STATEMENT: Final state budget has steady progress in some areas, gaps in others

Alex Dery Snyder May 04, 2023

Alex Dery Snider, 202.641.5124


Empire Justice Statement on the Final 2023 New York State Budget


Final state budget has steady progress in some areas, gaps in others


The need for civil legal services across New York State has never been greater. Thankfully, the final New York State budget included funding that will serve our clients and our client communities – with notable increases for some of Empire Justice Center’s key programs, including the Disability Advocacy Program, the Homeowners Protection Program, and a cost of living adjustment for Judiciary Civil Legal Services (JCLS).


“We applaud the governor and the legislature for their support of essential civil legal services that help New Yorkers navigate complicated systems. These programs are part of New York’s social safety net, helping to keep people in their homes and provide economic support that help families put food on the table and pay rent and utilities,” said Kristin Brown, President and CEO of Empire Justice Center. “We are especially grateful to the Judiciary and the Chief Judges for recognizing the importance of providing cost of living adjustments in the JCLS funding. Most of our other state contracts do not have them and it’s getting increasingly difficult to cover staffing and overhead cover costs as a result.”


Brown expressed frustration at the unexpected cut for the Community Health Advocates program.


“We were surprised and disappointed that the legislative add-on for Community Health Advocates was significantly cut – just as the public health emergency was winding down,” said Brown. “With people at risk of losing health insurance, this work has never been more critical.”


There are several substantive issues addressed in the budget, such as reimbursing victims of skimming of public benefits and amending the tax law to leverage its power to lift people out of poverty.  However, Brown raised concerns that the final budget does not account for decreases in federal funding for victim services, which ultimately puts those services at risk.  “We were disappointed that there was not additional funding made available for Victim Services,” said Brown.  “Federal funding is and will continue to decline. New York State needs to step up to ensure victims of crime have access to the services they need. Survivors need support.”


Brown expressed gratitude for the support of the Tenant Defense Project, a jointly-run pilot project that offers legal representation to all income-eligible tenants facing eviction proceedings in Monroe county. “We are especially grateful to Senators Cooney, Brouk, and Ryan for support of Upstate Legal Services, which was funded at $3.5 million, which supports our Tenant Defense Project in Rochester,” said Brown. “The program has helped to keep tenants housed and has saved money by avoiding costly re-housing and shelter placements.”


Looking forward with concerns about New Yorkers experiencing deep poverty, it is clear that New York State has fallen further behind in meeting its constitutional duty to provide aid and care for the needy by failing to increase monthly public assistance grants. The public assistance allowance for rent has not been increased in 20 years, and at this point, according to the federal government’s analysis, there are no units in the private rental market that are priced at or below the shelter allowance.  Because grant amounts are so low, recipients are at risk of homelessness and housing instability and unable to meet their basic needs.


“Previous governors have kicked the can down the road – and we hope that Gov. Hochul will give this the attention it deserves in the coming year,” said Brown.


Brown also commented on the issues with contracting with the state:


“We are grateful that the money was appropriated. However, given the problems with New York State’s contracting systems, this has proved to only be half the battle. We look forward to working with our partners to address this, to ensure a streamlined way for us to continue to provide services to New Yorkers.”


Additional information about particular programs is as follows:


Final budget includes historic funding for program to support struggling homeowners

The NYS Office of the Attorney General’s Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP) is the only statewide network that helps homeowners at risk of foreclosure. The network of 89 non-profit housing counseling and legal service providers serves homeowners in every county of the state, and was funded at $40 million in the final budget, up from $35 million last year.


“New York State homeowners are fortunate to have a Governor and state legislative leaders who recognize the importance of keeping families in their homes,” said Kirsten Keefe, Senior Attorney and Director of Empire Justice Center’s HOPP Anchor Partner program. “We especially want to thank Housing Committee Chairs Senator Kavanaugh and Assemblymember Rosenthal, as well as Senators Hoylman-Sigal, Krueger, and Myrie, Assemblymembers Weinstein, Dinowitz, Solages, Lavine, and Wallace for their support. This year’s increase of funding for HOPP recognizes the increased need following the pandemic and centers the needs of homeowners of color who are twice as likely to face delinquency than white homeowners in New York State. HOPP is New York’s best homeownership preservation program and the best defense against the proliferation of deed theft and other scams targeting homeowners.”


Final Budget includes historically high funding for program to support New Yorkers with disabilities

The Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) provides representation for low-income New Yorkers who have been denied federal disability benefits, which is the sole source of income for many low-income families. The final budget included stable funding of $5.26 million from Governor Hochul over the previous year, and a restoration of the Legislature’s historic $1.5 million addition, which, in addition to a county match, means that DAP will be funded for a total of $13.52 million in the 2023-2024 fiscal year.


While the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, the long-term effects are only just beginning to be felt – including rising numbers of claims beginning to be filed by New Yorkers disabled by Long COVID.


“This funding will ensure that DAP is better able to tackle new, complex Long COVID cases, as well as the enormous backlog of Social Security claims, caused by both record low staffing levels at the Social Security Administration and the long-term physical closure of Social Security offices during the pandemic,” said Emilia Sicilia, Managing Attorney and Statewide Coordinator of the Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) at Empire Justice Center. “This is the 40th anniversary of DAP, and the highest level of funding we have ever secured, which is really a testament to the success of this program and the immense good it does for New Yorkers and for the state. We thank the Senate and Assembly Social Services Chairs, Senator Roxanne Persaud and Assemblymember Maritza Davila, as well as Governor Hochul, for recognizing the need to invest in services to help low income disabled New Yorkers at this pivotal time.”


Budget addresses the skimming of public benefits but does not go far enough

Skimming of cash public assistance and SNAP benefits, whereby thieves install devices at point-of-sale terminals to steal card data and drain recipients’ accounts of benefits, has been on the rise in New York State. From October 1, 2022, to March 15, 2023, $1.1 million in cash public assistance was stolen from over 4,000 households, and $6.3 million in SNAP benefits was stolen from over 7,000 households. There is almost nothing recipients can do to protect themselves against skimming – the only prevention measure that is likely to be truly effective is replacing out-of-date magnetic stripe benefits cards with chip-enabled cards. In the meantime, to prevent victims from experiencing food insecurity, falling behind on rent, and being unable to meet their basic needs, replacement benefits should be issued to them.


This year’s budget allows for compensation of no more than two months of stolen cash assistance, no more than two times per year until 2024, then dropping to no more than one time per year. There is no provision for replacement of stolen emergency assistance benefits. There is no provision for replacement of stolen P-EBT benefits (a lump-sum food benefit for eligible children). No additional replacement issuance of SNAP benefits is authorized beyond what is permissible under federal law.


“We are glad that this budget acknowledges the harm caused by the skimming of public benefits, but it does not go far enough. As a matter of basic fairness, victims of public assistance and SNAP skimming and other forms of benefits theft should be fully compensated for their losses,” said Jessica Radbord, Senior Benefits Attorney at Empire Justice Center. “We are disappointed that the replacements are limited to twice per year. There is very little victims can do to protect themselves, and the third time their money is stolen is no less of an injustice than the first.”


“We look forward to working with the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance and community partners to make implementation of the new reimbursement program as effective as possible. We also plan to advocate for promulgation of rules to increase compensation for victims. We will also advocate for additional protections via the Farm Bill and other mechanisms. We thank Assemblymember González-Rojas and Senator Persaud for their leadership on this issue,” said Radbord.


Budget cuts program that helps New Yorkers navigate health insurance coverage, just before wind down of the public health emergency

Navigating healthcare is one of the most challenging and frustrating tasks any New Yorker can face. Community Health Advocates (CHA) helps New Yorkers, including those who rely on Medicaid, to understand how to use and maximize their coverage, access needed services/supplies/medications, reduce medical debts, and address unfair denials. Last year, CHA helped more than 32,000 New Yorkers. Due to a reduction in the legislative add-on in this budget, the CHA program is facing a nine percent budget cut only weeks before the end of the federal Public Health Emergency (PHE). The PHE and its protections – like the inability to lose public health insurance coverage, or guaranteed coverage of over-the-counter and laboratory-based COVID-19 testing for public and private insurance beneficiaries – comes to an end on May 11, 2023.


“This is an unprecedented time for New York public health insurance recipients. As a CHA specialist organization, in addition to “business as usual” access to healthcare, we are gearing up to help consumers and advocates navigate the PHE unwind, the resumption of Medicaid, CHP and Essential Plan renewals, all while dealing with growing uncertainties over access to coverage for immigrants and confusion over the recent Medicaid pharmacy carveout. The need for CHA services is only going to increase and we’re deeply concerned about the knock-on effect this budget cut will have for our client populations,” said Fiona Wolfe, Managing Attorney of Empire Justice Center’s Health Law Unit. “We thank Community Service Society, however, for leading the advocacy effort, and look forward to continuing this vital work as the COVID-19 PHE protections wind down.”


Final Budget includes tax amendments to help families with young children

The final budget expanded the Empire State Tax Credit to cover families with children under four and increased the amount of money families will receive.


“This year, on average, our clients saw federal returns that were about half of what they were last year – a direct result of tax policy changes,” said Yversha Roman, director of Empire Justice Center’s CASH (Creating, Assets, Savings and Hope) program, which provides free tax preparation for low-income people in Rochester, NY. “We know the extension of the Empire State Child tax credit to include children under four will make it easier for families to meet basic needs – including food, clothing, gas, and rent. This is a tremendous step, and we look forward to continuing this work to leverage the power of our tax credits to lift New Yorkers out of poverty. We thank Senator Cooney, Senator Gounardes, and Assemblymember Hevesi for all their efforts.”


Empire Justice lauds increased funding for Emergency Rental Assistance Program

ERAP Legal Services were funded at $50 million total, including $40 million for rest of state and $10 million for NYC providers. Additionally, Rental Arrears (ERAP) was funded at $641 million total, including: $356 million (including subsidized housing tenants); $250 million continuation of CARES funding; and $35 million for NYCHA rental arrears.


“ERAP provides critical legal services for renters facing eviction and funds for renters to cover rental arrears. We thank the legislature for support for this critical funding,” said Kristin Brown.


Funding secured to support people who carry student debt

The Community Service Society of New York’s Education Debt Consumer Assistance Program (EDCAP) was funded at $3.25 million. Empire Justice Center is a recipient of a grant under this program.


“We appreciate the level funding from the Governor and New York State Legislature for the Education Debt Consumer Assistance Program,” said Kirsten Keefe. “Our grant enables us to do presentations and provide one-on-one counseling to student debt borrowers throughout the Capital Region and beyond. This is the first time these services have been readily available to folks grappling with student debt in Upstate New York and we look forward to EDCAP continuing to grow and positively help people with student debt.”


Hoping the next budget includes support for nonparent caregivers

Funding for a Kinship Legal Network – to help nonparent caregivers navigate our legal and social services systems and building off the successful kinship navigator – was in the Assembly one-house, but was not included in the final budget.


“We thank Assembly Children and Families Committee Chair Hevesi for his work on this issue, and we hope it will be in the final budget next year,” said Brown. “Given the children who have lost their parents to COVID and the opioid epidemic, it is a real need.”