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Cuomo presents 'tale of two budgets,' threatens to sue federal gov't over aid request

Office of the Governor

In his budget address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state’s fiscal future is dependent on how much aid it receives from Washington under the new administration of President-elect Joe Biden and the Democratic-led Congress. Cuomo is seeking $15 billion to plug two years of state budget gaps and he’s threatening to sue if he doesn’t get it.

Cuomo presented two starkly different scenarios during Tuesday's address. Both depend on how much aid New York ultimately gets from an anticipated new federal relief package that would provide a total of $350 billion to state and local governments hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first depends on if the state gets $6 billion in aid. Cuomo says that would result in a $9 billion gap that he proposes filling with new, higher income tax brackets for the state’s wealthiest residents, along with delaying the next phase-in of a middle class tax cut and implementing a 5% across-the-board funding cut to state agencies, schools, health care providers and local governments.

"Worst case scenario, I would consider that the 2021 version of the federal government saying drop dead to New York," Cuomo said, referring to a famous tabloid headline during the New York City fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

But if the state receives the full $15 billion in federal aid, the governor says none of those things would happen and the state would add programs, including a $130 million stimulus package for restaurants and small businesses devastated by pandemic shutdowns. The state could also begin a $300 billion infrastructure program that would be paid for through state borrowing and federal and private funds.

Cuomo says if Biden and the Democratic-led Congress don’t come through with the full amount he is seeking, he will commence litigation. The lawsuit would focus on the governor’s grievances from the Trump Administration and Republicans who led the Senate during most of the pandemic.

Cuomo says New York is "unique in the nation" in the amount of economic loss it has sustained.

"The COVID assault on New York was caused by federal negligence," Cuomo said, “and, second, New York was used as a political piñata."

In a briefing with reporters, Cuomo's budget director, Robert Mujica, said while the state’s finances are grim, there have been some signs of improvement in recent months.

He says revenues from tax collections are higher than initially expected and his office took many steps to hold down spending. Those steps include a freeze on hiring and planned wage increases, a moratorium on all new state contracts and temporarily withholding 20% in aid payments from schools and local governments. He says 15% of the money withheld can now be restored.

But Mujica says half of the nearly 2 million jobs lost in March and April in 2020 have not come back and employment in New York may not fully recover until late in 2023 or even 2024.

"The current situation is one of uncertainty," Mujica said.   

Mujica did not provide a specific action plan if the federal aid package falls somewhere between $6 billion and $15 billion, saying his office would discuss options with the legislature.  

Democrats who lead the state Senate said in a statement that they favor raising taxes on the wealthy if those choices have to be made. Democrats in the Assembly have previously said they also favor the tax hikes.

Republicans, the minority in the legislature, criticized the governor for blaming Washington for the state's fiscal problems and for not giving enough credit for previous federal relief packages that, among other things, included $4 billion in education aid.  

Sen. Tom O’Mara, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, says the governor is shirking responsibility by waiting for a federal bailout.

"We have to be able and ready in New York to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps," O’Mara said, "and not just to continue to wait for handouts from the federal government to appease out overspending ways in New York state."

O’Mara says New York already had a $6 billion structural deficit before the coronavirus hit. As for Cuomo's threat to sue if he does not receive $15 billion in federal aid, O’Mara says that is not the most "amicable" way to start a relationship with the new president.

Regardless of the amount of federal aid that New York ultimately receives, Cuomo is proposing two new programs that would raise an estimated $800 million in state revenues: legalizing the sale of marijuana to adults for recreational purposes and expanding mobile sports betting.

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.
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