ALBANY — New York's state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are scheduled to adopt a $132 billion budget within days for the 2012-13 fiscal year.
And, as exciting as the voluminous spending document is to insiders, with its arcane "financial plan" and critical "article 7 bills," the tome that might seem dull to others affects every New Yorker every day.
Q: Why should I care?
A: The state budget determines which of your highways are fixed, which of your nearby bridges are replaced, how the poorest neighbors are provided for, how well-staffed your hospital will be, and how well your parks are maintained, among a hundred other impacts. The state budget's aid to schools and local governments affect property tax bills and rent.
Q: The politicians in Albany say there is no tax increase but there is a tax cut. Is that right?
A: Yes, many of them say that, but, no, it's not all true. Cuomo and the Legislature agreed to a millionaire's tax in December, after the Democratic governor and the Senate's Republican majority campaigned against it in 2010 and promised to block it as a "job killer" through the first 11 months of 2011. But the tax on millionaires was increased to raise $2 billion and avoid further cuts to schools and programs. There is, however, a tax cut: Part of the tax increase will provide a $200 to $400 income tax reduction for middle-class families.
Q: What major issues are still being negotiated?
A: Really just one: Cuomo and the Democrat-led Assembly want to establish health care exchanges called for by the federal government to provide a kind of one-stop shopping for individuals and businesses to provide affordable health insurance to all. The Obama administration would provide millions of dollars for the state to tailor its own plan, but the feds will impose a plan if the state balks. The Senate's Republican majority said more study is needed into how to do this well and efficiently and there is plenty of time after the budget to figure it out. Democrats want the pressure of the horse trading in the budget to force Republicans to agree, and say they are just avoiding the political problem of agreeing to Obama's signature legislation.
Q: What power struggles are being waged?
A: Cuomo has proposed giving the governor the power to transfer funds among agencies without approval by the Legislature. Cuomo sees that as a minor, technical issue that will allow him to consolidate "back office" operations like human resources and purchasing to save money and manage government more efficiently. But it's a huge deal to lawmakers, many of whom see it as a power grab by Cuomo and insist they be part of major spending decisions.
Also, Cuomo has proposed using $250 million of the $800 million projected increase in education funding for competitive grants to encourage schools to perform better and with more innovation, so the models can be replicated statewide. But the Senate and Assembly want at least $200 million of that returned to general school aid where all schools will benefit and neediest schools will get bigger shares.
Q: Will it be passed by the midnight March 31 deadline?
A: Senators and Assembly members, all of whom are up for re-election in the fall, and Cuomo want to avoid being tagged with failure that has dogged Albany politicians for 20 years of late budgets. They had for months talked about passing a budget as early as a week before it is due, but now are talking an on-time budget.
Q: I'm represented by a legislator in the minority (a Republican in the Assembly or a Democrat in the Senate). How much of a role do they play in crafting the budget?
A: They'll probably read about it first in the newspapers. Under Albany's power structure, Cuomo is negotiating behind closed doors with Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, often separately. Skelos and Silver meet with their conferences behind different closed doors.
Q: You're kidding, right?
Q: OK, you've got my attention and I want to know more. Where can I see the budget?
A: The proposal by Cuomo is at http://www.budget.ny.gov/ . The Senate has its own version at http://www.nysenate.gov/get-facts-2012-13-executive-budget-plan and the Assembly's is at http://assembly.state.ny.us/2012budget/
A couple of days after the budget is adopted, Cuomo's Web page will have the finished product.