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Watchdog group: Cuomo's spending cap doesn't add up

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has touted that his proposed 2018 budget keeps state spending below 2 percent for the seventh year in a row, but some organizations are crying foul on his math.

A leading budget watchdog group is accusing Gov. Andrew Cuomo of fudging the numbers in his state budget to appear to stay within his self-imposed two percent per-year spending cap.

Citizens Budget Commission began scrutinizing state and city budgets in New York during the Great Depression in the 1930s. They were listening when Cuomo repeatedly said that his latest budget plan keeps total spending below 2 percent for the seventh year in a row. Cuomo outlined the numbers during a budget briefing on Jan. 17.

“That’s total state operating budget (growth) of 1.9 percent,” Cuomo said. “It’s under 2 percent, which is the fiscal discipline we’ve brought to the state.”

The commission’s David Friedfel said the group ran an analysis and found that Cuomo’s spending plan is not staying within a 2 percent state spending cap.

“There’s $1.2 billion in essentially gimmicks to get that number down to 2 percent,” Friedfel said. “Without it, growth would be 3.2 percent.”

Friedfel said the “gimmicks” include a proposal to shift the cost of paying some state workers from the general fund to a capital fund, worth $227 million, which does not count toward total spending in the budget. The governor also wants to delay a $193 million payback of a loan to the New York Power Authority.

Cuomo also makes changes to the STAR property tax rebate program so that some of the money owed to taxpayers will appear as income tax credits, wiping $277 million off the books as state spending.

“It’s really just money being moved around. It’s not a change in spending, it’s not a change in programs,” Friedfel said.

And finally, the spending plan also claims savings of $500 million by better managing state agencies, but Friedfel said the specific steps to achieve those savings aren’t identified.

“Which should make taxpayers nervous,” he said.

A spokesman for Cuomo’s budget office rejects the group’s analysis, and said spending growth truly is being kept at 2 percent.

Morris Peters had some cutting words for the group. He called the Citizens Budget Commission a “self-appointed fiscal watchdog group,” saying in a statement that he had hoped the organization would “recognize and celebrate” the Cuomo administration’s success at reining in spending — but, he said, “their relevancy is based on their critiques.”

The Citizens Budget Commission has frequently praised aspects of Cuomo’s spending plans in past years. And Friedfel offered some positive suggestions on how to actually keep to the 2 percent cap: Cut spending in some areas of the budget where the spending is beyond 2 percent, like school aid and some economic development projects.

“There are a lot of places in the budget where there could be cuts in spending,” he said.

He said those actions could lead to greater transparency.

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.