The executive budget holds down spending and boosts state reserves, according to a report released earlier this week by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. At the same time, the proposed budget increases potential out-year gaps and gives the executive new latitude to move and spend money outside the formal appropriation process, including billions of dollars in financial settlements.
"Extraordinary financial settlements and higher than expected revenues will help New York end the fiscal year with its largest balance in years," DiNapoli said. "The executive budget continues this positive momentum by boosting reserves, investing in infrastructure and easing the property tax burden. Nevertheless, the out-year gaps remain a concern and there is a lack of clarity for some key spending areas. New York has made great strides over the past few years to get its financial house in order, but there is still work to be done."
The general fund is projected to end state fiscal year (SFY) 2014-15 with a closing balance of $7.8 billion. Excluding settlement revenues, the general fund is expected to end the year with a balance of nearly $2.4 billion, $313 million higher than anticipated when the budget was enacted in March 2014.
The Division of the Budget projects spending from state operating funds in the next fiscal year to total just under $94 billion, an increase of 1.7 percent, or $1.6 billion, from SFY 2014-15. Based on these projections, and after adjusting for prepayments and other proposed changes, DiNapoli estimates spending would increase under the executive's proposal by 3.1 percent.
DOB projects budget surpluses in future years, resulting in part from unspecified actions needed to limit annual growth in state operating funds expenditures to 2 percent. Based on projections of revenues and disbursements by DOB, and excluding the unspecified savings in state operating funds spending, the comptroller estimates annual out-year gaps averaging nearly $3.3 billion in SFY 2016-17 through SFY 2018-19. These potential gaps are more than one-third larger than estimates based on the SFY 2014-15 executive budget.
The governor's spending plan raises the allowable amount that can be deposited into the "rainy day" reserve fund and allocates $315 million for the rainy day reserve fund and the tax stabilization reserve fund. More robust reserves would improve the state's ability to respond to fiscal emergencies, as DiNapoli has advocated. However, the budget also allows the state to more easily withdraw reserve money and commit it to other purposes.
DOB forecasts state tax collections will strengthen in SFY 2015-16, with growth of $3.6 billion, or 5.1 percent, compared to expected growth of 1.7 percent in the current fiscal year. The projected increase results primarily from stronger economic growth and an expected rebound in PIT receipts.
The executive budget creates a new capital projects fund, which could receive a portion of the nearly $5.7 billion in financial settlements. The executive has identified various projects to be supported by the fund, including transportation infrastructure, a $500 million broadband initiative and funding for farms and agriculture. However, the proposed budget legislation related to the dedicated infrastructure investment fund would allow the money to be used for virtually any purpose, including operational costs.
DiNapoli's report notes the executive budget reduces transparency, accountability and oversight in some areas. For example, the proposal lacks individual public school district funding estimates and includes measures to bypass existing statutory provisions that promote integrity in state procurement, including the elimination of competitive bidding, public notice requirements and state comptroller review in certain instances. He said other provisions would blur lines of functions and responsibilities of state agencies and public authorities, expand DOB's authority to move funds among state agencies and authorities, and authorize expanded access to New Yorkers' personal information among state agencies.
The executive budget includes a proposal to authorize the use of backdoor borrowing by state public authorities for all or part of the purposes of the Smart Schools Bond Act approved by voters in November. This proposal would allow up to $2 billion in debt to be issued without all of the controls for issuance, structure and retirement that apply to voter-approved G.O. bonds and could result in higher costs to taxpayers.
DiNapoli's report also finds the executive budget:
•Proposes to increase education aid by $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent, but conditions any increase on legislative enactment of certain statutory changes involving teacher evaluations, governance of struggling schools and other matters;
•Projects overall Medicaid spending in New York, including federal funding and local government expenditures, will total more than $62 billion in SFY 2015-16, an increase of 5.6 percent;
•Increases total spending for state economic development programs by nearly 45 percent, primarily reflecting a $585 million increase in capital spending, to just over $2 billion;
•Increases new debt issuances, outstanding debt and annual debt service payments over the five-year capital plan period. Available debt capacity under the state's statutory cap is now projected to reach a low point of $604 million at the end of SFY 2018-19;
•Proposes to reinstate and expand authorization of design-build and other alternative methods of procurement, after the expiration of the Infrastructure Investment Act in December 2014; and
•Proposes a public campaign finance system for elections to statewide offices and the Legislature, starting in 2018. Funding would be authorized from a proposed new campaign finance fund check-off program and the transfer of abandoned property revenue.
For a copy of the report, click "Executive Budget Report."
As chief fiscal officer for the state, the state comptroller annually examines the executive budget proposal and the enacted budget. DiNapoli also issues monthly reports on the state's cash position.
Since becoming comptroller, DiNapoli has created several tools to allow the public to better track government spending, contracts and other fiscal issues. These are accessible on his transparency website called "Open Book New York."