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State lawmakers consider what to do with $5 billion surplus

Governor Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiling the upstate economic development competition portion of his plan for the 2015 budget surplus.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives his budget address next Wednesday, the state will begin the year with a $5 billion surplus -- a big change after years of budget deficits.

When Cuomo first came into office, the state was facing a $10 billion budget gap. Now, in 2015, the state has a $5 billion surplus, the largest since the 1940s.  The money is a one time windfall from various bank settlements over charges of improprieties during the financial crisis.

Tom DiNapoli, the state comptroller, advises using the money for one time expenses. He says don’t confuse a windfall with a surplus.

“It would be a mistake to use it for ongoing expenses,” DiNapoli said. “Next year there may not be any settlement money.”

DiNapoli is not likely to get much argument from Cuomo and legislative leaders, who have already said an infrastructure fund would be the best use of the money.

The ongoing rebuilding of the New York State Thruway’s Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River has a $4 billion price tag that, without an infusion of cash, could result in a steep rise in bridge tolls. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority also has a multi billion dollar budget gap.  Numerous roads are in disrepair, and sewer and water systems need upgrades.

Legislative leaders say infrastructure, by their definition, also includes economic development projects. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos says it’s one of his Republican members’ top priorities.

“As always it’s about jobs, it’s about jobs, it’s about jobs,” Skelos said.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has also endorsed the idea of an infrastructure fund.

Cuomo has already proposed spending $1.5 billion of the surplus on a contest among seven upstate regions for three economic development grants worth $500 million each.

“I believe in competition,” the governor said.

Lawmakers will face pressure though to spend the one time surplus on other recurring expenses, like schools. A massive rally at the Capitol organized by teachers and religious groups asked Cuomo and lawmakers to obey a court order to give the state’s poorest schools several more billion dollars in state aid each year.

Comptroller DiNapoli says spending on schools would not be a good use of the windfall surplus.

“Education clearly is an ongoing priority and a recurring program and a recurring expenditure,” DiNapoli said. “This money is not.”

Cuomo is expected to outline his full plans for the surplus during his budget address on January 21.

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.