Written by Dr. John Bierwirth Friday, 04 March 2011 00:00
Bert Lance, President Carter’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget, liked to say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. With New York State government there is no choice. It is broken and it needs to be fixed.
There are clearly many different ideas about how it should be fixed. Many are worthy of serious consideration, including ones which may have been viewed as too radical at other times. Hopefully, the discussion will be thorough, open and rational and, hopefully, it will focus on real solutions rather than ideological promises.
No one can guarantee that any solution will solve all problems for the foreseeable future but any plan worthy of serious consideration should actually fix something.
Last year, the state balanced the budget by borrowing approximately $3 billion from the pension fund. That may have been the best option the legislature could agree on. Maybe it was the only solution at the time. However, it did not fix New York State’s financial problems. In fact, it only made future budgets even more difficult to balance.
In light of this it was distressing to read Comptroller DiNapoli’s assessment of Governor Cuomo’s budget proposals in the Wall Street Journal on February 16. Comptroller DiNapoli specifically questioned whether $4 billion in projected savings is real or not. Let’s hope that it is but furthermore let’s hope that the legislature will not approve any plans unless they are real.
From our perspective at least some of the savings are coming from pushing state expenses onto schools, just as the county “saved” money in its budget by starting to charge schools for sewer usage. Whether schools should pay sewer charges or not is one thing, but it certainly is not a savings to taxpayers. Similarly, while Governor Cuomo’s proposals to reduce state aid to school districts received considerable attention in the media, what received the most attention were his proposals to shift significant special education costs from the state budget to school districts. These are not discretionary expenditures so districts may have no choice but to absorb them. Since details are emerging very slowly we do not have dollar figures yet, but they amount to several hundred thousand. This is not savings. It is not a fix or a real solution.
Perhaps borrowing out of the same playbook, the New York State Education Department is now talking about charging every district $5.93 per student to pay for Regents exams and other state tests. For Herricks that would cost over $24,000. In light of deep concerns about the quality of Regents exams in recent years, as well as concerns about the time, expense and questionable value of current Grade 3-8 assessments, this is adding injury to insult or vice-versa.
New York needs to be fixed. It need not take a long time but whatever is done should be done in a manner that works and makes progress. Shifting costs and balancing budgets on hopes does not help.