Cuomo's Budget Director Addresses Spending Plan Controversies

Jan 25, 2013

Cuomo's budget director Megna gets ready for interview

Governor Cuomo’s budget director says the Syracuse mayor is “wrong” to think that the governor’s  pension stabilization plan won’t save cities money. In an interview with public radio and television, budget director Robert Megna also defended a decision to withhold $240 million dollars in additional school aid to New York City, after they missed a deadline for teacher evaluations.

Governor Cuomo’s budget director Robert Megna says after weeks of lobbying efforts, Congress is poised to approve a $60 billion dollar Superstorm Sandy relief package.  The governor, in his budget address, outlined a lengthy list of detailed plans to clean up after the storm and prevent damage from future floods. He proposed everything from buying back damaged houses in flood prone zones to “hardening” the subway system infrastructure to protect it from salt water.    

“It’s not everything we wanted but we think it’s a substantial amount,” Megna said. “And we think it will address most of the problems we’ve had with Sandy.”

Megna also talked about education proposals in the spending plan, including limited pilot programs to enact all day pre kindergarten and extend the school day and school year, which would cost around $75 million dollars.  The lingering recession and weak economic recovery makes it difficult to enact sweeping new programs. But the budget director says the governor also wants to make sure the extra spending produces results in test cases first, instead of  enacting new statewide changes “willy nilly”.

Megna maintained the Cuomo Administration’s resolve not to give New York City schools a 4% increase in school aid, because the City and its teachers’ union failed to reach agreement on a teacher evaluation plan by the January 17th deadline imposed by Cuomo.   Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has called the withholding of the funds “punishing”.

“It’s absolutely clear that they did not fulfill what the law required, and so they are going to lose that resource,” said Megna, who says “99%” of school districts in New York State complied with the deadline.

Megna admits it is a “terrible thing” that New York City won’t get the money.

“We’re not trying to hurt school kids,” Megna said.

The budget director also commented on another part of the spending plan that has caused some controversy.  Cuomo’s proposal for a pension stabilization fund would allow financially squeezed schools and local governments to even out their pension payments over time, paying less now, but more in future years. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who is also Cuomo’s chosen Democratic Party Co-Chair, has criticized the plan in the Syracuse Post Standard and New York Times, saying it kicks the can down the road, and that the budget doesn’t do enough to help struggling cities.

Megna says the pension “smoother” gives localities and schools “stability” over the next 25 years. And he says it’s optional, and is not being forced upon anyone.

“I do think she’s thinking about it wrong,” said Megna, of Miner’s comments. He says a city like Syracuse would realize “substantial savings” in the short run, and gain “the ability to plan”.

Later in the day, the budget division released a chart that showed what cities could save if they signed on to the pension stabilization plan. It shows that Syracuse could save $43.5m over five years.

The budget director also defended Cuomo’s unusual choice of including an increase in the state’s minimum wage in the budget, even though the state does not need to appropriate any money for the hike from $7.25 to $8.75 an hour.  Megna says low wage workers would be able to spend more money on goods and services, and that would boost state sales tax revenues.

Linking the minimum wage to the state budget could also make it easier for Cuomo to get Senate Republicans to approve the measure. Last year, GOP Senators rejected the proposal as a stand alone bill.

The budget director is also confident that the budget will be passed on time, even early. The official deadline is March 31st, but the Passover and Easter holidays are early this year, so lawmakers need to approve the plan by around  March 21st .

“We’re very confident we’ll get it done on time,” he said.