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Budget hearing highlights Upstate-Downstate tensions

WBFO News File Photo

Tensions between upstate Senators and the Mayor of New York City were highlighted during a budget hearing on aid to local governments in Albany, when lawmakers questioned the mayor for over five hours.

Governor Cuomo, who has publicly feuded with deBlasio, in his budget plan proposes cutting up to $800 million in funds to New York City. Several years ago, the state agreed to absorb yearly increases in Medicaid spending from the City and the state’s counties. In his budget, Cuomo proposes that the state still cover the counties’ costs, but reverse policy for New York City and require that the City cover any increased costs beyond 2 percent.

“Help us ensure our fiscal stability, for the good of all,”  New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio told the Senate panel.

The Mayor tried to explain that he wants to adequately ensure that the City has enough money in case of an economic downturn, but he  was interrupted by Senate Finance Committee Chair Cathy Young, a Republican who seemed to side with Cuomo that the cuts are warranted. Senator Young offered a new reason for the claw back of the money.  Young  represents some of the most economically challenged  counties in the state,  including Cattaraugus and Alleghany in Western New York. She says local governments in her district are struggling under a property tax cap that will permit no growth of taxes this year. That tax cap does not apply to New York City.

“We have very poor counties upstate,” Young said. “That’s just wrong.”

Young says the City “clearly has the resources” to make up the difference. deBlasio reminded Young that he is familiar with upstate and some of it’s issues from when he was regional director for HUD under President Clinton. And he says New York City’s economic prosperity is helping the rest of the state,  because the City pays more in taxes overall than it gets back from the state.

“Our ability to succeed affects every one else,” said deBlasio. “And everyone else’s’ reality affects us.”

While deBlasio was testifying, the Senate met briefly to approve a one house bill to extend the property tax cap to New York City.

Cuomo also proposes that the City pay for one third of the expenses of the vast City University of New York system, changing a long time policy begun during New York City’s fiscal crisis in the 1970’s.

Senator Young, once again raising an upstate downstate divide, says 71 percent of CUNY’s students from New York City.

“But, the entire bill for the CUNY system is picked up by the taxpayers of New York State,” Young said.

The Senate Republicans are also in agreement with Governor Cuomo on a third budget issue. In fact Senator Young echoed, almost word for word, an argument made by Governor Cuomo’s budget spokesman . The state has helped pay for the refinancing  of the Big Mac bonds associated with the city’s fiscal crisis 40 years ago. Now, Cuomo wants the state to take back the savings from the refinance. The Cuomo budget spokesman, in an article in Politico, compared the state’s new position to an “uncle” paying the full mortgage on your house, then deserving the savings when you refinance your house later on. Young repeated that analogy, telling the mayor “it’s like if your Uncle pays your mortgage on your house, when you refinance your house who deserves the savings”.

deBlasio opposed Senate Republicans in the 2014 elections. He backed Democratic candidates in an unsuccessful attempt to wrest control away from the GOP.

Afterward, the Mayor had a private meeting with the Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan. He brushed off questions about any tensions with the GOP , saying he’s not surprised that he might have ideological differences with the GOP Senators.

“I still think it was respectful,” deBlasio said. “It was a pretty informed and fair hearing.””

Governor Cuomo has since backed off from his budget cuts to the City, saying he merely wants to cut bureaucratic waste, and that the city won’t end up paying an extra penny. Mayor deBlasio says he’ll take the governor “at his word”.

Democrats at the hearing continued to express concern though. Senator Adriano Espaillat says the reductions remain written into the budget.

“A cut is a cut,” Espaillat said.

deBlasio admits that if the governor’s budget plan is adopted it would have a  “major impact” on the city’s finances.

Altogether, the lawmakers grilled the mayor for a record four and a half hours, leaving little time for the mayors of upstate cities to testify. 

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.