Budget elicits range of responses

Karen DeWitt / NY Public Radio

Reaction to the newly agreed upon state budget continued to pour in at the State Capitol, as lawmakers began passing the first of a series of budget bills, in the hope of finishing the spending plan by the end of the week.

Senate Leader Dean Skelos praised lawmakers and Governor Cuomo, for their work on a budget plan that’s likely to be in place by the deadline.

“This is a budget that we all can be proud of,” Skelos said.

Senate Finance Chair John DeFrancisco, a Republican, noted the “refreshing” lack of rancor during budget talks, and says the budget has “incredibly” remained essentially flat, with no significant spending increases, for the past two years.

Senator Ruben Diaz, a Bronx Democrat, says that’s nothing to “brag” about. Diaz says the budget is “balanced on the backs of the poor”.

Just like the Senate, the education community is also split on the merits of the spending plan.

The Alliance for Quality Education, a group affiliated with the teachers unions that advocates for more school funding says the 4% increase in school aid from last year still is not enough for cash strapped districts.

Mark Pascale, President of the City of Cohoes School Board was at a news conference organized by the group. .  He says the next board meeting will feature the beginning of some tough choices, like cutting sports or layoff teachers.

“We still have a gap, a sizeable gap,” Pascale said.

The New York State School Boards Association, however, gives Governor Cuomo and the legislature an “A” for including the $800 million dollar funding increases targeted to the state’s poorest schools, and agreeing on a state spending plan  well before the May school budget vote. Executive Director Tim Kremer says in a year when money is short, it could have been worse.

“Is this everything we want, of course not,” said Kremer. “But somebody once told me that ‘budgeting is the allocation of disappointments’”.

Kremer says school boards will be seeking more mandate relief from the governor and legislature, after the budget is done, to help schools control costs.

The New York State Association of Counties’ Steve Acquario says Cuomo and the legislature took a big step toward providing mandate relief for counties by approving a three year phased in takeover of Medicaid cost increases.

“Let’s make no mistake about it, this governor advanced a very serious form of mandate relief,” Acquario said. “That is substantial.”

But he says counties also need more relief from unfunded mandates, and will press the legislature to act, as soon as the budget is finished.

State worker unions complained about the closure of 400 mental health beds. CSEA President Danny Donohue called the budget “another back room deal”.  Tensions are already simmering between the union and the governor over pension changes approved earlier in the month that will require future workers to pay more for their pensions and receive lower benefits.

Business groups praised the budget, including the Partnership for New York City’s Kathryn Wylde, who called the spending restraints “very reassuring to the business community”.