most aggressive infrastructure plan in the United States of America.”

While Cuomo’s major infrastructure projects continue apace, it is unclear what the fate of the SAM program will be, whether the reallocated money will be spent down or whether new money will be added.

On April 12, Cuomo issued 123 line-item vetoes to cut $44 million in capital spending added by the Legislature, in order “to maintain a properly balanced budget,” the governor wrote, and for technical reasons, such as being duplicative or were unnecessarily held over from several years prior.

While SAM is among the largest sources of funding legislators can use for capital projects in their districts, it is not the only source. And according to Friedfel, the final state budget also took out a provision that would have given the state’s inspector general greater oversight of discretionary spending.

***
by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Uncertain Future for Secretive State Pork Program Tied to Renegade Democrats Thu, 18 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Agenda 2019: City & State Budgets on Mostly Solid Ground, with Major Questions Looming https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8147-agenda-2019-city-state-budgets-on-mostly-solid-ground-with-major-questions-looming https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8147-agenda-2019-city-state-budgets-on-mostly-solid-ground-with-major-questions-looming Cuomo budget presentation

Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

New York’s economy has seen several rosy years in the decade since the Great Recession, with a run of steady growth, increasing job numbers, rising wages, and reliable tax revenue that has defied historical trends -- and led to growing city and state government budgets. But 2019 may be the peak of that economic swing as economic experts predict a long-expected slowdown to set in before 2020. New York City, the experts say, seems better equipped to weather any adverse effects of slowing growth and the state may struggle, presenting some hard choices for Democrats who will fully control state government come January and have a long list of priorities, some of which have financial costs attached.

Also complicating the fiscal pictures as the state and city levels are projected budget gaps that must be closed, looming negotiations over how to fund the next MTA capital budget plan and its tens of billions of dollars to fix the subways, and the still unclear effects of recent federal tax reforms, among other outstanding questions. The finances of New York City continue to show a rosier picture than those of the state, with the city economy essential to the state’s ability to spend more each year, though the state has grown its budget in much more limited fashion than the city under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In January, Governor Andrew Cuomo will present his State of the State address and executive budget for the fiscal year that begins April 1. Afterward, de Blasio will respond to the governor’s budget plan -- which will set the stage for negotiations with the state Legislature, de Blasio, and others -- and release his own preliminary budget for the next city fiscal year, which will begin July 1. Once the state budget is finalized, the city will be able to take its details -- funding levels, new mandates, and more -- into account as it creates its own budget. The specifics of the annual struggle over what the state is asking or requiring of the city are to be seen, though Cuomo has already indicated he plans to seek more money for the MTA from de Blasio.

Budgets are statements of values as much as they are financial planning documents and Cuomo and de Blasio, both Democrats, face pressure each year to balance their policy priorities with fiscal restraint, as well as the demands of others, especially members of the respective legislative bodies each must negotiate with. The governor prides himself on having passed eight on-time or nearly on-time budgets with a 2 percent cap on increased spending, though he is known to manipulate the numbers to say he has stuck to that limit even though some years he has not. De Blasio boasts of record amounts of savings, though watchdogs regularly say that he is not socking away enough given the extended economic boom while he is spending too much, especially in recurring costs like through a significant expansion of the city workforce.

The agreed upon state budget was more than $168 billion for the current 2019 fiscal year, with savings that are far too minimal according to every expert. And the mayor’s administration, though praised by fiscal monitors for its responsible financial planning, has overseen ballooning expenditures, passing a nearly $90 billion budget for fiscal 2019 -- it was $72.7 in the final year of the Bloomberg administration.

But New York City revenue is largely based on property taxes, which would remain relatively stable even in the event of an economic slowdown. The state on the other hand is far more vulnerable since personal income tax and sales tax contribute a bulk to state revenue.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the current economic expansion, the second-longest in the country’s history, will continue through most of 2019, bolstered by the federal tax cuts passed in 2017 (even if many New Yorkers’ tax burdens increase due to the new cap on state and local deductibles). It should allow both the state and the city to keep spending, though experts warn that both should prepare for what will happen down the line. Both the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations, along with the state Legislature and City Council, respectively, should be putting more money towards rainy day funds, fiscal experts say; particularly the state, especially as necessary infrastructure investments loom large and add to already rising debt obligations.

New York State
The state budget remains far more precariously placed in the case of a downturn, even though one isn’t expected to hit soon. The governor has reiterated in recent months that he will continue to abide by a self-imposed 2 percent limit on increased annual expenditures, which presents little wiggle room to add major spending initiatives, though it remains to be seen if the governor will employ one of his many budget maneuvers to obscure actual spending increases. For instance, the State Fiscal Year 2019 budget, which began April 1, included a provision that funnels Payroll Mobility Tax revenue directly to the MTA instead of going through the state, effectively shifting $1.5 billion out of the budget.

“Part of the problem is they’ve technically abided by it but they’ve only done that by shifting things around and reclassifying things, not necessarily through stringent cost controls,” said David Friedfel, director of state studies at Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog. “The more they play those tricks, the harder they will be to find in the future if that’s how they choose to close the gap.”

The New York State Division of Budget’s mid-year financial update, released in November, predicted that the state will meet its revenue projections by the end of the fiscal year. Even at the state level, budget gaps remain manageable, at about $3.1 billion for fiscal year 2020, a number that is quickly cut if the 2 percent growth is factored in.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released his own financial update in November, estimating that overall tax revenues would decrease by 1.8 percent by the end of the state’s 2019 fiscal year (end of March). Though personal income tax revenues are expected to fall by 2.5 percent, business and consumption taxes are set to increase by a total of 6.5 percent, the report estimated. Tax revenues are expected to increase by 5.9 in the 2020 fiscal year and then at a lower rate, 2.4 percent in the 2021 fiscal year.

Similar to city representatives, officials in DiNapoli’s office said in a background briefing that they expect a soft landing for the economy, despite the volatility in national and international markets. They have yet to determine the full impacts of the federal tax code overhaul, which capped State and Local Tax (SALT) deductions at $10,000 annually, raising concerns that high earners facing larger tax bills would in some cases fold to out-migration pressures, leaving the state and taking their tax dollars with them. Given New York’s position as a high-tax state, even many upper middle class homeowners in expensive New York City suburbs, and in the city itself, will be facing increased tax burdens, though it is not immediately clear that these factors will lead to a significant increase in the number of higher earners leaving the state. New York has consistently seen out-migration each year and has lost a net of 1 million residents since 2010, according to The Empire Center, a think tank. A report issued by the center in March suggested that the state should undertake several reforms to encourage the economic competitiveness which could help reverse that trend.

The state took measures to decouple state tax provisions from the federal tax code, including decoupling from the SALT limit to prevent higher state taxes, and changes to the child tax credit and the single filer deduction. The state also created two new programs -- the Employer Compensation Expense Program and the State Charitable Gifts Trust Fund -- in an effort to limit state taxpayers’ exposure to federal tax changes, but neither program appears to have caught on in any significant way. Officials in the state comptroller’s office said the impacts of the SALT deduction in particular wouldn’t be evident until during next fiscal year, particularly if it encourages people to move out of state.

Other risks in federal funding to the state seen in recent years -- Republican proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act and make drastic cuts to Medicaid -- have also mitigated, the officials said, since those proposals have failed to come to fruition. But federal funding does remain uncertain as Congress is in the middle of negotiating the current federal budget with President Donald Trump, who has threatened a government shutdown if Congress does not approve funding for a wall along the southern border that he had promised Mexico would pay for. The ballooning federal deficit incurred from the Trump-led tax cuts have also increased pressure on federal spending, which could trickle down to the aid that New York receives for transportation, health care, and education, among other things.

“The state is in decent financial position but not when you consider the fact that we are nine years or so into an economic expansion,” CBC’s Friedfel said. “The state has been gifted with $12 billion in financial settlements and some additional revenues yet the state’s reserves are not where they should be or could be. They haven’t been added to in about four years. And liabilities are still out there.”

As Friedfel noted, the state’s rainy day funds stand at only about $2 billion, a pittance when looked at in the context of a downturn. In the case of a recession, Friedfel estimated, the state could face up to $50 billion in combined losses over a four-year period. “California is doing a very good job on their reserves. They’re gonna have close to 10 percent of state operating spending in their reserves, which is really what New York should be aiming for,” he said. “Instead of $2 billion, we should be closer to $10 billion.”

As with the city, the state’s debt also continues to rise, particularly with the governor having launched an ambitious infrastructure program that includes modernizing existing facilities and building new ones across the state, including bridges, airports and bus systems. The state’s debt service payments for fiscal year 2019 stood at $5.5 billion and are projected to rise to $6.6 billion in 2020. New York currently ranks second-highest in the country, behind California, in outstanding debt.

Year after year, DiNapoli has waved a red flag over the state’s debt obligations and officials in his office are keeping a close eye on whether those will increase in the upcoming year. There will be particularly pressing needs -- the MTA, NYCHA -- where the state will have to work with the city to fund large capital improvements. The current 2015-2019 MTA capital plan remains underfunded and the Fast Forward Plan, proposed by New York City Transit President Andy Byford to modernize the city’s subway and bus systems, may cost nearly $40 billion, with no plan proposed to pay for it in its entirety. A congestion pricing program for New York City has been embraced by the governor and many in the state Legislature as a funding stream, but even if implemented quickly and without carve-outs it would fall far short of meeting the goal.

“That’s one of the biggest questions,” said Gelinas from the Manhattan Institute, “especially if the economy continues to do well. How much does Governor Cuomo go after the city for MTA funding and in multiple billions of dollars...and does that cut into the city’s other priorities?”

IBO’s Lowenstein also echoed that concern. “The state has a great deal of leverage over the city and its own fiscal concerns and it would be unreasonable to expect these issues get resolved without city participation.”

Last time Cuomo and de Blasio negotiated the MTA capital plan, the governor successfully convinced the mayor to significantly increase city funds for the authority. Cuomo has repeatedly stated publicly in recent months that he will be pushing the city to pay “its fair share” for the MTA. De Blasio has called for an added tax on high-earners to provide dedicated funding for the MTA, a proposal that Cuomo has publicly mocked as fantasy on several occasions.

The state Legislature next year will also include several newly-elected Democrats who expressed support for increased education funding, per the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, which could add billions to the state budget. The state Board of Regents recently proposed a $2.1 billion increase in education funding for next year, which would be a significant jump from the current fiscal year’s increase.

New York already spends nearly twice the national average on per-pupil funding, said CBC’s Friedfel, but doesn’t necessarily allocate funding to the districts that need it most. CBC has argued for changing the key formula, known as Foundation Aid, noting that many wealthy districts receive it despite already spending more than the national average and more than the already-high state average by leveraging local tax dollars.

Another open question is what the state will do with about $900 million in unspent or unallocated one-time funds from Extraordinary Monetary Settlements, recovered from the financial industry in the wake of the 2008-09 market crash. Since state fiscal year 2015, the state has received nearly $11.2 billion in those settlements.

Though the governor has repeatedly said he will divert those funds to capital investments, and he mostly has, he has also used them for budget balancing purposes, DiNapoli’s office noted.

“The governor should be putting much more money of any one-time revenue sources aside for the MTA, things like court settlements or just better-than-expected revenues,” Gelinas said, noting the dire need to fund the transit agency. “We haven’t put enough of that money aside for the MTA.” Cuomo has, on the other hand, dedicated financial settlement money to his signature infrastructure projects, like the new Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.

Unlikely to impact the next state budget, but certainly on the negotiating table in the new legislative year, is the push to revolutionize how New York provides health insurance and health care. Several legislators, long-time and newly elected, are pushing for the New York Health Act, which would establish a single-payer health care system in the state and could cost nearly $140 billion in additional state expenditure by 2022, according to a RAND Corporation study. Though the act could reduce total health care spending by 3 percent by 2031, the study found. Cuomo has said he supports a single-payer system, but has insisted that it should be implemented by the federal government rather than the state, and said that he does not see it make fiscal sense for New York.

New York already has one of the largest Medicaid programs in the country, comprising a huge chunk of the state budget (education and Medicaid are the two biggest spending programs). But enrollment has been relatively flat over the last three years. If that trend continues, Friedfel said, the state could find more savings in the budget.

Friedfel also noted at least one development on the horizon that could have a significant impact on state tax revenue. “The million pound gorilla in the room is what’s gonna happen with the state’s millionaire’s tax,” Friedfel said. The tax is due to expire on December 31, 2019, and though prominent elected officials have called for extending, and even expanding, the program, CBC’s position is that it should be allowed to sunset to help with the state’s economic competitiveness and to keep high-earners from leaving because of the SALT deduction cap.

While Cuomo has overseen its repeated extension and he has dismissed calls to expand it, during the recent election cycle he was mum about what he wants to do with the current millionaire’s tax.

New York City
The city released its latest budget modification in November, revising spending up by $1.4 billion, for a total of $90.56 billion for the 2019 fiscal year, which ends June 30. That marks a high point for city spending, and an $18 billion increase from before de Blasio came to power in 2014. The city’s Office of Management and Budget projects a manageable $3.17 billion budget gap -- the difference between expected revenues and projected expenditures -- for the 2020 fiscal year starting July 1. OMB expects that gap to rise to $3.36 billion for fiscal year 2022, the end of the current four-year financial plan period, by when expenditures are projected to reach a whopping $99.6 billion.

As City Comptroller Scott Stringer noted in his latest financial report released on Friday, OMB tends to issue more conservative estimates of revenues in upcoming years, allowing the administration more leeway to adjust spending. Stringer’s report estimates the budget gap to be lower, about $2.6 billion in FY2019 and $2.8 billion in FY2022.  

“We’ve come out of a run of a number of years of good economic conditions and good fiscal conditions here in the city...but we’re not seeing anything in the numbers that suggests it’s going to end anytime soon,” said Ronnie Lowenstein, director of the Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan city-funded agency.

In a background briefing, an official at Comptroller Stringer’s office acknowledged that there’s significant uncertainty, with even the Federal Reserve appearing divided about where the economy is heading. There are mixed signals in the market -- unemployment is markedly low which should lead to higher inflation, but hasn’t.

But the comptroller’s office is cautiously optimistic and no economist currently projects a recession -- though one is never out of the question -- but rather a return to a slower rate of growth by the time 2020 rolls around.

“[We’re] expecting a great deal more softness in economic growth,” said IBO’s Lowenstein. “Not a recession but a much softer U.S. economy. And as far as the local economy’s concerned, we’ve already begun to see the weakening.” She pointed to the drop in job growth over the last few months and also noted that though the job market has diversified with more jobs created outside the financial industry than before the last recession, most of the new jobs have been in lower-paying industries.

But she said that slower growth won’t create out-of-control deficits. “We’re looking at gaps that are readily manageable, of the size that we’ve managed in the past,” she said.

The official from the comptroller’s office agreed that the city has the capacity to manage outyear budget gaps, particularly with a strong budget surplus each year that has allowed the city to maintain a healthy, if not optimal, level of reserves. The de Blasio administration put away added rainy day funds in the current fiscal year, responding to demands from the City Council. The result included a total of $1.25 billion in the general reserve, $4.35 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund, and $250 million in the capital stabilization reserve.

The city’s budget cushion has been increasing over the years and stood at about 11.2 percent at the start of the current fiscal year, though the comptroller has urged the administration to maintain levels between 12 and 18 percent, the lower range of which would have required more than $6.3 billion to hit the upper end.

agenda19v2 aThere are of course various risks that the city must manage. One big vulnerability, according to the official from the comptroller’s office, is the size of the city’s workforce, which has added more than 30,000 workers under de Blasio.

“If you look at the November budget update...the biggest issue is the increased expected spending on labor,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank. She noted that the report increased the labor reserve for fiscal year 2020 by $704 million, for 2021 by nearly $1 billion and for 2022 by about $1.4 billion.

“It just shows that these labor agreements that the mayor is making with the unions are costing a little bit more money than expected,” she said. “So the basic story is if the economy keeps doing well, we can probably squeak by with balancing next year’s budget...but if the economy does fall into a recession, with the higher labor costs making these deficits a little bit bigger over the next few years, they would pose a bigger problem for the city.”

Gelinas said the city must take aggressive cost-cutting measures in labor agreements, particularly health care spending, to help avert layoffs and service cuts in the case of a recession. “Longterm, health care savings have to be much more aggressive,” she said. “The healthcare fringe benefit budget for the upcoming fiscal year will be almost $11.5 billion and it’s continuing to rise. It’s going to $12.5 billion by the end of the financial plan.”

“No mayor has ever gotten through two terms without a recession,” she added on the eve of de Blasio’s sixth year in office.

The city’s debt obligations have also been rising, owing to a massive capital program, which pays for building and maintaining the city’s infrastructure such as roads, parks, schools, and libraries.

“Debt service is one of the two big sources of growth in city spending,” said IBO’s Lowenstein, referring to the annual debt payments that are included in the city’s expense budget. “It’s debt service and healthcare, and they’re both big and they’re both growing very fast.” Debt service -- which is accounted for in the city’s annual operating budget -- is budgeted at a total of $6.8 billion for fiscal year 2019, according to the November update, and is expected to rise to $8.3 billion by fiscal year 2022.

Unlike most other municipalities, New York City’s capital program is funded entirely through borrowing, incurring massive debt that must necessarily be paid off every year, which could pose problems in the long run. “It’s less that we can’t continue to pay the debt service on the commitments that we’ve made but rather that they’re crowding out other things that the city might want to do,” Lowenstein said. “And our ability to expand those capital commitments is not unlimited. Especially in an era when interest rates are rising.”

Rising debt service also gives the mayor and City Council “less leeway to budget for other things ranging from teachers to cops to road repair,” she said.

Stringer has repeatedly raised the issue of rising debt, though it’s not yet out of control. The rule of thumb for his office is that debt service should not exceed 15 percent of tax revenues, a level it is well below currently. And the City Council has also attempted to make changes to the mismanaged capital funding process, creating a new subcommittee this year dedicated to examining the capital budget, finding ways to make it more efficient and reducing cost overruns. Upcoming City Council budget hearings may indicate whether that subcommittee and its focus are having any real impact.

But there are big items that may add significantly to the city’s capital investments and therefore create an additional debt burden. Those include funding for the beleaguered New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). In both cases, the city may have no choice but to commit billions more dollars, particularly pending the outcome of negotiations with federal officials over NYCHA and with state officials over the MTA, for which the city typically kicks in significant capital funds.

“The city may not have choices so the speed with which this occurs may be out of our hands,” Lowenstein said.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to ntoe that the Capital Stabilization Reserve is $250 million, not $250 billion. 

]]>
Agenda 2019: City & State Budgets on Mostly Solid Ground, with Major Questions Looming Sun, 16 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Will Single-Payer Health Care Come to New York? https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8139-max-murphy-podcast-will-single-payer-health-care-come-to-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8139-max-murphy-podcast-will-single-payer-health-care-come-to-new-york mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


December 12, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Will Single-Payer Health Care Come to New York?

wbai dec12 400One of the most hotly-debated issues in state government is whether New York should or will move ahead with the New York Health Act, which would institute single-payer health care. State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, is the Senate sponsor of the bill and will soon be part of the Democratic majority in the Senate, as well as the health committee chair. He joined the show to discuss the broader priorities of the Senate Democrats and the prospects for the New York Health Act when his party has full control of state government come January.

Then, Bill Hammond, director of health policy at the Empire Center, joined the show to dissect the New York Health Act and a variety of ways in which he thinks it is problematic legislation, as well as the political terrain ahead for it.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Max & Murphy Podcast: Will Single-Payer Health Care Come to New York? Wed, 12 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
State Commission Boots Charter Communications from New York, Raising Questions https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7847-cuomo-commission-boots-charter-communications-from-new-york-raising-questions https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7847-cuomo-commission-boots-charter-communications-from-new-york-raising-questions Cuomo Charter broadband

Gov. Cuomo at a broadband event (photo: The Governor's Office)


The revocation of Charter Communications’ ability to do business in New York State may be seen by many as a win for consumers and for striking workers, but several key questions remain unanswered, including what cable operator will replace it, and if the company will really be forced to relinquish its assets in the first place.

Charter is the largest cable operator in the state, with its umbrella including most of New York City (the Bronx and parts of Brooklyn are dominated by Cablevision) and large swaths of upstate New York. Cable companies are sometimes described as “cartels,” divvying up territory where each can be the only operator, enabling higher prices and poorer customer service. Some have accused cable companies of explicit collusion.

When Charter acquired Time Warner Cable, New York City’s previous main cable operator, in 2016, the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) approved the merger on the condition that Charter provide statewide broadband at 100 megabits per second (mbps) by the end of 2018 and 300 mbps by the end of 2019, and to provide broadband access to 145,000 unserved or underserved households in rural parts of the state.

The state says that Charter failed to live up to its promises and attempted to deceive the public into thinking that it had fulfilled them, via advertising campaigns. As such, the state revoked its approval of the Charter-TWC merger on July 27 in a hastily called meeting without one of its most vocal members, and banned Charter from operating in the state.

The PSC ordered Charter to “file within 60 days a plan with the Commission to ensure an orderly transition to a successor provider(s).” Charter can appeal or sue to block the decision, but as of yet has not done so.

As it was for Charter, approval from the PSC of a franchise agreement for the replacement provider is potentially extremely lucrative. It is not clear which company will become the successor, though the list of potential suitors includes large donors to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s campaigns.

Cablevision, the regional behemoth that operates in the Bronx and upstate, has donated $617,500 to Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaigns since 2008, with $92,500 coming since July of 2017. The donations have come from various LLCs affiliated with local affiliates (e.g. Cablevision of New Jersey, Cablevision of Rockland/Ramapo, etc.) as well as from a corporate PAC, though all donations list the address of its headquarters in Bethpage on Long Island.

Cablevision is now a subsidiary of European telecom giant Altice, which is not listed as having ever donated to Cuomo under its name.

Comcast, which has a limited presence in New York State, has given Cuomo $164,700 since 2009, with $55,180 coming on November 27 of last year. With Charter being evicted from the state, Comcast, the largest cable provider in the United States despite being routinely criticized for poor customer service and anticompetitive business practices, may attempt to gain a foothold in the Empire State and the single largest media market in the country.

AT&T and Verizon, both of which compete with cable companies with fiber optic offerings, have donated $137,900 and $72,815.89, respectively, to Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaigns. AT&T donated $20,100 on May 28. Cuomo received $187,800 from Time Warner, whose parent company his administration banned from the state.

Asked whether the campaign contributions could influence the process to replace Charter, Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens called any such notion "baseless" and noted that the replacement process is controlled by PSC without interference from the governor.

“The Governor believes the PSC should not back down to a media giant that has failed to live up to its promises and violated its obligation to build out our broadband system," Stevens said. "The PSC stepped up and took aggressive action to enforce the law, and the Governor stands with New York consumers who deserve the broadband service Charter-Spectrum promised, but has failed to provide."

The PSC, which regulates public utilities in the state such as gas, electricity, water, and telecommunications, is made up of five commissioners, each appointed by the governor. The PSC fined Charter $2 million in June for failing to adequately expand its network.

Charter has 60 days to present to the PSC a six-month transition plan to another cable operator. Charter is entitled to make its preference known as to which company it wants to replace it, but any new operator must prove to the PSC that it intends to serve the public interest in order to be approved to conduct business, and the actual broadband contracts are with localities, not the state.

“The properties that are owned by Charter/Time Warner in New York State are very profitable, and they’re essentially a known entity,” said Richard Berkley, the executive director of the Public Utility Law Project, a non-profit representing low-income and rural consumers seeking better service and consumer protection by public utilities, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “So I think you’d see a lot of private entities interested in that.”

Charter can seek a “temporary restraining order” from a court, which Berkley had expected the company to do, but as of Monday afternoon, August 6, Charter does not appear to have filed any motions for a restraining order, or filed an appeal or lawsuit.

“In the same way that the state had a role in deciding whether or not Charter could buy Time Warner, or for that matter Comcast could buy Time Warner, whoever is proposed by the company will have to go through that same process,” Berkley said of PSC approval.

A large and profitable network of infrastructure suddenly being up-for-grabs may lead to intense lobbying of the PSC for the franchise.

“I would assume to the extent that they’re interested in stepping into the shoes of Charter that they have probably started checking in with the department or the state,” Berkley said.

“It’s a very profitable enterprise, and there are any number of large telecom firms that would want to step forward and try to buy it. The thing which is gonna make it more difficult still is that they have to be responsible. They have to be able to run the operation.”

A spokesperson for Altice declined to comment. Spokespeople for AT&T and Verizon did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Comcast told Gotham Gazette, “at this time we aren’t commenting on this issue.”

A spokesperson for the PSC told Gotham Gazette, “The final decision as to who succeeds Charter is up to the PSC.” The spokesperson did not respond when asked whether telecom companies had been lobbying the PSC, or whether they were expected to. Cuomo told reporters Auburn on July 27 that the PSC is “talking to a number of companies.”

Cuomo has repeatedly publicly criticized Charter in the wake of its failure to live up to the terms of the merger deal. On July 31 in Queens, in response to a question about the Crystal Run straw donor scandal by NY1 reporter Zack Fink, Cuomo said that Charter/Spectrum had been “defrauding” the state. NY1’s future in a Spectrum-less New York is uncertain.

“You are defrauding the people of this state,” Cuomo told Fink. “That’s a fraud.”

A Cuomo spokesperson has insisted the governor was discussing Spectrum and has no ill-will toward Fink, a veteran reporter who has covered Cuomo for several years. Still, many noted Cuomo's response to legitimate questions about a campaign finance scandal that is being investigated by federal authorities.

In Auburn, where Cuomo was announcing a $10 million economic development initiative, the governor said that he asked the Attorney General to investigate advertisements making potentially false claims about Charter’s adherence to the conditions.

“They have breached their franchise agreement by being behind schedule in their build-out, even though their ads state the exact opposite, and they have not been forthright with the consumers in this state,” Cuomo said. “If you watch Spectrum-Charter, this issue has been going on for months. They haven’t even reported on it. Meanwhile, they’re running advertising that says the exact opposite. So, that’s why the PSC took that action today, and I support it.” Last Thursday, Charter halted its ad campaign touting its expanded broadband network, described by Cuomo and the PSC as misleading, a month after being ordered by the PSC to do so.

Berkley is skeptical that the donations to Cuomo’s campaigns by cable companies would significantly influence the PSC’s decision. “In the end, the Public Service Commission is an independent entity,” he said, despite the fact that Cuomo has a history of interfering in purportedly independent entities. “The governor doesn’t sit on the board. Yes, he gets to pick the people who come before the Senate to be vetted and confirmed. But, you know, the Senate has the ability to say ‘no’ to people.”

Berkley said that, rather than looking at large donations to Cuomo’s campaign coffers, the greater political influence lies in how much money companies have invested in state and local economic development initiatives. The cable infrastructure is privately owned and constructed, but built on public land, which is what makes it a public utility. Time Warner had, as a public utility, invested in local economic development initiatives such as the governor’s now-tarnished Buffalo Billion, announcing in 2013 that it would build a new call center in Buffalo. The larger Buffalo Billion program was at the center of a major public corruption trial earlier this year, which resulted in the conviction of a top Cuomo economic development official as well as Cuomo donors.

Berkley is not optimistic about the chances for municipal broadband to take hold in New York over private companies. Democratic State Senate candidate Ross Barkan has higher hopes: he thinks that the state should create a publicly owned internet company to compete with private cable companies and “break these monopolies once and for all.”

“Many New Yorkers are stuck with expensive, slow internet, and can't even shop among companies,” Barkan said in a direct message. “A public option for the internet would force private companies to provide better service, lower their prices, and would guarantee everyone in this city and state has a right to access the internet.”

Barkan, who is running in a competitive Brooklyn primary to try to unseat Republican Senator Marty Golden, said that if the proposal could be done through the legislative, rather than executive, process, he would be on the front lines for it.

“Either way, we need it. If it came down to introducing and passing a bill, I would do it,” he said.

In contrast to Cuomo and the PSC, who blame Charter, the Empire Center, a think tank, has laid blame for the situation on the cozy relationship between Cuomo and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, which represents Spectrum workers who have been striking for over a year. Just one day before the PSC announced Charter’s banishment, New York City launched its own probe into whether Spectrum was fulfilling the conditions of its franchise with the city, namely whether their “cable techs” were local union workers; the IBEW told the Daily News that Spectrum had begun utilizing out-of-state staffers. And on July 31, 23 New York City Council Members called for Charter to not be considered for any future contracts in New York City.

Ken Girardin, a policy analyst at the Empire Center, cited a speech by Cuomo at a rally for striking IBEW workers, where he questioned how Charter could “improve customer service without the workforce that knows how to provide customer service” in the wake of the merger and its attached conditions.

“Cuomo’s rhetoric makes it impossible to separate the PSC’s actions from the Charter-IBEW dispute,” Girardin said. He doubted that Charter would even be kicked out of the state at all, asserting instead that the PSC would revise the merger’s conditional deadlines if Charter acquiesced to the demands of the striking workers. Charter can seek a restraining order and settlement to block the state’s actions, but has not filed motions to do so at this time.

A spokesperson for IBEW did not respond to a request for comment from Gotham Gazette. The union and its affiliates have also donated generously to Cuomo’s campaign accounts.

In an interview, Girardin described the PSC as a “kangaroo commission,” an institution that is operating on Cuomo’s behalf unchecked by the state Legislature, and said that if the Charter decision stands it would allow the governor to extort favorable outcomes out of companies lest they be kicked out of the state, too.

“The governor makes no illusion about the control he exercises over the PSC,” Girardin said. “The PSC has done mental and legal backflips to implement policy on the governor’s behalf. And that ranges from inventing a way to subsidize nuclear power plants to creating a basis for expelling Charter out of the state. The PSC’s core mission is to ensure the reliability of utilities and to regulate the rates that they charge. Governors going back to Pataki have exploited the PSC’s statutory authority.”

Girardin is also more suspicious of the cable companies’ donations to Cuomo’s campaign.

“I can't speak to how contributions influence decision-making,” he told Gotham Gazette in an email, “but if the governor were to let the PSC operate as intended -- as an independent panel of experts focused on rates and reliability -- there would be less incentive for regulated utilities to contribute to his campaign.”

Cuomo has been a regular target of pay-to-play allegations given the state’s porous campaign finance laws, his acceptance of campaign contributions from entities with or seeking state business, and policy decisions that have favored donors. Cuomo’s office has consistently said that government decisions are based on the merits, not influenced by campaign donations of any size.

Nevertheless, Girardin said that, despite some seemingly political decisions such as the seizure of the Fitzpatrick Power Plant when the operator wished to close it, and bailouts for nuclear plants lacking in transparency, the banishment of Charter would be without precedent in the state.

“Nothing that the PSC has done in the past rises to this level,” Girardin said. Girardin said that the PSC, in normal circumstances, would simply levy a fine and lay out an enforcement plan against Charter, and that it should attempt to foster competition in the market instead of simply choosing a replacement for Charter’s franchise.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Marc Molinaro also claimed that the revocation of Charter’s franchise was politically motivated, in order to punish NY1, which is owned by Charter/Spectrum.

Molinaro called on the state’s Inspector General to look into the decision to revoke Charter’s franchise, to determine if the Cuomo administration had “orchestrated” the action for political purposes.

“I’ll come right out and say it: It looks to me like Andrew Cuomo is trying to send a chilling message to the news media—’don’t mess with me’—and I hope the Inspector General can prove me wrong,” Molinaro said.

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated to reflect additional comments from the governor's office.

]]>
State Commission Boots Charter Communications from New York, Raising Questions Mon, 06 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
State Faces Budget Deficit Ahead of Possible Gut Punch from Washington https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7370-state-faces-budget-deficit-ahead-of-possible-gut-punch-from-washington https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7370-state-faces-budget-deficit-ahead-of-possible-gut-punch-from-washington Cuomo top aides budget

Gov. Cuomo and top aides (photo: The Governor's Office)


With the state facing a larger than usual expected budget shortfall for its next fiscal year, Governor Andrew Cuomo has been railing against the devastating impact proposed federal tax reforms would have on New York state finances.

The controversial reform plan that is still being negotiated in Washington, D.C. would either modify or completely eliminate the ability of New Yorkers to deduct state and local taxes from federal tax burdens and likely have deep economic impact for heavily Democratic states like New York, which typically have higher state and local taxes. As of Thursday, Republicans in the House and Senate say they have agreed on a tentative deal that would cap deductions at $10,000, reports NBC News. While negotiations are ongoing, Congress is expected to vote on a final deal this week.

Cuomo, a Democrat entering the final year of his second term, has said that the tax plan would “rape and pillage” New York at a time when the state is already faced with a $4.5 billion budget deficit -- the largest since Cuomo took office in 2011 -- and the governor has called on congressional Republicans from New York who support the tax plan to resign.

“There is no taxpayer in this state that lives in a congressional district that won't be hurt,” said Cuomo. “Because there's only one state budget. And we start with the $4 billion deficit. You put the state at a structural disadvantage. The taxes would go up on everyone. And that's not complicated math.”

In January, Cuomo will outline both his 2018 policy agenda in his State of the State speech as well as his executive budget proposal. The new state fiscal year begins April 1. As Cuomo and his team prepare that budget, there are troubling signs at both the state and federal levels.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has projected lower-than-expected tax revenue for the current and upcoming fiscal years. State operating funds receipts will be $1.8 billion lower than projections in the Division of Budget’s August financial plan for this fiscal year, which ends March 31, and $2.8 billion lower in 2018-19, according to a November report by DiNapoli’s office. The $4.5 billion gap may be exacerbated in the coming fiscal year by fallout from federal tax reforms.

But, if the administration continues to adhere to Cuomo’s self-imposed 2 percent limit on annual growth in state operating spending -- and it intends to, according to a spokesperson for Cuomo’s Division of the Budget -- the deficit the state will be facing drops to $1.7 billion for next fiscal year. Federal reforms could make budget negotiations even more challenging. If New Yorkers lose most of their state and local tax deductibility, there will almost certainly be more calls for the state to cut taxes.

Additionally, Politico New York has reported that another $1 billion hole may be carved into the budget if the federal government defunds a portion of the state’s Essential Plan, sometimes called the Basic Health Plan, which provides low-cost health insurance to residents earning less than twice the federal poverty level. And, in March, the state will run out funds for Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), a joint state-federal healthcare program, if it is not renewed by Congress. The state relies on $1 billion in federal CHIP funds to insure 330,000 children.

“His problem is compounded because he'll have to go to battle over healthcare spending for the first time in history,” said E.J. McMahon, research director at the Empire Center for Public Policy, speaking of Gov. Cuomo. “It's going to be the most pressured budget since his first year in office -- easily.”

Cuomo, who is running for reelection in 2018 and has presidential ambitions, has prided himself on passing on-time budgets and restoring fiscal order to Albany. He has already said he would link any pay raises for legislators, which are long overdue, to whether or not a budget deal is reached in a timely manner. This year’s $153-billion budget for fiscal year 2017-2018 was passed nine days late

To address the existing budget gap, the state must either cut spending or increase taxes. Cuomo’s office is now tasked with devising a financial plan that will not cripple agencies or end needed programs, but that will also not drive out the state’s highest income earners, whose taxes provide 40 percent of New York’s operational funding.

It is unclear to what extent the final federal tax bill -- if passed -- will affect New York and its taxpayers, but some fear it could provide additional motivation for the state’s top 1 percent to take residency elsewhere. Passage would likely dash any Democratic hopes for an expanded millionaire’s tax, such as the policy advocated by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

If millionaires and billionaires leave the state, “the burden then falls to everyone else: the middle class and the working families,” Cuomo said Wednesday in Albany at the awards ceremony for his 10 Regional Economic Development Councils.

Federal tax policy aside, experts say the widening gap between the state’s anticipated tax revenue and receipts is unusual given what is, overall, a well-performing economy and a booming stock market. While there are certain indications that suggest state personal income tax receipts have been depressed this year by taxpayer behavior in light of possible federal tax changes, the extent of any such impact is difficult to estimate, according to the comptroller’s office.

There is some debate as to how to handle the upcoming budget deficit, which Cuomo has acknowledged is likely to significantly impact education funding, which may not see the typical annual increases of recent years.

Comptroller DiNapoli has repeatedly urged that the state take steps to eliminate projected budget gaps and achieve structural budget balance, including, for example, minimizing use of one-time resources to support recurring spending and avoiding the use of administrative or accounting actions that lower the appearance of spending but do not eliminate the state’s obligation.

These recommendations are echoed by the fiscal watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), which has highlighted how the state has created the appearance of meeting the 2 percent cap on spending increases by shifting certain personnel expenses to the capital budget.

"Education, Medicaid, and personnel are the three things that he could target. We certainly think a lot of the economic development spending should be curtailed, but that's a slightly smaller pot," said David Friedfel, director of state studies at CBC.

Cuomo’s administration often touts spending restraint and disputes the CBC’s characterization of its spending patterns. A spokesperson for the Division of the Budget said that the positions in question had been categorized as capital expenses because they had been associated with capital projects.

“Governor Cuomo has been rigorous and effective in constraining State spending growth, achieving more fiscally responsible results than those of his predecessors. The current year’s budget holds spending growth to historically low levels for the seventh consecutive year while balancing the budget and lowering taxes for all New Yorkers.” said Morris Peters, of the state’s Division of the Budget.

Legislative leaders are divided on how to approach the budget and looming deficit. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican from Long Island, has opposed increasing taxes on high-income earners.

"Senator Flanagan believes we must continue to strictly adhere to the two percent spending cap, which would cut the Governor's projected deficit in half, and review every single dollar the state spends," said Scott Reif, spokesperson for Flanagan, in a statement.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, did not express much concern when speaking to reporters last week, noting that when Cuomo was first elected to office the state was forced to wrestle with a $10 billion budget deficit. “But we’re New Yorkers and we’ll find our way through it,” he said.

Cuomo’s budget director Robert Mujica is asking agencies to keep their budgets stagnant and others are questioning whether Cuomo’s signature infrastructure projects or economic development programs should see cuts, or perhaps a controversial tax break for the film and television industry that has cost the state $31 million since 2010.

While many have praised Cuomo for keeping the deficit relatively low since taking office, according to McMahon, the state’s fiscal situation in 2010 and next year are not necessarily comparable.

“In 2010, there was low-hanging fruit then that is not low-hanging now,” said McMahon, noting that Cuomo’s office significantly restructured state personnel. “The first place they will go is school aid. Medicaid is more complicated because there are three levels of payment and it is controlled by federal law.”

Education advocates pushed back on the suggestion that cutting education funding was the way to address the deficit. Instead, the state should reinstate the millionaires’ and billionaires’ tax to levels they were at before Cuomo took office and end tax loopholes for hedge-fund and private-equity billionaires, according to Billy Easton, executive director for Alliance for Quality Education of New York, a teachers-union-allied nonprofit.

“They shouldn’t say the outcome is we’re going to increase the deficit in educational opportunity for black, brown, and low-income kids,” said Easton.

The governor, meanwhile, has vowed to continue to challenge the federal government and members of congress who support the cuts. “I will fight this economic civil war every day that I am governor of the State of New York,” he said on Wednesday.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
State Faces Budget Deficit Ahead of Possible Gut Punch from Washington Sun, 17 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Even Without Federal Cuts, Signs of Trouble for State Finances https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7102-even-without-federal-cuts-signs-of-trouble-for-state-finances https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7102-even-without-federal-cuts-signs-of-trouble-for-state-finances dinapoli phillips

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, right (photo: @NYSComptroller)


State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli is calmly ringing alarm bells about the New York economy and budget outlook. DiNapoli, the state’s chief fiscal officer, recently announced that overall tax collections for the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2018 -- April through July -- fell by $1.2 billion from the same period last year, a decrease of 6.1% in revenue.

Not only did tax revenues decrease by $1.2 billion from the prior year, but they were also $1.7 billion below a projection made by the Comptroller’s office in February, an indication that things are significantly worse than expected.

The findings were compiled in the comptroller’s monthly state cash report, issued in late July. In an accompanying statement, DiNapoli diagnosed a potential cause of the unanticipated shortfall in state revenues.

"We're three months into New York's fiscal year and personal income tax collections are falling short of what was expected," DiNapoli said. “Taxpayer anticipation of federal tax changes has contributed to the decline. Offsetting that, business tax collections are well over estimates.”

The comptroller, a few days after releasing the cash report, also released a larger fiscal analysis of the state’s enacted budget and other spending plans, including the capital program, which funds infrastructure projects. Already on unstable footing due to lower than expected revenues and questionable uses of budgetary windfalls, the situation is made worse by the looming cuts in federal aid by President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress, who have proposed deep cuts in areas integral to New York ranging from affordable housing to transportation and health care.

The comptroller’s fiscal report signals a potential crisis for the state in spite of what the DiNapoli refers to in his accompanying message as the nation’s “ninth year of economic expansion.” The larger analysis shows decreases in federal aid could have a large impact on the state’s ability to provide healthcare, for instance, with Medicaid funding at particular risk. Medicaid funding saw a significant increase in the new state budget, which was passed in early April after an agreement between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the two houses of the state Legislature.

The balance in the state’s General Fund, which is the state’s destination for non-earmarked revenue, is $7.7 billion, according to the report. According to DiNapoli, the figure “is substantially higher than the levels in the period during and immediately after the Great Recession, largely reflecting monetary settlements received in the past three years. But the State’s budgetary cushion is shrinking: the Enacted Budget Financial Plan projects that the General Fund balance will be one-third lower at the end of the current fiscal year than its recent peak two years previously.”

DiNapoli criticizes the apparent lack of credence paid to the very real threat of cuts in federal aid from the Republican-controlled Congress and White House in Washington D.C. The $153 billion state budget for Fiscal Year 2018 includes in its sources of revenue about $56 billion in federal aid, about a third of the $161 billion in revenue for FY18 according to the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC).

It is unclear just how much the federal budget could cut aid to New York, but the comptroller’s report suggests that the state’s Financial Plan doesn’t sufficiently account for the impact of the increasingly likely scenario of significant cuts in federal grants to New York. Cuomo and the Legislature did pass a new provision that allows the state greater flexibility to adjust the budget mid-year in the face of significant federal cuts, DiNapoli notes, but it is not completely clear how that process will play out and whether the state is truly prepared for such measures.

The comptroller also critiqued the use of funds acquired via financial settlements, which have amounted to about a $9 billion windfall over the past several years, as of January. The comptroller’s message states that the settlement money, which is “nonrecurring,” should be put towards financing capital projects rather than to balance budgets. According to the comptroller, through March 31, “the State had spent over $3.1 billion of its extraordinary windfall in settlement resources. Nearly half that amount had been used for various forms of budget relief, and another $461 million is planned for such use this year.”

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, David Friedfel, the director of state studies at Citizens Budget Commission, noted shared concerns between the comptroller and the nonpartisan, nonprofit budget watchdog.

“We echo many of the Comptroller’s concerns,” he said, “specifically the increasing use of settlement funds to close budgetary gaps. Likewise, it is concerning that personal income tax receipts continue to fall below projections, especially in light of potential cuts in Federal aid.”

Both CBC and the comptroller’s report also cast doubt on Cuomo’s claim that annual spending growth has stayed below 2 percent annually during his tenure. In May, CBC released a report explaining how Cuomo manipulated the numbers to tell his preferred story. The comptroller’s report says similarly, listing such budgetary tricks as “the use of prepayments; certain program restructurings which result in costs being reflected as reduced receipts rather than disbursements; shifting spending to capital projects funds; deferring expenditures to future years; and the use of off-budget resources to pay for certain program costs,” which, when accounted for, results in a 4 percent spending increase this year rather than Cuomo’s touted 2 percent.

“We are glad to see OSC voicing the same concern that state operating spending is really growing in excess of 2 percent,” Friedfel said. “The actual growth rate is still below historical norms, but by utilizing accounting adjustments and financial plan reclassifications, the State is undermining transparency to fit an artificial spending growth cap.”

Another nonprofit budget watchdog, Empire Center, had a similar reaction to the report.

"As usual, the Comptroller’s report was fairly thorough in identifying some of the most important budgetary trends obscured by the governor’s spin as well as the financial risks ahead,” said E.J. McMahon, research director at Empire Center, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “However, one serious risk surprisingly overlooked by the report is the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate the federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes, also known as the SALT deduction."

SALT refers to state and local taxes. The average SALT deduction claimed by New Yorker taxpayers is $21,038, the highest in the country and nearly double the national average, according to McMahon, in a July blog post.

"Given the state’s inordinate dependence on taxes paid by wealthy residents,” McMahon told Gotham Gazette, “the repeal of the SALT deduction could seriously undermine our tax base by increasing the net tax “price” of New York compared to states with low or no income tax, such as Florida.”

Other gloomy projections the report makes include $5.7 billion more in capital spending for the five-year plan than projected in the 2016-17 budget capital plan; a total lack of deposits to rainy day reserves in the previous fiscal year and the year that has begun; and an increase of $11.2 billion in out-year budget gaps from last year, to $17.4 billion. DiNapoli forecasts outstanding debt to increase by 4.1% to $63.9 billion this year and to $73.7 billion by the end of the current Capital Plan period in 2022.

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Even Without Federal Cuts, Signs of Trouble for State Finances Tue, 01 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Reviews Are In: What Watchdogs Say About The New State Budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7003-reviews-are-in-what-watchdogs-say-about-new-state-budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7003-reviews-are-in-what-watchdogs-say-about-new-state-budget Cuomo budget presentation

(photo: The Governor's Office)


A new state budget was passed in April in typical Albany fashion: with almost no time for public scrutiny of the bills or proper review by the legislators who quickly voted them through. Since the $153.1 billion budget was passed, watchdogs both in and out of government have released analyses, helping to better inform citizens and increase accountability.

The budget was adopted a little over a week into the new fiscal year, which begins April 1, after compromises were reached among legislative leaders and Governor Andrew Cuomo on contentious issues such as raising the age of adult criminal responsibility, education aid, a college tuition affordability program, the allocation of large sums of affordable housing monies, and more. The frantic and secretive nature of state budget adoption leaves a lot to digest afterward.

Now, about two months after the budget was passed, those analyses by watchdogs can bring to light a few common themes and several other key points.

Aside from general criticism of the process itself, there are the issues of the large lump sum appropriations, projects funded by mysterious sources, and the governor faulty marketing of his budgetary discipline.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released a report on the state budget that includes critiques of the budgeting process and the end result. The budget continues to rely heavily on appropriations from the federal government, at almost a third of state revenue, despite the unpredictability of state aid from Washington, D.C. under President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress.

“Although the budget came together more than a week into the fiscal year, the Legislature and Executive acted on critical budget issues that will help New York move forward,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “However, billions of dollars in spending lacks key details that would better inform the public about how their tax dollars are being spent.”

The Comptroller’s report included a lengthy chart showing the legislature’s inaction on ethics reform, criticizing the fact that, among other things, the budget “intentionally omits” measures such as requiring advisory opinions on legislators’ outside income, closing the LLC loophole in corporate political contributions, and extending the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to cover the Legislature. The Comptroller was equally pointed on the state’s procurement practices, which have come under fire due to rampant corruption in the state’s contracting process, stating that the changes were needed to “ensure spending accountability and transparency” in a statement. A measure to authorize the IG to investigate criminal wrongdoing in the state’s procurements was intentionally omitted.

The Comptroller was critical of the quickness of the process, essentially disallowing public review. Also criticized was the prevalence of lump sum appropriations, which can make state money harder to track.

“It should concern all New Yorkers that budget decisions in Washington may force tough fiscal choices for the state and raise new questions for local governments and nonprofits that rely on state funding,” DiNapoli said. “Federal actions that could adversely affect New York, as well as economic uncertainty, are key risks to this budget.”

Citizens Budget Commission
In a statement on the day the budget was adopted, CBC President Carol Kellermann said “achieving a fiscally sound budget is more important than an ‘on time’ budget,” referring to the emergency budget extender passed when negotiating parties couldn’t reach a deal on time. Still, CBC expressed dismay that the state budget was neither on-time nor fiscally sound.

In a later report, CBC also criticized Governor Cuomo for misleadingly saying that the adopted budget continued his “record of holding State Operating Funds spending annual growth to no more than 2 percent.” In reality, CBC explained, spending growth is closer to 3.7%, well above the 2% benchmark that Cuomo prides himself on. The budget is able to exploit this loophole by not “adjusting for payment timing differences and accounting changes,” such as through premature debt service payments or “shifting expenditures out of state operating funds spending.”

CBC has created a “budget navigator” to allow citizens to see how city and state money is being spent.

Empire Center for Public Policy
Empire Center, a conservative think tank based in Albany, has released a slew of criticisms of the budget. Condemnations expressed on the Empire Center blog cover health care spending, certain tax breaks, and the “free” college tuition program. Empire Center is also critical of the added tax deduction for union dues, “effectively a $35 million gratuity for an already privileged caste of (mostly government) workers.”

“The positives in New York’s FY 2018 budget make up a pretty short list—while the negatives are in some respects worse than usual,” wrote E.J. McMahon, Empire Center’s founder and research director, in a budget breakdown post on the Center’s blog.

McMahon argues for more transparency and accountability with the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, which he says “used to be put before voters in New York.” Now that doing so is no longer a requirement, McMahon writes, “the governor and Legislature obviously figure, why bother?”

Citizens Union
Citizens Union identifies the budget’s large non-specific lump sum funding in its “Spending in the Shadows” report. The watchdog identified nearly $13 billion in the budget in nonspecific funding: around $3 billion “subject to decisions of one or more particular elected officials,” and nearly $10 billion “in approximately 40 different economic development and infrastructure pots listing no official with spending authority.” The group also found that there was “inadequate reporting as to how these funds are eventually spent.”

Citizens Union calls on the governor and Legislature to publicly identify all nonspecific funding and to publicly disclose information, such as purposes and the requester, regarding these funds, especially ahead of spending, not afterward as is often the case. Further, the organization calls for amending state finance law to introduce accountability and conflict-of-interest identification to public contracting, the disclosure of grants and contracts “awarded under nonspecific lump sum appropriations and reappropriations,” and for “aging the budget bills for three days.”

Reinvent Albany
Reinvent Albany has focused largely on procurement reform, which has become a major point of contention, particularly after the Buffalo Billion corruption scandal broke. Along with other watchdog groups, Reinvent Albany issued a release in May calling for “five clean contracting reforms,” all of which failed to make it into the budget:

1. Require competitive and transparent contracting for the award of state funds by all state agencies, authorities, and affiliates. Use existing agency procurement guidelines as a uniform minimum standard.

2. Transfer responsibility for awarding all economic development awards to Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and end awards by state non-profits and SUNY.

3. Empower the Comptroller to review and approve all state contracts over $250,000.

4. Prohibit state authorities, state corporations, and state non-profits from doing business with their board members.

5. Create a ‘Database of Deals’ that allows the public to see the total value of all forms of subsidies awarded to a business – as six states have done.

The groups have continued to call for such reforms, but legislative leaders have been hesitant to challenge Cuomo, who is opposed.

New York Public Interest Research Group
NYPIRG also criticized the opacity of the state budget process, which notorious for taking place largely behind closed doors, especially in terms of the final, major deals reached, with the infamous “Three Men in a Room” process determining what stays and what goes -- largely without public input. (There’s been a fourth man in the room of late given the addition of IDC Leader Jeff Klein along with the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader.)

“The process by which these decisions were made was awful and arguably worse than in the recent past,” said the organization in a statement shortly after the budget’s passage. “Virtually all the deliberations in developing the budget were conducted behind closed doors. There were no hearings, no open meetings, and with the three day legislative review period waived by the governor lawmakers were voting on bills that they had little time to comprehensively review.”

***
by Ben Brachfeld & Jynn Schubert
@GothamGazette

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Reviews Are In: What Watchdogs Say About The New State Budget Thu, 15 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Comptroller Pushes for Expansion of Tax Refund for Working New Yorkers https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6750-comptroller-pushes-for-expansion-of-tax-refund-for-working-new-yorkers https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6750-comptroller-pushes-for-expansion-of-tax-refund-for-working-new-yorkers stringer at city hall rally

 Comptroller Scott Stringer (photo: @scottmstringer)


In his testimony before the New York State Legislature last week on the state’s proposed budget for 2018, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer called for the expansion of a tax credit that could potentially pull thousands of New York City residents out of poverty, continuing a push he began last year when he first floated the idea.

The centerpiece of Stringer’s proposal is to triple the city’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable tax benefit aimed at working families that functions on federal, state and city levels. The credit, which incentivizes employment, grants individuals and couples who qualify anywhere between several hundred and a few thousand dollars, depending on the number of children they have. New York state matches up to 30 percent of the federal EITC and the city matches another 5 percent. Stringer’s proposal would see the city’s contribution increase to 15 percent. It would require state lawmakers to authorize the city to expand its tax credit and would need the City Council to pass legislation, and it would have to be funded in the city budget.

“Tripling the City’s earned income tax credit puts money in the pockets of those who need it most,” said Stringer, in a statement to Gotham Gazette, noting that one-fifth of New Yorkers live below the poverty line. “It’s one of the most effective anti-poverty programs in America, and an expansion would have extraordinary benefits across the five boroughs. It would stimulate our economy, boost small businesses, and support local communities. Most importantly, it’s the right thing to do at a time when so many working families are struggling to make ends meet.”

The federal EITC, based on a household’s total earnings, gives up to $6,269 to a couple with three or more children making a maximum of $53,505 in a year. An individual without children making a maximum of $14,880 can receive up to $506 in a tax refund. The federal credit along with the state and city’s contribution combine for a significant benefit -- a maximum of $8,463 for qualifying New York City residents -- that can inject money back into the pockets of low- to moderate-income New Yorkers and spur spending.

Studies have found that the credit is highly effective at raising employment rates for single parents and that families with children typically use the credit to pay for things like home repair, maintenance on vehicles that are used to commute to work, and in some cases, to continue their education. This success has made the tax credit popular for conservatives and liberals, alike.

The comptroller first released his proposal, accompanied by a detailed report, in September last year at an Association for a Better New York breakfast event. The report projects that tripling the city’s contribution could lift 15,000 families above the poverty line. The average credit for an individual who qualifies would increase from $110 to $330, and for about 6000 New Yorkers, it would effectively nullify their city income tax burden. The proposal would cost the city between $210 to $220 million, spending which is likely to go back into the city economy. According to the comptroller’s office, roughly 950,000 New Yorkers qualified for the EITC last year, receiving about $2.8 billion in tax refunds. That translates to about 150,000 families that escaped poverty levels.

One setback with the credit is that many New Yorkers do not realize that they qualify for it. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, a progressive Democrat, the city has recognized the strength of the EITC program. In 2015, the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) launched a media blitz to promote the tax credit, including ads in the subways, on bus shelters, in print, radio and online. That ad campaign has become a staple in promoting the city’s free tax preparation program. According to estimates by Civis Analytics, a data analytics firm that helped the city with its “Start By Asking” benefits awareness campaign, of the 1.1 million New York City residents that qualify for EITC, approximately 120,000 of them do not claim the credit, which is the city’s current concern. DCA spokesperson Abigail Lootens, in an email, said the agency is closely reviewing the comptroller’s EITC proposition. “We are also dedicated to reaching those who are currently eligible but not claiming this vital credit,” she said.

At the state level, Stringer has found an ally in Senator Jose Serrano, a Democrat whose district includes the South Bronx and parts of East Harlem, low- and middle-income communities for which the EITC is a boon. Serrano introduced a bill in the current legislative session based on Stringer’s proposal, to allow New York City to expand its EITC contribution. The senator stressed that expanding EITC is an “organic approach” to reducing poverty. “While it does require a financial commitment by the city, a vast majority of that money goes right back into the community,” he said in a phone interview.

Serrano’s bill is currently before the Senate’s Cities Committee, where he hopes it’ll receive the necessary support. The committee is chaired by Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat who caucuses with the Republican majority. A spokesperson for the governor’s office said the proposal would be reviewed.

“It is really such a timely bill,” Serrano said. “Over the last few years, the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer. This will help bridge that gap a little and help people get above the poverty line.”

Ron Deutsch, executive director of the nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Institute, said both the city and state should increase their EITC contributions “to help bolster low-income family earnings and help boost them out of poverty.” Aside from Serrano’s bill, there are multiple proposals before the state Legislature that enhance the EITC in some shape or form, including a bill sponsored by Assemblymember Robin Schimminger, an upstate Democrat. Schimminger’s bill, which increases the state’s EITC from 30 to 35 percent of the federal EITC, has been introduced in three previous legislative sessions but has never made it beyond the Ways and Means committee. Schimminger’s office did not return a request for comment by publishing time.

“This is one of those bipartisan issues where there’s agreement,” Deutsch said. “In terms of why it doesn’t get done, I think it’s always a matter of political will in Albany. Given how many New Yorkers are struggling to make ends meet, this would be a logical means to address that.” He believes the state should increase its contribution to 40 percent, which he said comes with a price tag of $400 million annually. “I would suggest it’s a good investment that spurs the economy,” he said.

It’s unclear, however, whether Stringer’s or Schimminger’s proposals will find support in either the Democrat-run Assembly or the Republican-led Senate. Spokespersons for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority leader John Flanagan and for the Senate Independent Democratic Conference did not respond to requests for comment.

E.J. McMahon, research director at the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, believes the cost of expanding EITC is likely the only reason it hasn’t been achieved though it has the backing of fiscal conservatives. “It’s the most effective way to incentivize and reward work,” he said, noting that it would work better if expanded at the state level. He added, “It would win broad support if we could pay for it.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Comptroller Pushes for Expansion of Tax Refund for Working New Yorkers Wed, 08 Feb 2017 03:29:20 +0000