NY Budget: Big Steps, But Some Details Will Wait
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A statewide ban on plastic bags and groundbreaking tolls for motorists entering the busiest sections of Manhattan are coming to New York under a new state budget that takes several ambitious steps to address long-standing environmental and transportation challenges.
The budget also sets aside $100 million for a new public campaign financing system in an attempt to reduce the outsized influence that money and wealthy political contributors have long played in New York politics.
But while the $175.5 billion budget passed by lawmakers early Monday boasts several innovative initiatives, it also includes several compromises, while leaving some thorny decisions on tolls and public financing of elections to unelected boards.
"The public elects the governor and the legislature to do their job, which is to make public decisions," said John Kaehny, executive director of the government watchdog group Reinvent Albany. "What they've done is kick the can down the road on some controversial issues."
Motorists will have to wait, for example, for a little-known agency — the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority — to set the actual amount they will pay to drive south of 61st Street beginning in 2021. The agency will also decide whether to give discounts to commuters who already pay a bridge or tunnel toll to enter Manhattan, and whether low-income commuters or seniors warrant a discount on the toll, which will raise money for the city's ailing subways.
The tolls could cost nearly $12 for personal vehicles, according to a report issued last year.
"There are a lot of questions that we don't have answers to," said Sen. Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Island, who successfully fought to ensure the Long Island Rail Road will get a portion of the toll revenues.
Supporters note tolls are often set by non-elected entities, such as the Thruway Authority, and that allowing appointed transportation officials to set the toll and any exemptions depoliticizes the decision.
Cuomo and lawmakers also punted on public campaign finance. Government watchdog groups had hoped lawmakers and Cuomo would agree to create a robust public financing system in which candidates could voluntarily swear off large donations in exchange for matching public funds for small donations.
Instead, lawmakers and Cuomo agreed to create a new commission to craft the rules for how the $100 million in matching funds would be awarded. A report is due in December and will have the force of law unless the Legislature modifies or rejects the proposal within 20 days.
"We don't like that idea at all," said Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, who said lawmakers and Cuomo have the responsibility to address public financing, as well as the state's notoriously porous campaign finance rules. "We think it was a way to push it off and not make the decision."
Cuomo defended the budget, saying Monday it was the "greatest budget of the last decade" that makes long-stalled progress on critical issues relating to transportation, the environment and campaign finance while also increasing school funding by $1 billion.
The governor didn't get everything he wanted however: Cuomo's provision legalizing, taxing and regulating recreational marijuana was dropped after lawmakers said there wasn't time to finalize the details. The Legislature plans to take up the issue before they're scheduled to return for the year in June.
"The political desire is there," he told reporters Sunday night as lawmakers worked through a marathon, overnight session to pass the budget. "I believe we will get it done... the best way to do it was not in the race of the budget."
With the ban on plastic bags, New York will join California and Hawaii as the only states where the ubiquitous items are banned throughout the state. Taking effect March 1, 2020, the ban will apply to most single-use plastic bags provided by grocery stores and other retailers. Individual counties will have the option of charging 5 cents for paper bags, with 2 cents going to local governments and 3 cents to the state's Environmental Protection Fund.
Other provisions in the spending plan will eliminate cash bail for misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses, which make up about 90 percent of criminal cases in the state.
The budget includes two other revenue sources for the subways: a "mansion tax" on Manhattan homes that sell for $25 million or more, and an internet sales tax levied on online retailers.