At a briefing earlier this week, State Senator Joseph Robach was optimistic. After discussions with his Assembly counterparts, the Rochester Republican said he thought it likely that New York could "pretty much keep the safety net we had in place." After all, negotiators had narrowed the differences in human services funding between the Senate and Assembly budgets to $20 million—not a huge slice of the state's $133 billion budget pie.
But while the two houses were closing in on an agreement, they were still at least $150 million apart from Governor Cuomo's proposal.
And in both the agreements and disagreements between the Senate and Assembly, there was bad news for some of the social programs that the governor placed on the chopping block.
According to Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright—a Democrat leading the Assembly delegation in talks with Robach's Senate team about the human services budget—the two sides have agreed to fully restore discretionary funding under Title 20, which covers services like senior centers. They've also agreed to consolidate funding for some homeless programs, as Cuomo requested, but rejected his bid to consolidate several youth services into a reduced-cost competitive grant program. The delegations also agreed to restore funding for summer youth employment and childcare demonstration projects.
Negotiations continue over broad changes to the juvenile justice system (particularly, Robach indicated, how to redeploy staff whose facilities close) and potential changes to the unemployment insurance system.
But bigger disagreements surround the welfare system.
Cuomo proposed changing the system so that when a recipient fails for a second time to abide by workfare requirements, a family can lose its entire welfare check; the current system pro-rates the penalty to take only the would-be worker's share of the benefit.
Cuomo also called for delaying for one year a planned increase in the basic welfare grant. After remaining stagnant for nearly two decades, the grant has been increased by 10 percent each of the past two years, and a third and final 10 percent hike was to occur next year.
The Assembly wants only a six-month delay in the basic grant increase, and opposes full family sanctions.
The Senate wants not just to forego the 10 percent increase in the basic grant, but to roll it back 11 percent, according to advocates, and supports full family sanctions.
The 10 percent increase in the grant would mean a roughly $30 per month boost in the benefits received by a household of three—a dollar a day, according to Liz Accles, senior policy analyst for income security at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. "This is where the governor and the Senate are looking to save money, in theory, on people at the lowest end of the income ladder," she says. "It is really a travesty and will cost [more] in the long run."
Even in areas where the two delegations appear to have agreed on restorations, notes Citizens' Committee for Children executive director Jennifer March-Joly, the full Senate and Assembly need to approve them, and the governor ultimately must agree as well. What's more, while there appears to be agreement on some important restorations, "The amount restored to these program areas is still not known," March-Joly adds.
Unaddressed during the Monday briefing where Wright and Robach spoke was the fate of the Work Advantage Program, a New York City initiative that provides a temporary housing subsidy to homeless families leaving the shelter system.
Cuomo called for eliminating state funding for Work Advantage, which provides about 25 percent of the program's total cost. The city says that would hobble Work Advantage and force a major expansion of homeless shelter capacity. Although advocates have often criticized the Bloomberg administration program, many—but not all—have gone to bat to try to salvage it. But so far Cuomo's cut is uncontested in the human service budgets of both the Senate and Assembly.
The state budget is due April 1. Concerns about social programs extend to the city budget, which the Bloomberg administration has said will have to be cut by $600 million if Cuomo's proposal to cut funding to the city is approved. Bronx Councilwoman and General Welfare Committee chairwoman Annabel Palma says half of those savings will come via cuts to city social service programs. She plans a rally Thursday to contest the possible reductions. " If these cuts were to go through, thousands of New Yorkers – including struggling parents, abused children and families on the brink of homeless – will be left helpless," her office said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the New York Women's Foundation and the Fiscal Policy Institute on Wednesday released a report saying that the governor's budget would disproportionately hurt women.
"[Women] have a higher probability of being a low-wage worker, and, at various points along the wage spectrum, face a gender wage gap. They head the majority of single-parent families, and, in two-parent families, assume greater responsibility for child care and housework. With longer average life spans, they constitute a majority of the elderly," the report finds.
"Women and children would be hit across the board by the funding cuts" to employment, child care, jobs and after-school programs, the report continued. "Further, sanctions
against the family members of [welfare] enrollees and the postponement of the scheduled increase of the public assistance grant will increase hardships faced by poor New York families."