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Reporters' Roundtable: What to look for in Cuomo's budget address

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo is set to present a budget proposal this afternoon detailing how he will pay for a broad program of tax breaks while maintaining funding for schools, health care and infrastructure.

It's expected to top $136 billion.

Cuomo and state lawmakers will try to maintain their three-year streak of reaching a final budget deal by the start of the state fiscal year April 1.

The governor says his budget will usher in three years of projected surpluses -- if lawmakers hold spending growth below 2 percent.

The governor says that New York can provide tax relief and increase investments in education, health care and economic development, even with the spending cap.

Joining me this morning to give the budget a North Country context are David Sommerstein, Sarah Harris, and Brian Mann.

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Martha Foley: Brian, let's talk first about the politics of this moment.  Andrew Cuomo is laying out the final budget of his first term.  It's an election year.  He arrives at today's speech with the latest opinion poll showing him viewed favorably by 66 percent of New Yorkers. 

Brian Mann: I think even Andrew Cuomo's harshest critics would agree that he's done a remarkable job harnessing Albany's sometimes schizophrenic energy.  He's managed to make a partner out of Sheldon Silver, the sometimes intransigent Democratic leader in the state Assembly.  He's managed to build common ground with Republicans at a time when bipartisanship is rare in America.

He's also presided over a dramatic improvement of the state budget picture.  In part that's because the economy and Wall Street are doing a lot better, but he's also pushed hard to contain government spending.

So what does that all mean?  A lot of governors would be offering up a budget in a speech like the one today that's pretty much dead on arrival, sort of a political fiction.  But  Andrew Cuomo is very powerful right now.  The spending plan he lays out is likely to be a pretty accurate description of what will get passed, with some tweaking and some adjusting.

Martha Foley: David Sommerstein, let’s talk more about this line the governor says he’s going to walk....his forecast of surpluses while keeping a hard lid on taxes...even bringing taxes down....

David Sommerstein: What everybody’s going to be watching for today is how does Cuomo plan to turn what projected to be a $3 billion budget deficit over 3 years into a $2 billion surplus?

Because that 2 billion is what Cuomo says he’ll use to essentially freeze property taxes for two years.

Now business groups love this idea. Local leaders, on the other hand, agree property taxes are too high. But they say the reason they’re too high is too many state mandates towns and villages have to pay for.

Take Potsdam. Mayor Steve Yugartis says the village had a 12% increase to its pension fund costs, money the state mandates it pays. How does it afford that? With property taxes.

Yugartis says Cuomo is meddling too much in local governments’ affairs.

"Oh absolutely I think he’s meddling. To have a proposal to try to control property taxes for two years seems to me a bit of a gimmick because it doesn’t address the underlying structural problems that have resulted in such a strong dependence on property tax revenues to operate local governments."

What is Steve Yugartis going to be looking for in the budget details? Mandate relief.



Martha Foley: The governor has heard lots of advice on education spending—education advocates call for a $1.9 billion increase—that’s supported by more than 80 lawmakers.

The Board of Regents has recommended a $1.3 billion school aid increase for next year. A coalition of administrator and parent groups hopes for $1.5 billion.

Cuomo’s previous two budgets have increased spending by roughly 4 percent.

School districts say those increases haven't been enough to offset reductions of previous years, leaving them with less funding now than in 2008-09.

Sarah Harris – what’s the picture this year?

Sarah Harris: Speaking on Capitol Pressroom last week, Governor Cuomo said that the formula for state aid increase is at just below 4 percent. He said of course schools need more, but the question is how much – and how much it actually effects education and test results.

"So it’s not about more money gets us more results, because if that was the case our students would be doing better than any students in the country because we’re spending more than anyone else."

The budget address comes just as the Comptroller’s office has identified 87 school districts (13% of the state) as facing significant financial stress.

11 of those districts are in the North Country: General Brown Central School, Tupper Lake, Ausable Valley Central School, Northern Adirondack Central School, Ticonderoga, Ogdensburg City, Little Falls City, Minerva Central School, Peru Central School, Salmon River and Potsdam Central School.

Canton Central School District isn’t on the list, but it was just recently audited by the Comptroller’s office, which expressed concern over the district’s reliance on its fund balance to pay for operations.

I emailed Canton superintendent Bill Gregory to ask what he’s hoping for regarding state aid. He hopes the amount that Canton and other school get will keep them from having major budget gaps that have “forced us to cut positions, use excessive amounts of fund balance, and propose tax increases that stretch the resources of our citizens.”



Martha Foley: Brian, let's talk about environment issues.  The governor spent a lot of time and money in the North Country over the last year, talking up big land conservation deals in the Adirondacks, paying for those deals.  What will green groups be listening for today?

Brian Mann: The big item, especially for environmentalists in the Adironadcks, is the Environmental Protection Fund, the EPF.  This is used for land conservation, but it's also used by local governments for things like clean water programs.  The Adirondack Council and other groups are pushing for an EPF to the tune of $200 million.  We'll see if that happens.

I think another thing that people will be watching is stewardship money.  What happens to the staffing at the Adirondack Park Agency and the state Conservation Department.  There's been a hard squeeze on those posts over the last decade and a lot of people, including state officials speaking on background, just don't think there are enough boots on the ground to get all the work done.

Will Governor Cuomo restore some of that — I think it's unlikely, but we'll see.



David Sommerstein: Quick list of things to look for in agriculture – more money for what Cuomo’s called “dairy acceleration”, things like better business plans, more technology on dairy farms, money for anaerobic digesters to re-use manure as energy.

More funding for the TASTE NY stores that sell New York products.

Funding or some mention of a second Yogurt Summit, and a new sell-Upstate-produce-in-NYC Summit.


Rooftop Highway:

David Sommerstein: This is such a tiny item, it’s hard to know if we’ll see it in the budget plan. But North Country folks will be looking to see if there’s money for a study of some aspect of the so-called rooftop highway – a Canton-Potsdam bypass, or some other study along route 11 between Watertown and Plattsburgh.



Martha Foley: Brian, one issue that's critical this year is the future prisons.  The Cuomo administration has called for four prisons to be closed in 2014, including Chateaugay and Mt. McGregor in the North Country.  What could we hear about prisons today?

Brian Mann: Well, supporters of those prisons hope to see the governor back off on some of this prison closure agenda, and this speech is likely to be one of the last-best moments when he might blink there.  But this is a governor who has pushed very hard to cut the size of government and he's made prisons one of his prime targets.

A lot of prison reform activists say even more prisons should close statewide as the inmate population continues to drop.  So that's another thing I'll be listening for. 

And finally, Martha, we'll see if the governor invests any more money in rehabilitation programs and inmate re-entry programs.  He talked about that in the state of the state speech as a priority, but so far not many dollars have been committed — we'll see where that goes.

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