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Lawmakers react to spending limits set by state comptroller

The state comptroller has come out with revenue projections that will limit the ability to spend more money in the state budget. Under law, the governor and Legislature have to abide by those numbers — but that hasn’t stopped interest groups and some lawmakers from saying that they will increase spending.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli issued his report on state revenues after the governor and Legislature failed to agree on their own estimates by the March 1 deadline. The Senate and Assembly said there’s about an additional half-billion dollars available in revenues than the governor predicts to spend on programs like education and health care.

DiNapoli, in a letter to lawmakers, essentially split the difference between the Legislature and the governor, determining that the state has $190 million more than Cuomo originally estimated.

The governor’s budget director, Robert Mujica, immediately said the extra money should be saved in the state’s rainy day fund because economists are warning of a downturn later next year.

The budget watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission said that’s a wise idea. The group’s David Friedfel said given the economic instabilities, lawmakers should go even further.

“What they could do, which would be an even better idea, would be to curtail spending growth even more,” Friedfel said, “and deposit those extra funds into the rainy day reserves as well.” 

But he admits that would be difficult in the current political climate. Numerous advocacy groups and many Democratic lawmakers, who are in control of both houses of the Legislature for the first time in years, want to give at least $1 billion more in funds to public schools and the state and city university systems. 

Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, who was at a press conference, along with other lawmakers and education funding advocates, said legislators will need to find a way to help schools, even within the current spending constraints.

“We can agree on the income number based on existing tax structure, but that doesn’t mean we’re stuck with any formula going forward,” Epstein said. “We have opportunities to raise taxes, to change the tax structure. There are lots of people who can afford to do better and can pay more.”

The state already imposes an income tax surcharge on those making over $1 million a year. Epstein is among a number of Democratic lawmakers who support creating additional, higher income tax brackets for those making over $10 million, $100 million and $1 billion a year.

But Friedfel said it’s risky, in an economic downturn, to bank on the wealthiest taxpayers to bail the state out.

“Very wealthy people also have very volatile incomes,” he said. “So when you do face a recession or even a slowdown, those people’s incomes decline very rapidly and significantly and then the state has a commensurate decrease in tax revenues.”

He said lawmakers who relied on those taxes in the last recession of 2008 and 2009 were forced to slash school funding by $10 billion over the following six years.

Other lawmakers say they can find money by reducing some of the governor’s spending programs.

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the Higher Education committee, said there’s money in the governor’s economic development budget that could be shifted to shore up the state and city public university systems. She said that’s a better use of economic development funds.

“I would like the governor to finally recognize that the reason that big companies are attracted to New York are because of its people,” Glick said. “And the way you invest in the future is investing in your student body.”

Late in the day, the leader of the Senate Democrats, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, addressed the revenue numbers. Stewart-Cousins said Senate Democrats “can live with” the estimates.

“We are obviously going to work within the fiscal realities of the state,” Stewart-Cousins said.

But she would not say whether she agrees with the governor’s budget director that the additional $190 million should be saved in a rainy day fund. She said it will all be part of budget talks taking place over the next few weeks.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.