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Hochul’s budget director leaves door open to restoring school aid reductions in the state budget

Budget Director Blake Washington at Gov. Hochul's budget address Jan. 16, 2024.
Mike Groll
Office of Governor Kathy Hochul
Budget Director Blake Washington at Gov. Hochul's budget address Jan. 16, 2024.

Editor's note: The interview length above is 11 minutes, not the time on the Listen tab. We apologize for the confusion.

Governor Kathy Hochul’s budget director Blake Washington , spoke with the media on Tuesday, and gave an interview to public radio's Karen DeWitt.

Washington says a recent revenue consensus meeting with the legislature found there is $1.3 billion more in tax collections coming in to the state than previously determined.

He says the money could potentially be used to reverse changes to the state’s school aid formula proposed by Hochul. She wants to end the provision known as “hold harmless,” which guarantees that no school district receive less state aid than it did in the previous year. The change would result in over $400 million in cuts, and half of New York’s school districts would see reductions. Washington says the administration is ready to talk with state lawmakers about the school aid and other potential restorations.

“We’ll be looking forward to working with the legislature to do just that,” Washington said.

Later, when pressed in a media availability with state Capitol reporters, he said that the newly discovered revenues could go specifically towards restoring funding lost by ending the hold harmless provision.

“Modifying that is probably fair game,” Washington said.

Washington also defended the governor’s proposal to change the way the rate of inflation is calculated when distributing school aid. Instead of accounting for the actual rate of inflation from one year to the next, the amount would be based on an average of the rate of inflation over the past ten years.

The governor’s school aid plan has drawn bi partisan opposition in the legislature. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said on Tuesday that she is “very concerned” about the proposed reductions.

Washington says the changes are justified because most schools in the state have seen a reduction in students in recent years, yet the foundation aid formula has stayed the same.

“Seventy-five percent of the school districts have lost 20% or more of their student body in that same period of time,” Washington said. “So, the proposals to rationalize where the resources are going, making sure we're not paying for empty seats, but also channel resources to the high needs and growing districts. That’s the whole thrust of the governor’s proposal.”

Washington says schools received a record amount of state and federal school aid over the past two years, and should have better budgeted for the future.

The budget director also spoke about state spending on the migrant crisis, saying that he believes a $2.4 billion investment, including drawing down $500 million from the state’s reserve funds, is all the state can afford right now. The money will help feed and cloth the influx of tens of thousands of migrants from the Southern border into New York, and offer them services to find housing and employment. He says the problem needs to be fixed by the federal government, where President Joe Biden and republicans in Congress are gridlocked over a solution.

The budget is due in less than three weeks, on April 1st, and the Easter holiday begin on March 29th, leaving even less time for negotiations.

Washington maintains that the final deal could be reached before then, and that he is “cautiously optimistic” that a deal could be achieved before then.

“A budget director will never say never. The budget can be done on time, if we're all rowing in the right direction,” he said. “I know what we can do when we're all collaborating, and have our minds focus on the same outcome.”

But he left open the possibility of a slightly tardy budget, saying that an agreement on a good budget is the “most important part”.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.