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'Conceptual' agreement on state budget

NYS Governor's office photo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he's reached a "conceptual agreement" on the state budget with legislative leaders.

The agreement would give Cuomo broad new powers to control spending increases and reductions, as the state continues to cope out with the fallout from the coronavirus. The spending plan was due at midnight.

Cuomo said it's a "remarkable" achievement that the budget was agreed to at all, when he and state lawmakers are under such extreme stress dealing with the steeply rising number of cases of COVID-19 in the state.

A budget measure already in print, as part of the aid to localities budget, spells out special new powers that the Senate and Assembly will give the governor to amend the spending plan throughout the year.  

Cuomo and his budget officials have said the state's deficit could be as high as $15 billion, and they may need to make cuts midyear to schools, health care providers and local governments. But Cuomo said if the economy rebounds and there is more revenue coming in, then they might be able to increase aid.  

"If money comes in during the course of the year, we'll spend it. If we actually lose money, we have to adjust it. That's life," Cuomo said. "We can't spend what we don't have." 

The governor's budget director, Robert Mujica, said even the most conservative estimates predict that the state will have a $10 billion deficit. He said if that happens, state spending overall would be reduced by 6.7%. It would be the first time in Cuomo's 11-year tenure that spending would decrease. 

Money to schools is expected to remain flat and be close to the same amount spent last year. Schools have rising fixed costs like pension payments, though, and will likely feel the squeeze.  

Cuomo said with the exception of the plunging revenue, he believes it will be a "robust" budget, with many unrelated policy items that he proposed in January included in the spending plan. He declined to detail them, though, saying he did not want to get ahead of the legislative leaders, who were to brief their members on the details later Wednesday.

"With everything going on, we did not scale back our efforts or our ambitions," Cuomo said. "You look at this budget, you would never know that anything else was going on."

Cuomo and some Democrats in the state Senate were pushing to make changes to the state's bail reform laws. Most forms of cash bail ended on Jan. 1. Law enforcement groups had called for a rollback of the reforms, saying too many potential criminals were being set free. 

Bail reform advocates held a last-minute news conference via Zoom to condemn a draft proposal that would end all forms of cash bail but make it easier for judges to decide to hold defendants before trial. 

Marvin Mayfield, who spent 11 months in Rikers Island because he could not meet bail, said the measure would lead to the mass incarceration of another generation of black and brown New Yorkers.

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.