Wrangling over spending heats up as budget talks drag on

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ALBANY — Two years after New York experienced a record number of overdose deaths, lawmakers from several regions say a special advisory board created to distribute $265 million in opioid settlement funding should be allowed to do its job.

The issue is one of numerous fiscal controversies that have emerged as the Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul’s representatives attempt to strike a compromise on a state spending plan that could top $220 billion. The state’s budget deadline is April 1 of each year; however, officials have been unable to agree on a spending plan delaying its approval.

Lawmakers are also considering embracing at least part of Hochul’s criminal justice agenda, which only surfaced two weeks ago. Changing the bail law — which underwent major revisions just three years ago — to give judges more discretion to jail potentially dangerous defendants is among the hot-button issues in the budget talks.

State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said it is crucial for the Opioid Settlement Advisory Board to be allowed to call the shots in channeling money to treatment and recovery programs. He and several other GOP lawmakers said the Hochul administration should not spend a penny of the settlement money until the advisory panel — made up of substance abuse experts — has the opportunity to make its recommendations.

“We shouldn’t have bureaucrats spending this money when the Legislature unanimously said last year we are creating this panel of experts to do the work that needs to be done,” Stec said.

Sen. Sue Serino, R-Dutchess County, said she fears the settlement money could be used as a “slush fund” if lawmakers agree with a Hochul proposal that would allow the funding to be distributed without the board’s input.

While the goal of creating the panel was to provide accountability over the settlement money, Sen. Pete Oberacker, R-Otsego County, said: “Here we are, set to crack into the safe and spend $265 million without a real plan and without consulting the true stakeholders.”

Two weeks ago, Hochul appointed two new members to the 21-member advisory board: Anne Constantino, the president of Horizon Health Services, a nonprofit agency that has programs throughout Western New York, with several sites in Niagara County, and Debra Pantin, CEO of Outreach Development Corp. in Queens.

“As we make our comeback from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must commit to also mitigating the impact of the opioid pandemic New Yorkers have endured for many years,” Hochul said.

Hochul and lawmakers, meanwhile, are being urged by the New York State Association of Counties to refrain from budgetary maneuvers that divert millions of dollars in sales tax receipts that were generated locally to the state treasury.

NYSAC Director Stephen Acquario noted it was Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who championed the COVID relief funding intended to help states return to normal operations following the economic downturn unleashed by the pandemic.

“Now it’s time to get back to normal in this state, and that means returning to responsible budgeting that keeps local tax revenue in local communities,” Acquario said.

While Hochul has been focused on getting lawmakers to agree to her plan to use $600 million in state funding for a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, county government health administrators are urging
|legislators to boost funding for efforts to prevent and address lead poisoning risks to children by $30.3 million.

The number of children that require attention for lead exposure is expected to climb because of more stringent federal and state standards on the amount of the neurotoxin in a child’s blood needed to trigger an intervention by local health authorities.

The budget negotiations are also expected to address Hochul’s request to allow part-time college students and incarcerated felons to qualify for state tuition assistance.

And following strong pressure from upstate GOP lawmakers and some Democrats, Hochul said last week that she is open to providing relief to New Yorkers impacted by soaring gasoline prices, It remains unclear whether that relief would come in the form of lowering the sales tax on gasoline, cutting other taxes such as the excise tax on gasoline, or issuing rebates to households.

Three upstate county governments — Onondaga, Dutchess and Ulster — have already moved to lower the county portion of gasoline sales taxes on gasoline. Stec said he believes simmering opposition from progressive Democrats to the proposed subsidy for the NFL stadium and the proposal to expand the number of crimes eligible for bail may add to the budget delay.

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