Assembly Leaders’ Budget Plans Trail Senate’s On Progressive Priorities, Advocates Say
Demonstrators rallied outside the district office of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on Thursday | Courtesy of VOCAL-NY

Assembly Leaders’ Budget Plans Trail Senate’s On Progressive Priorities, Advocates Say

Progressive advocates also critiqued the revenue figures under consideration as too low.

Leadership in both of New York’s legislative chambers are preparing “one-house budgets”—their proposals for a state budget—that each include around $7 billion in progressive tax increases, sources with knowledge of current plans said.

That figure would be significantly higher than the only tax increase targeting the wealthy in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget, a $1.5 billion temporary and reimbursable personal income tax increase on individuals with annual incomes above $5 million.

But it would be far lower than the $50 billion raised by the Invest in Our New York Act, a proposed package of six bills hiking taxes on the wealthy that a coalition of the state’s most prominent progressive groups has rallied around.

“$7 billion, if that’s the number, isn’t enough,” Rebecca Bailin, campaign manager for the Invest in Our New York Coalition, told New York Focus. “We need a budget that has tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue.”

Because of a decade of the governor’s harmful budget progressive policies, 92,000 homeless New Yorkers are living in shelters and on the streets, thousands of people are dying of overdose, and HIV and Hep C rates are spiking. $7 billion will not be enough to meet the crisis,” said Paulette Soltani, political director of at the progressive advocacy group VOCAL-NY.

One Albany insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saw things differently. $7 billion would be a historic victory for progressives, they said. “This is the result of a long pent up desire to tax the wealthy. Seven billion would reflect a significant increase and commitment to programs that have been heavily underfunded.”

Progressives are mounting a last push to pressure leadership in both chambers to significantly increase the amounts of new revenue. This morning, activists supporting the Invest In Our New York Act held vigils outside the offices of both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

The numbers are not set in stone. Democrats in both chambers will meet in their respective conferences either today or tomorrow to discuss revenue, and prominent progressive legislators told New York Focus that they would push for considerably higher amounts.

It’s not enough,” Assemblymember Ron Kim told New York Focus when asked about the $7 billion figure. “Our one-house resolution is still in the works but regardless, if the final budget doesn’t reach the revenues we desperately need to meet people’s basic needs, I will not support it.”

“If they are not coming in at a number that we feel like is enough to help New Yorkers, then the progressive members will have to think about whether or not they want to vote for that budget,” Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou told New York Focus.

Invest in Our New York proponents have been encouraged by signs that leadership in both chambers intends to include a variety of mechanisms beyond the income tax to tax the wealthy, including inheritance, capital gains, and corporate taxes, sources said.

“We’re working hard to include as many components of the Invest in Our New York package as possible. The details might be different than their full proposal, but we’re at least trying to touch the topics of a majority of them,” a source with knowledge of legislative leadership’s proposals said.

Progressives are currently pushing for priorities including personal income tax rates of at least 12% on earners making $1 million or more annually, increasing estate tax rates and lowering the estate tax exemption back to $1 million (where it stood before 2015), and raising the corporate and capital gains taxes beyond the rates leadership is currently considering, sources said.

This week, Congress passed a third stimulus bill that will give New York State $12.5 billion in federal aid. Some influential Democratic legislators in both chambers have argued that the federal aid means there is less need for the state to raise taxes.

The [federal aid], together with higher than expected income tax revenues, definitely closes the state and city budget gaps and makes tax increases this year or next unnecessary,” Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a leading business consortium, told the New York Post yesterday.

Proponents of the Invest in Our New York package counter that because the stimulus bill will provide only a one-time infusion of money, the state should raise revenue this year to prepare for next year.

A huge one-shot of federal money creates a huge hole in next year’s budget: a $12.5 billion hole in state funding and a $10 billion dollar hole in local government funding,” Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, told New York Focus. “The leaders should be saying to all their members, left, right and center, this is an opportunity to make sure we’ve got a sound fiscal foundation for the future.”

“The people who say, ‘oh, the federal government gave us a lot of money, let’s not do anything’—they’re the ones that are really wildly irresponsible,” Kink added.

After the one-house budgets are released, Cuomo will enter negotiations with the two chambers’ leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, to hash out a budget for the legislature to vote up or down by April 1st.

Cuomo will likely push for lower revenue figures, meaning that the numbers in the one-house budgets are ceilings rather than floors for what might be enacted in the final budget.

The governor has extremely strong constitutional powers in crafting the budget. But the legislature has more leverage than in previous years, with Democratic supermajorities that could override vetoes and a governor facing multiple scandals and calls for resignation from top members of his own party.

The governor’s grip on the power of the budget is diminishing. The Speaker and Majority Leader have a huge opportunity and really must step into leadership in this moment of need—and if they don’t, they’re accomplices in the governor’s harm,” Soltani said.

Many progressive advocates expressed concern that Heastie may be more amenable than Stewart-Cousins to negotiating with the governor and accepting a lower revenue figure. “There’s a history of him speaking to the governor as opposed to speaking with the Majority Leader,” Boris Santos, an organizer with New York City Democratic Socialists of America, told New York Focus. “We’re very concerned about that.”

In December, New York Focus reported that the Assembly was unwilling to raise as much revenue as the Senate in that month’s special session.

On Thursday, New York Focus obtained detailed research on financial industry donations to Heastie in recent months. Since October of last year, lobbyists retained by firms including Goldman Sachs, Blackrock, and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) have donated more than $19,000 to Heastie while lobbying against progressive tax proposals.

Beyond revenue, advocates said that Assembly leadership’s proposals on spending were significantly behind the Senate’s on some key progressive priorities.

We know the Senate is funding critical interventions to end homelessness and overdoses in their one-house. We also know the Assembly is not doing that. And there is no excuse for that,” Soltani said.

Senate leadership’s budget proposal currently includes $200 million for the Housing Access Voucher Program, $18 million for opioid addiction treatment in prisons and jails and $20 million to streamline the process for accessing addiction medication, Soltani said, key priorities for VOCAL-NY in fighting the state’s homelessness and overdose crises.

Assembly leadership’s budget proposal currently includes none of those three items, Soltani said.

Cea Weaver, coordinator of the Housing Justice for All Coalition, said that another area in which Assembly seems to be trailing the Senate, from progressives’ perspective, is that Assembly leadership’s current proposal only gives tenants 21 days to apply for rent relief, whereas the Senate’s does not impose a time limit.

Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an immigrant and working-class advocacy group, said that Assembly leaders are also proposing less relief than their Senate counterparts to workers excluded by federal stimulus bills.

“We are extremely frustrated that the Assembly proposal to finally get relief to excluded workers is far too low to provide anything close to what is needed and easily resourced. These are folks who have gone nearly a full year with no income and zero access to the unemployment benefits their tax dollars make possible for everyone else,” Axt told New York Focus.

“The Senate proposal needs further work but is at least a serious starting place,” Axt added.

Neither Heastie nor Stewart-Cousins responded to requests for comment on Thursday.

Lee Harris contributed research.

Update 3/12: After Senate Democrats conferenced yesterday, the Senate appeared likely to release a one-house budget with tax revenue of $14 or $15 billion, or higher, two legislators told New York Focus. Earlier in the week and as late as Thursday, Senate leaders had indicated that they were planning to propose a lower amount, around $7 billion, in progressive taxes, sources told New York Focus. Assembly Democrats will conference to discuss revenue today.

Update 3/14: The Senate and Assembly released their proposed one-house budgets this weekend. Both include close to $7 billion in increased taxes on the wealthy.

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