Fewer plastic bags across New York. New tolls around Manhattan. Taxes on high-end properties but not the highest-end ones. Nine out of 10 people arrested released without cash bail. Two or three fewer state prisons. A permanent two-percent property tax cap. Three more years of mayoral control of New York City public schools. Pay raises for legislators, the governor and lieutenant governor. Funding for early elections and a public database of government contracts.
When Democrats swept into power in Albany, following last November’s elections, the main questions were how much they’d change things that affect New Yorkers, how quickly and transparently that would happen, how expensive it would be — and how fiercely they would fight among each other.
Half-way through their first January-to-June legislative session, and after spending a grueling weekend cranking out a $175-billion budget, the answers are coming into focus, but the screen in many ways is still split.
“I think this budget is probably the strongest progressive statement that we've made,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said Sunday evening, as the Senate and Assembly geared up for an all-nighter passing funding bills whose contents could not be changed. “There are a number of national firsts and it really grapples with the tough issues that have been facing this state for a long time.”
Twelve hours later, as the sun began to rise over Albany, a less sanguine Carl Heastie, the Assembly Speaker, took the podium.
"This is not a great budget,” Heastie said, echoing many of his Democratic members who said they were voting approval with a heavy heart. “There's not a lot of happiness in this budget.”
Slowing tax receipts in recent months led to a projected budget deficit — and curtailed spending, especially over education, which increased 3.7 percent, well less than many Democrats had hoped.
“We absolutely did not do well enough on foundation aid,” Senate Education Chair Shelly Mayer (D-Westchester) said, referring to a funding stream that serves poor communities. “Our focus is going to be on getting to a fairer way to fund every district, and especially New York City.”
The New York Board of Regents had recommended $2.1 billion in foundation aid, and lawmakers had aimed for $1.2 billion, but the final number was about half of that.
“This wasn’t an austerity budget, but it was pretty close to one,” said Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan).
That’s not how Republicans see it.
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) called the budget a “tax-and-spend debacle and precisely the fiscal disaster many predicted would follow the new one-party Democratic rule in Albany.”
He said, “the apparent economic strategy of New York Democrats is simple: ‘Put a tax or fee on everything you see,’” citing as examples, “grocery bags, internet purchases, vapor products, real estate transactions, prescription medication, rental cars, commuting in and around New York City all become more expensive when this budget takes effect.”
The Republicans have long been politically exiled in the Assembly, but their deep minority is now echoed in the Senate, too. The budget bills sailed through with nary a GOP vote.
Democrats did, however, preserve a tradition from the more bipartisan era: they largely made all financial and policy decisions behind closed doors, with staff members hashing out details and then Cuomo, Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins concluding deals over the phone and in “leaders meetings,” surrounded by top aides.
“As a new senator, it’s been fascinating, and at times a little disheartening,” said Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn). “I’ve been really impressed with the leadership of the majority leader and my colleagues, but I think the process is more opaque than I anticipated, and I think there are steps we can take as a legislature to ensure there’s more accountability and transparency.”
Salazar was one of 15 new Democrats who ousted veterans in their party or Republicans last fall. She pledged to challenge real estate developers and landlords and was appalled to see, up close, how thoroughly they could swing debates and alter policies.
Desperately looking for money to underwrite mass transit improvements, the three Democratic leaders latched onto a five-year-old proposal to tax pieds à terre, like the $238 million one that recently garnered headlines.
But after the Real Estate Board of New York lobbied against the measure, Cuomo, Heastie and Stewart-Cousins jettisoned it. They settled instead on a tax that would affect more properties but won't take as deep a cut—and won't raise as much money for mass transit improvements.
“I had, of course, seen in the past the clear correlation between special interests giving to candidates and legislators and then it affecting decisions, but to see it play out in such a transactional way in the budget process was eye-opening,” Salazar said. “A strong majority of the conference was shocked.”
Also disappointing many Democrats were watered down bills, deferred or unfunded initiatives, and unfinished business.
- On criminal justice reform, Democrats accelerated the timeline for defendants to get trials and for their attorney to get evidence from prosecutors, and about 90 percent will no longer need to pay cash bail to remain out of pre-trial detention on their own recognizance. But Democrats remain at an impasse over how to handle people accused of violent felonies.
- On campaign finance reform, objections from Assembly Democrats over publicly financed small-donor matching funds, like what New York City has, led to the creation of a new commission that would study the issue and potentially create — but possibly reject — a new funding system.
- On pollution reduction, business interests defeated an effort to require shoppers to pay 5 cents for paper bags, now that most plastic ones will be banned. Now it will be up to counties and municipalities to opt in. Also several types of plastic bags will be exempt from the ban, including those used by take-out restaurants and dry cleaners. Environmentalists wanted a shorter list of exemptions — and, in another bill, an expanded list of beverage bottles eligible for recycling.
Lawmakers pledged to return to the Capitol to fix many omissions.
At the top of the list is legalizing marijuana, which Cuomo made a prominent tenet of his “100 Days Justice Agenda.” He initially wanted a framework for the watershed legislation included in the budget, to reduce some of the political friction that has kept New Jersey from making cannabis widely available. But the Assembly, whose members are determined to make the adult-use market a force for social equity, said cramming it into the budget would undermine that goal.
Other priorities for many Democrats in the coming months: restoring drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, expanding the class of government construction projects that require builders to pay a “prevailing wage,” and reforming rent regulations.
But after a long fortnight’s grind, many Democratic lawmakers were eager to catch their breath and briefly bask in the afterglow of their policy-packed budget.
“It's not perfect, and it falls far short in many areas,”said Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. “But it is an important step in the right direction on a host of issues.”