ALBANY — New York lawmakers are planning to reconvene after the Memorial Day holiday to address pandemic-related measures while they keep their fingers crossed for a massive federal aid package for state, county and municipal governments.
The COVID-19 crisis has left the state with a deficit that now exceeds $13 billion, prompting some progressive Democrats from the metropolitan New York City region to advocate for higher income taxes on the state's highest income earners.
Some advocates are also attempting to rally support for a measure that have New York join other state already allowing online sports betting. A proposal to legalize recreational marijuana that withered in March is also again being touted.
But sports betting and legal pot appear to be remote wild cards as lawmakers expected to train their focus on responding to the pandemic with such measures as enhancing protections for renters who have lost their incomes and others who have suffered financial calamities in the sudden economic downtown.
Also being discussed is legislation that would remove the legal immunity nursing homes and other health care facilities received as the state braced for a surge in admissions due to the spread of the virus.
Because the agenda is set by the Democrats who control both chambers of the Legislature, determining which measures make it to the floor, Republicans for the most part are left to push for amendments and weigh in during committee meetings and debates leading to votes.
Assemblyman John Salka, R-Madison County, said he hopes his colleagues on both sides of the aisle reinsert themselves in state governance after agreeing to give Gov. Andrew Cuomo broad emergency powers that have reduced lawmakers to spectators as important decisions are made regarding the reopening of virtually all segments of New York's economy.
"The governor should have to deal with the scrutiny of the Legislature," Salka said. "That is the way the system is set up. We need to rein this guy in."
Cuomo also has enhanced authority over state spending, a power lawmakers agreed to cede to him in late March after the state's fiscal stability eroded when projected revenues suddenly shriveled. The governor has warned school districts that deep cuts could be coming to state aid to districts,
Ronald Deutsch, director of the Fiscal Policy Alliance, a labor-backed advocacy group that works closely with Assembly Democrats, suggested Cuomo's voter approval ratings will drop if he follows through with cuts to education, health care and other public services.
Such cuts, Deutsch said, "would cost the state hundreds of thousands of jobs at a time when unemployment is at an all-time high."
Deutsch's group is touting higher income taxes on the wealthy as well as additional taxes on those owning one or more vacation homes.
"The reality is if you tax billionaire a little bit more, they are still billionaires," Deutsch said.
In the North Country, Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said he supports raising revenue by allowing online sports wagering.
"People are doing it already so why aren't we trying to get some revenue instead of letting it go to other states?" said Jones.
But he said he would not throw his support to any plan that increases income taxes.
"We can't tax our way out of this," Jones said. He suggested that a better way to produce revenue would be to allow small businesses to reopen following a lockdown that has gone on for more than two months.
Jones said "small mom and pop" retailers have had their viability threatened while big box chain stores have gotten state approval to keep their doors open for throngs of shoppers even while social distance measures are promoted.
He said he is convinced the independent, small retailers could be at least effective as the large department stores in enforcing guidance for masks and distancing.
The fiscal crisis facing the state should be used by lawmakers as an opportunity to analyze ways to make the state government more efficient and "less bloated," said Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls.
He said proposals to legalize marijuana amount to "pandering" and do not address the core problems of overspending and duplication in services.
Morinello said he is also concerned the state may have difficulty convincing congressional leaders to approve its plea for a massive infusion of federal money unless there is a commitment in Albany to address the "systemic reasons" behind high spending by state government.
"Let's find out what programs we need and what programs we don't need," he said.
The economy of many upstate areas is heavily dependent on tourism, an industry left battered by stay-at-home edicts and the cancellation of scores of festivals and other public events.
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, took note of that as she suggested: "Helping small businesses should be at the top of the Legislature's agenda."
"All across the state, businesses are really hurting," said Little, who is slated to retire at year's end. "They desperately need help in the form of tax and regulatory relief. That's the way to prime the economic pump."
She said the state's budget hole is too deep to fill by raising taxes, suggesting a relief package from Washington is needed to shore up local and state governments and avoid the cuts to school funding.
One fiscal watchdog group, the Citizens Budget Commission, released a report Friday suggesting the state could close this year's gap and reduce future deficits by temporarily suspending the exemption of sales taxes on clothing items costing less than $110 and freezing scheduled phased-in taxed cuts for middle-income earners.
Such actions would not harm the state's long-term competitiveness, said David Friedfel, director of state studies for the commission.
On April 25, the Cuomo administration released a state financial plan that included a 4.9% cut to state operations and an 11.5% reduction in aid to localities.
In preparation for the legislative session scheduled to begin Tuesday and completed after two or three days, the Association of Towns began an action drive Friday, urging its members to contact Assembly and Senate members and urge them to support the needs of town governments.
In New York City, Cuomo said the state will create a $100 million fund for loans to small businesses that have not received federal COVID-19 funding help.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org