Cuomo announces major budget cuts

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his executive budget Tuesday for the State of New York for fiscal year 2011-12, which begins Apr. 1. The governor’s proposals include significant cuts in funding to education and Medicaid, among other sectors, as part of a plan to close a $10 billion budget gap this year.

Photo Provided New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces his 2011-12 Executive Budget for New York State. Cuomo proposed cutting SUNY and CUNY budgets by 10 percent as part of a plan to close a $10 billion budget gap.

If passed by the legislature, Cuomo’s budget bill would reduce New York State government spending from one year to the next for the first time since 1996. Cuomo’s budget includes $132.9 billion in spending, a reduction of $3.7 billion, or 2.7 percent, from the current fiscal year.

In decreasing spending, Cuomo is seeking to revise statutory requirements for spending growth, such as mandates that funding for education and Medicaid be increased by 13 percent next year — increases he has called “unsustainable.” As a result, the proposals to cut education funding by $1.54 billion and Medicaid by $982 million contained in the Governor’s bill would amount to cuts of about $2.85 billion in planned spending for both areas. This cut in funding for Medicaid would also roughly be doubled due to loss of federal matching funds.

Some of the largest proportional decreases Cuomo is proposing would be to SUNY and CUNY, which would each have their budgets cut by 10 percent from last year. This comes on top of cuts to SUNY totaling close to $1.1 billion in the last three years, or a reduction of roughly a third of state funding for public colleges and universities.

Jennifer Jensen, a professor of political science at Binghamton University who has done research on different states’ governments and their relationships with the federal government, said that New York’s difficult budget situation is similar to that of many states.

“Gov. Cuomo faces a real challenge, as are most governors … the budget crisis in this state is bad, but not as bad as a number of other states,” Jensen said. “One of the difficulties is that the state used stimulus money to offset the revenue shortfalls that the state was facing [and] that economic stimulus money is now spent.”

Nevertheless, BU Interim President C. Peter Magrath said the budget’s effect on SUNY could have been worse, citing predictions from news agencies made before Cuomo introduced his budget bill that SUNY would have its budget cut by twice the amount the governor actually proposed.

“The good news is that the bad news is not as bad as it could have been,” Magrath said. “We’re looking at a loss of approximately $6 to 7 million in funding here at Binghamton, and we’ll deal with it without doing furloughs for employees or reductions that would hurt the quality of our academics.”

He said the University did not have finalized budgets for beyond this year and next yet however.

But Magrath praised a feature of the budget that would eliminate what he called inefficient rules governing how SUNY campuses enter into private partnerships and procure goods and services, giving decision-making discretion to the individual schools.

“This frees us up to be more entrepreneurial,” Magrath said.

Jared Kirschenbaum, president of BU’s Student Association, also described the budget as a mixed bag.

“SUNY got some of the things that Chancellor [Nancy] Zimpher has been lobbying for, but clearly not all,” Kirschenbaum said. “It’s extremely early to tell how this will affect BU, but so far the administration has done a really good job ensuring our academic programs aren’t hurt, like has occurred at Stony Brook and Albany with department closings.”

Others, however, felt that the impacts of proposed cuts to SUNY on public higher education could be dire.

Kyle Hill, director of government relations for the SUNY-wide Student Assembly and a senior at SUNY Oneonta, said that SUNY could not continue to bear such cuts without losing academic programs.

“We are going to reach a point where something has to give at SUNY. We can’t do any more with less,” Hill said. “Geneseo has already been hit, Albany lost its language programs, and a few years ago New Paltz lost its nursing program.”

Brendan McQuade, a third-year graduate student in BU’s sociology department who is involved with a non-official student group on campus called Concerned Binghamton Students, criticized decreases in state funding for SUNY as “counterproductive.”

“The budget contributes to devaluing public education by shifting it from the state funding of SUNY to more of a market model,” McQuade said. “In the short term, Binghamton doesn’t have the problems Albany has right now, but in the long term more money will have to come from outside funders, and will go toward only the parts of the University that are economically productive, like technology and engineering, and not the humanities or the liberal arts. We’ll lose the disciplines that prepare us better to come up with innovative solutions.”

Hill and McQuade both acknowledged that New York’s budget crisis was severe, but suggested there were better alternatives to cutting higher education spending.

“I don’t think that cutting SUNY is the right way to go,” Hill said. “SUNY can be an economic driver for New York, investing in it would do more to close the budget gap.”

McQuade said that the governor should propose raising taxes, at least for the wealthy.

“Every year, 16 billion in stock transfer taxes is collected from Wall Street and then given back. If the stock transfer tax was enforced it would take care of the budget right there,” McQuade said.

Cuomo’s bill seeks to close the budget gap through $8.9 billion in spending reductions, but it includes plans to raise revenue by just $340 million, mostly through expansion of the lottery and gambling and a few one-time fees, such as a fee on background checks for child abuse. He has stuck to campaign pledges not to extend the so-called “millionaire’s tax” temporarily placed on wealthy New Yorkers, which has become a point of contention between him and Democrats in the legislature, who control the Assembly.

“[A] cut of 10 percent would certainly impact SUNY’s ability to provide a quality education,” said Donna Lupardo (D), the Assemblywoman for the 126th district, which encompasses BU. “Extending the existing ‘millionaire’s tax’ … would provide additional revenue to help offset some of the cuts to education and health care.”

Lupardo also expressed concern about part of Cuomo’s proposal that would completely eliminate the $135 million in state subsidies provided to SUNY’s teaching hospitals located in Syracuse, Brooklyn and Stony Brook, or 8 percent of their budgets.

“In addition to losing their entire state subsidy, [the hospitals] would also feel the effects of cuts to Medicaid and to their medical colleges,” Lupardo said.

Hill expressed agreement.

“The SUNY hospitals will definitely be affected negatively by their budget cuts,” he said. “I don’t think this is wise, because not only do they see a million patients each year, but they’re also New York’s teaching hospitals where the next generation of doctors and nurses train.”

Student leaders from Kirschenbaum and Hill to SUNY SA President Julie Gondar, a senior at University at Albany, said that they would rather see tuition raised moderately than have programs cut.

In a written statement, Gondar said, “We feel keeping tuition at the current level is simply not sustainable, and does not support access and affordability in the long term. For over three years now, the Student Assembly has proposed a rational tuition policy that would ensure annual, predictable increases that are fair, equitable and responsible.”

As with taxes, Cuomo’s budget would not raise tuition prices currently, but Hill said he feared that failing to do so would “only mean that larger spikes in tuition will happen down the road.”

Cuomo’s budget also avoids specifying how the cuts to Medicaid will be instituted, leaving those decisions for the time being to a special task force of legislators and labor and health care union representatives.

This approach, unusual for a New York governor, may allow Cuomo more room to evade political attacks from interest groups opposed to his budget cuts.

Similarly, he is proposing that a number of state agencies dealing with prisons and corrections be consolidated and that prisons be reduced in size and number, but will leave the details to be decided by a task force of legislators and prison officials. Lastly, Cuomo’s budget warns that he may have to fire some 9,800 state employees in order to close the budget gap, but only if agreements from labor unions on cuts and agency mergers are not reached.

“It’s in the state’s interest to weaken the unions, so [Cuomo] will use this fiscal crisis to try to do so,” McQuade said. “He wants the labor unions and working people’s pensions to shoulder the burden, and not the wealthy who get absolved of their debts and tax responsibilities.”