By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
GREENPORT — The approved state budget includes billions of dollars in aid to help the state’s businesses, schools and residents recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, a state commissioner told business leaders at Columbia-Greene Community College on Friday.
Sheila Poole, commissioner of the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, presented the enacted state budget to provide a bird’s-eye view of how local governments and residents will benefit from the spending plan.
“As Gov. [Kathy] Hochul has said repeatedly, this is a new era for New York and we are using the entirety of the state’s $221 billion budget to make historic investments that will make a difference in people’s lives now and for years to come, both at the state and local level,” Poole said in her opening remarks.
The budget focuses on investing in health care, teacher workforces, providing tax relief, and economic growth, Poole said, calling the budget “socially responsible and fiscally prudent.”
“We have been through so much with the pandemic — there have been tremendous impacts on virtually every sector, on kids and families, on communities and the workforce,” Poole said. “So we are taking advantage of the infusion of federal pandemic relief dollars that our state has received, and being responsible in not creating a budget that sets potential cliffs for the future. The last thing we want to do is start up initiatives, get everyone excited and build infrastructure, only to know that we cannot afford to sustain those investments in the coming year. The governor has been really clear about that.”
The enacted budget does not include recurring costs and has a reserve fund to prepare for a possible future recession or economic downturn, she added.
There is also $6.1 million in tax relief, Poole said.
“Here in the Capital Region, that will benefit over 311,000 Capital Region taxpayers,” she said.
The tax relief plan was initially expected to begin in 2025, but current economic conditions moved up the timeline.
“Given what’s happening in our economy, given that gas is up a dollar, given that milk is up 20 or 30 cents — every time we go to the grocery store, prices are going up,” Poole said. “So the governor and the Legislature have agreed to accelerate the rollout of that tax plan so that taxpayers will see it this year in the budget.”
For the average homeowner benefiting from the tax relief, they will get a $681 benefit through a Homeowner Rebate Credit, which will go to an estimated 211,000 property owners in the Capital Region.
The new spending plan includes relief for high gas prices, Poole said.
“There is also an investment of almost $600 million in tackling what we are all feeling at the gas pumps — an investment providing relief,” she said, adding there is an additional $250 million in the budget to help small businesses to offset COVID-19 related expenses.
Public schools are also in line to receive additional funding this fiscal year in what Poole termed “a historic investment” in schools.
“Overall, in this region alone there is an 8.7% increase in aid to the region and to the schools, and a significant increase in Foundation Aid for Capital Region schools,” Poole said.
Regional schools will receive an additional $497 million in Foundation Aid, she added, along with an additional $125 million for full-day pre-kindergarten programs statewide, adding 17,500 additional pre-K slots.
Boosting the availability of childcare — particularly after the impacts of the pandemic — will add to economic growth in the state, Poole said.
“[Childcare] is the economic engine that allows working parents, and especially women, to remain in the workforce,” she said. “We are making a huge investment in childcare over the next four years — $7 billion. This year alone, in the enacted budget that means we will be increasing the eligibility for working families to receive childcare assistance from 200% of the federal poverty level to 300% of the federal poverty level.”
An additional $100 million is also provided in the spending plan to create additional childcare capacity statewide.
Other areas of the economy that the budget focuses on include $450 million for downtown revitalization initiatives, $350 million to support workforce development programs, $25 billion in a five-year housing plan to promote affordable housing, $200 million to draw new workers to New York state, and a $4.2 billion investment in clean water, clean air and green jobs initiatives to battle climate change, Poole said.
The budget also includes a 40.2% increase over five years for infrastructure including road and bridge repairs, as well as $20 million to support addiction treatment, recovery and prevention, including $2 million for a veterans’ peer-to-peer program.
Tackling rising crime rates is another focus of the budget, Poole said.
“There has been a lot of discussion and concern about the recent uptick in gun violence, not just in New York City, but in so many urban centers across our state,” she said. “There is a lot of focus in this year’s budget on making investments, stopping that cycle of violence that is just wreaking havoc across so many of our communities.”
Anti-crime initiatives will include closing loopholes around the Raise the Age law and court discovery; expanding the factors judges can take into account when setting bail, such as a history of gun use or violence; stopping the cycle of repeat offenders; cracking down on gun trafficking; and protecting victims of domestic violence and hate crimes, Poole said. Investing in mental health resources is also aimed at preventing crime and violence, she added.
Jeff Friedman, president and executive director of the Greene County Chamber of Commerce, said several components of the state budget should aid local businesses.
“I am excited for the support for businesses, especially as it relates to COVID expenses. I am very excited about money for childcare — hopefully we will be able to take advantage of that in this region,” Friedman said. “I like the monies being set aside for workforce development and affordable workforce housing. It was also nice to see that there is some tax relief for consumers. It remains to be seen whether small communities like ours will be able to take advantage of those things or have access to them — sometimes we get left out.”
“I am optimistic — they are good initiatives,” Friedman continued. “Let’s just hope that we benefit.”