Government

Approved state budget tweaks bail reform law, lacks funding for North Fork Coalition for Behavioral Health

State lawmakers have approved a $177 billion budget for 2021 that accounts for revenue losses amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The budget forecasts lost revenues of at least $10 billion and authorizes Gov. Andrew Cuomo to cut spending throughout the year if revenues fall further below projections. 

“This is not the budget we had hoped to pass at the beginning of Session, or even the budget we had envisioned just a month ago,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said in a statement Friday.

The plan does not raise taxes but contains several progressive initiatives, including a plan to scale back aspects of the bail reform law that took effect in January. It expands the list of crimes that are eligible for bail to inlcude sex trafficking crimes, high level drug offenses, domestic violence felonies, crimes involving a death, among others. Most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies will still not be eligible for bail.

Modifications to the law also include a mechanism to address individuals who are a flight risk or repeatedly commit crimes.

The budget includes $40 million in funding to support the implementation of discovery reforms. The original bail reform law required prosecutors to turn over evidence collected against a defendant within 15 days of their arraignment. The new law allows for more time — 20 days for defendants in custody and 35 days when the defendant is not in custody — to turn over materials.

Though the original bail reforms drew backlash from law enforcement officials and moderate Democrats, changes to the new law have already drawn criticism from criminal justice advocates.

“These are not small tweaks; they have bludgeoned reform just as it was taking root. Taken together, these actions mean more incarceration and more wrongful convictions at a time when lawmakers should be emptying jails and prisons to protect the health and safety of all New Yorkers,” read a joint statement issued by Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders, The Legal Aid Society, Neighborhood Defender Service and New York County Defender Services last week.

However, Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) said in an interview Monday that the reforms aren’t stringent enough.

“They just added a few crimes to the list,” he said, adding that judges may only consider repeat offenses after a hearing process he referred to as a “mini trial.”

Mr. Palumbo argued the overall budget was too heavily politicized.

“[The budget] is full of policy initiatives that seek to promote a radical liberal agenda over the common good of all New Yorkers,” he said in a statement.

“Now is not the time to allow taxpayer-funded campaigns, provide millions in funding for free college tuition for illegal immigrants and $420 million for Hollywood tax credits, while cutting essential programs that help veterans and seniors throughout Long Island,” the statement read.

After signing off on the budget, Mr. Cuomo applauded the policy initiatives. “I understand we’re all consumed with the coronavirus situation but we have to be able to walk and chew gum,” the governor said. “We have to move forward at the same time.”

While Mr. Palumbo conceded that Gov. Cuomo is doing a good job at handling the current crisis, he’s concerned that the budget gives him unprecedented power to slash funding as he sees fit.

“We don’t need to give [the governor] uncharted control of the entire state budget to do whatever he wants,” he said Monday.

Rather than allocate funding to the Film Tax Credit Program, Mr. Palumbo said he would have liked to seen a specific fund set aside for purchasing medical supplies.

“We could have taken that to stockpile all the necessary supplies so this never happens again.” 

Other highlights of the budget include:

• Expansion of paid sick leave.

• A cap on insulin co-payments at $100 per month.

• A ban on fentanyl analogs, which will enable law enforcement to prosecute the manufacturing, sale and distribution of these drugs as a controlled substance. Flavored e-cigarettes are also banned under a bill included in the budget.

• A ban on Styrofoam, which will go into effect in 2022. The budget also authorized the creation of a $3 million environmental bond act to fund environmental restoration projects, which must be approved by voters in November. A provision allows the state budget director to decide whether to move forward with the bond act in the context of the state’s economic situation amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 

• A bill that disqualifies people who have committed serious offenses in other states from obtaining gun licenses in New York.

Noticeably missing from the budget is a measure to legalize marijuana, something Mr. Cuomo indicated earlier this year that he would advocate for in this year’s budget.

Thanks to federal funding, schools were mostly spared from drastic cuts. A total of $27.9 billion is slated for school aid. Foundation aid, which became a hot button issue in Riverhead this year, will also remain flat, with a statewide total of $18.4 billion.

Riverhead students, parents and teachers rallied in January to demand their fair  share — $31 million — in aid that’s owed to the district.

The FY 2021 budget also lacks key funding for key local initiatives, notably the North Fork Coalition for Behavioral Health, a program that helps students access resources for mental health. The group sought $175,000 to support a third year of funding for North Fork schools. Mr. Palumbo said it was “shameful” the funding was left out of the budget.

“We’re only two years into it, but it’s going beautifully,” he said, adding that he’ll continue to fight to fund the program.

Former Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent Anne Smith chairs the coalition and said access to these services must be prioritized.

“We recognize that we are in crisis,” she said, acknowledging that funding is needed for health care providers, first responders, families and small businesses.

But school closures could mean less access to these resources for students.

“The behavioral health care professionals are on the front lines and now more than ever our students need support as they are learning from home, do not have the social and professional school teams face-to-face and likely have family impact due to financial or medical stressors at home,” Ms. Smith said.