Gov. Andrew Cuomo presented a $132.5 billion budget on Tuesday, Jan. 17, earning praise from some and derision from others.
Cuomo’s proposal increases the state’s operating budget by 1.9 percent, bringing the total to $88.7 billion, an increase of $1.7 billion. State operating funds exclude federal funds and long-term capital spending. With those funds included, the state budget, according to Cuomo’s plan, is $132.5 billion for the fiscal year that begins April 1, 2012. The number actually represents a decrease of $225 million since 2011-12. It calls for several economic development initiatives, streamlining of the state government, mandate relief, educational reform and more – all of which will have an impact on Central New York.
Several aspects of Cuomo’s budget proposal will provide significant benefits to local taxpayers, both in the short- and long-term. The New York Works Fund and Task Force is an economic development team that aims to spur growth in the state. Public funds will be used to start development, but they’ll be used to encourage private investment. The initiative calls for $1.3 billion in taxpayer money to invite up to $25 billion in investment from other sources, including private companies, the federal government and authorities, to allow major projects to move forward that will create jobs and improve the state’s infrastructure. Though no specific projects have yet been outlined in Central New York, Morgan Peters from the New York State Budget Office said they are planned.
In addition, Cuomo’s plans for mandate relief will, if implemented, relieve some of the burden placed on property taxpayers.
“I think people’s eyes kind of glaze over when you talk about mandate relief,” said Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney. “But when you tell them that these mandates keep their property taxes from funding county programs because they’re all going to these state mandates, they stop and listen.”
For example, Mahoney said that the 2012 Onondaga County budget calls for a $148 million tax levy. Of that, $106 million goes to Medicaid as required by state mandates.
But if Cuomo’s budget wants to ease the burden Medicaid places on counties. the state enacted a phased-in 3 percent cap in 2005 that went into effect in 2008; however, many counties complained that, since the tax cap is 2 percent, Medicaid still put a huge burden on their budgets. According to Cuomo’s 2012-13 proposal, the state will phase in a program over the next three years to hold the counties harmless from any Medicaid increases. This year, the counties will still abide by the 3 percent cap, but by 2015-16, they will pay 0 percent, and the state will be responsible for that amount.
“Our five-year savings from 2012 to 2017 would be $27 million,” Mahoney said.
Another significant savings would come in the form of the proposed creation of the Tier 6 pension program, which Mahoney said eliminates the ability to collect pension on overtime.
“What you’d have is people racking up overtime in their last three years before retirement to bump up their salaries and make their pensions more generous,” she said. “With Tier 6, the governor is attempting to eliminate that loophole.”
While the pension reform does not provide immediate savings, Mahoney said it’s something that needs to be done.
“These are savings we’ll be seeing over the next 30 years,” she said. “It’s a reform from which our children and grandchildren will reap the benefits.”
Cuomo’s 2012-13 executive budget proposal proved to be a mixed bag for local schools, however. While some saw an increase in state aid over last year, it was, in many cases, not enough to make up for the significant revenue loss districts have faced in the last few years.
“The way things are going, yes, we’re seeing a 3.1 percent increase, all told, but we’re losing our sales tax money, we’re losing all of our federal money and our revenue is just disappearing,” said Wayne Bleau, assistant superintendent for management in the North Syracuse Central School District. “From this year to next year, we’re losing $5.8 million in revenue.”
The story’s no better in Liverpool, where Superintendent Dr. Richard Johns said the state aid package has gone down 4.1 percent, or $1.79 million.
“The bottom line is our costs keep going up, state mandates keep going up and revenues keep going down,” Johns said. “We have to look at taking things away from the kids, and that bothers me a whole bunch.”
The numbers recently put out by the state are misleading, as well, because they only reflect building aid, not transportation or BOCES aid, which actually went down in the 2012-13 proposal. In addition, many school finance experts are critical of Cuomo’s competitive grants program, which is meant to funnel money into high-needs, low-wealth districts.
“We are deeply concerned about the governor’s plan to direct nearly one-third of the $805 in new funds to a competitive grants program,” said Dr. Rick Timbs of the Statewide School Finance Consortium in a statement. “This is an unproven strategy. The $250 million dedicated to this effort would have a more direct benefit on the needs of students if it remained in direct aid to school districts that desperately need the funds.”
Both Liverpool and North Syracuse will present their initial budgets to their school boards on Feb. 27. The budgets will be tweaked by the boards and go to a vote in May.
The hardest pill for districts to swallow, however, had little to do with budget cuts.
During his budget presentation, Cuomo demanded that the New York State Education Department establish a workable teacher evaluation system and enact it as soon as possible, noting that it was the promise of that system that netted New York $700 million in federal Race to the Top funds.
He urged the New York State United Teachers and the State Education Department to find a common ground and enact an evaluation system. If they failed to do so within 30 days, Cuomo said the state legislature would set up a system for them. If the local school districts accepted the system by September of 2012, they would be eligible for incentive grants; if they failed to accept it by January of 2013, they would risk forfeiting an increase in education aid in 2013-14.
SED came up with an evaluation system, the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) process, based entirely on the state’s battery of assessment tests, but NYSUT sued to prevent the system from being enacted, pointing out that it had little to do with the actual day-to-day process of teaching and learning. The suit held up, and the New York State Supreme Court in Albany invalidated several provisions of the statute.
But local school officials aren’t confident that anything the governor pushes through will be any better.
“If you rush into something without taking the time to think it through, it’s not going to be fair to anybody,” Bleau said. “I know the governor’s in a touchy situation. But just because you want it to happen doesn’t mean you can just snap your fingers and make it happen. It doesn’t work that way.”
Johns was much more blunt.
“I don’t know where we’re going with public education in this state,” he said. “The governor will bring in people from out of state and people from charter schools [to put together the system]. They’re not listening to anybody.”
Johns pointed out that just because a school has some kind of teacher evaluation program in place doesn’t mean it will be in compliance with the state’s standards.
“We do a good evaluation program in Liverpool,” he said. “We can tell you exactly what a kid is learning and whether he’s mastered a particular task, and if he hasn’t, we can pinpoint exactly why and how to fix it. We’ve gone to the state and tried and tried and tried to get them to implement a similar program. But they’re absolutely myopic about the system they’ve got. It doesn’t make any difference what we say.”
Johns pointed out that teachers have no problem with a fair, balanced evaluation system.
“Give us something that makes sense and we’re okay with that,” he said. “But this is fatally flawed.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club’s Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.