Al­bany rushes to pass fi­nal pieces of bud­get

Spend­ing plan ref lects Demo­cratic con­trol with changes to the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Tom Pre­cious

AL­BANY – Law­mak­ers scur­ried Sun­day evening to try to en­act a 2019 bud­get be­fore the new fis­cal year starts at midnight, a fis­cal plan that will to­tal $175.5 bil­lion.

The bud­get pro­vides the same fund­ing level in­crease to pub­lic schools as last year’s bud­get – about $1 bil­lion more – and raises rev­enues to help fund a big down­state tran­sit in­fra­struc­ture project by in­sti­tut­ing taxes on the wealthy sell­ing res­i­dences in New York City and an in­ter­net sales tax on third-party sales on sites like Etsy and eBay.

A lu­cra­tive tax credit pro­gram for the film in­dus­try – touted as a job cre­ator by back­ers and as cor­po­rate wel­fare by crit­ics – will be ex­tended for two years.

A new ex­cise tax on opi­oid dis­trib­u­tors and man­u­fac­tur­ers can, as ex­plic­itly out­lined in one bud­get bill, be passed along to con­sumers. Crit­ics say the tax will hurt pa­tients le­git­i­mately us­ing opi­oids for pain man­age­ment. There will also be higher taxes on va­por prod­ucts and up­state car rentals.

Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo said the bud­get en­acts “trans­for­ma­tive policies.”

“This is prob­a­bly the broad­est, • Mil­lions for busi­ness de­vel­op­ment groups. Page A10 • Schools wanted more than they re­ceived. Page A10 most sweep­ing state plan that we have done,” Cuomo said Sun­day evening.

The bud­get leans de­cid­edly to the po­lit­i­cal left, a re­flec­tion of the new all-Demo­cratic con­trol of the Leg­is­la­ture af­ter the GOP lost its hold on the Se­nate in last Novem­ber’s elec­tions.

The bud­get in­cluded some non­fis­cal items, like a num­ber of ma­jor crim­i­nal jus­tice changes so that, un­der one pro­vi­sion, 90 per­cent of peo­ple ar­rested each year in New York will no longer have to post cash bail to re­main out of jail while their cases pro­ceed; new rules will also go into ef­fect to en­sure more-speedy crim­i­nal tri­als and re­quire pros­e­cu­tors to share dis­cov­ery in­for­ma­tion with de­fense lawyers in a more timely man­ner.

Democrats hailed the crim­i­nal jus­tice deals, with Assem­bly Speaker Carl Heastie call­ing the pro­vi­sions a “land­mark” move­ment “to cor­rect the tilted scales of jus­tice for New York­ers.”

With other crim­i­nal code changes, like re­strict­ing pub­lic re­lease of mug shots and new sen­tenc­ing rules for un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants to avoid au­to­matic de­por­ta­tion, Se­nate Repub­li­can Leader John Flana­gan had a dif­fer­ent view. “I to­tally be­lieve this is a crim­i­nal’s bill of rights,” he said Sun­day be­fore vot­ing be­gan.

The fi­nal bud­get will also in­clude $27 mil­lion to fund an ef­fort – passed by law­mak­ers in Jan­uary – to pro­vide state fi­nan­cial aid for col­lege

to un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants. A sep­a­rate ef­fort to let such im­mi­grants ob­tain New York driver’s li­censes is not part of the bud­get deal.

Dur­ing bud­get de­bates in the two houses, the rhetoric sounded fa­mil­iar. Repub­li­cans sought to por­tray Democrats as free-wheel­ing spenders ad­dicted to tax hikes.

Sen. James Se­ward, the top Repub­li­can on the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee, checked off New York’s up­state pop­u­la­tion prob­lems and the state’s high tax lev­els. “As I look at this over­all bud­get, the bad … far out­weighs the good,” Se­ward said.

Democrats de­fended the fis­cal integrity of the plan and said it fol­lows through on many so­cial jus­tice, en­vi­ron­men­tal and in­fra­struc­ture prom­ises they have made.

“I’m very proud to be able to vote yes,” Sen. Liz Krueger, a Man­hat­tan Demo­crat who chairs the Fi­nance Com­mit­tee, said af­ter de­bate wrapped up on one of the bud­get bills con­tain­ing a plas­tic bag ban and other en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­vi­sions.

The bud­get’s last ma­jor deal – in­volv­ing cam­paign fi­nanc­ing – came to­gether Satur­day night. In­stead of im­me­di­ately en­act­ing a sys­tem in which tax­payer money would help fund po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns in New York, a study com­mis­sion will be cre­ated. It is to re­port back on such a fi­nance sys­tem and other elec­tion-re­lated mat­ters by Dec. 1. The panel’s ideas be­come law un­less the Leg­is­la­ture re­jects them.

Of­fi­cials say the fi­nance sys­tem won’t be in place, if en­acted, un­til 2020. They’ve vowed $100 mil­lion in an­nual spend­ing, though Heastie es­ti­mated it would cost four times that amount. Ei­ther way, the cur­rent Leg­is­la­ture can’t box in fu­ture ses­sions of the Leg­is­la­ture with spend­ing de­mands that are still years away.

The study panel will have nine mem­bers: two ap­pointed by the gov­er­nor, two apiece by the Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader and Assem­bly speaker, and one each by the mi­nor­ity lead­ers of the two houses. The ninth mem­ber will be se­lected jointly by the gov­er­nor and two lead­ers of the Leg­is­la­ture. The panel will not come to life un­til that ninth mem­ber is cho­sen.

Cuomo and law­mak­ers also set­tled on how many up­state pris­ons will close: up to three. Which ones will be up to the gov­er­nor at some point this year.

Plenty of pork

The bud­get in­cludes a lot – the pre­cise num­ber is un­known – of what leg­is­la­tors like to call “mem­ber items,” but which the pub­lic more com­monly calls pork-bar­rel spend­ing. Cuomo will, like all gover­nors, get his share, too, to de­liver over the next year of rib­bon cut­tings and fund­ing an­nounce­ments.

There’s $100,000 to help Cani­sius Col­lege help pay for costs as­so­ci­ated with the com­ing NCAA Frozen Four hockey tour­na­ment in Buf­falo. Money will flow to lo­cal cham­bers of com­merce, se­nior cen­ters, le­gal agen­cies that pro­vide ser­vices for poor peo­ple, and to fos­ter vol­un­teerism in New York.

As al­ways, none of the pork money goes out the door un­less ap­proved by the Cuomo ad­min­is­tra­tion’s bud­get di­rec­tor – an il­lus­tra­tion about which branch of gov­ern­ment ul­ti­mately holds the purse strings to de­cide when, and if, the money is spent.

One pot con­tains $45 mil­lion for var­i­ous arts or­ga­ni­za­tions around the state, with­out nam­ing them. There is money for sick leave for peo­ple still suf­fer­ing the ef­fects of the 2001 World Trade Cen­ter bomb­ing and cash to help cre­ate hubs where firms mak­ing video games might lo­cate.

There is $3 mil­lion in one bill for “al­ter­na­tive dis­ci­pline grants” for schools with high sus­pen­sion rates, mak­ing money con­tin­gent on schools of­fer­ing pro­grams such as “restora­tive jus­tice tech­niques, ther­a­peu­tic cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion, staff train­ing on al­ter­na­tive dis­ci­pline and trauma in­formed ed­u­ca­tion.”

Fis­cal wor­ries

But the real money is in ed­u­ca­tion and health care, the chief driv­ers of the bud­get each year. The por­tion of the bud­get paid for chiefly by state taxes will to­tal $102.1 bil­lion this year; state aid to 700 pub­lic school districts will to­tal $27.9 bil­lion.

The spend­ing hikes come at a time when Cuomo and law­mak­ers have been warn­ing that the state is fac­ing a sharp drop in in­come tax re­ceipts, which are a key source of fund­ing for the bud­get.

If there is ac­tual fis­cal pain in the bud­get, it will take time for some of it to be rooted out. Schools did not get the fund­ing lev­els they say is needed and the fi­nal num­ber comes $600 mil­lion be­low what law­mak­ers pro­posed just a cou­ple weeks ago. Hu­man ser­vice providers, who pro­vide care on the state’s be­half, fought in­tensely, and lost, for a cost-of-liv­ing wage ad­just­ment for their work­ers.

Fur­ther, the Leg­is­la­ture has given au­thor­ity to Cuomo’s bud­get di­vi­sion to cut up to $190 mil­lion from the new bud­get if tax re­ceipts dur­ing the busy tax month of April do not im­prove. They started fall­ing off last De­cem­ber amid sev­eral competing ex­pla­na­tions.

Much of the bud­get’s newsier items have been pre­vi­ously re­ported: a ban on sin­gle-use plas­tic bags, a new toll sys­tem for ve­hi­cles en­ter­ing much of Man­hat­tan and a $100 mil­lion cap­i­tal plan to help fix de­te­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions on Buf­falo’s Metro Rail sys­tem.

The bud­get will also in­clude an ad­di­tional $300 mil­lion for the state’s En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Fund, which goes for a range of clean water, parks, open space and other projects. Be­tween the plas­tic bag ban and more funds for en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­grams, Erin Mc­Grath of Audubon New York thanked Cuomo and law­mak­ers “for ad­vanc­ing a bud­get that will pro­vide a brighter fu­ture for birds, peo­ple and other wildlife.”

Items that died in bud­get talks in­cluded Cuomo’s plan to ex­pand the state’s nickel bot­tle re­demp­tion pro­gram to in­clude most non-al­co­holic bev­er­ages, such as sports drinks and fruit juices.

Also not done in the bud­get was a plan to raise the pur­chase age of to­bacco prod­ucts to 21 and a Cuomo ef­fort, sharply crit­i­cized by busi­ness groups, to ex­pand the state’s pre­vail­ing wage rate to be paid by con­trac­tors do­ing work on projects with pub­lic funds.

Pas­sage of the bud­get had to be com­pleted by Sun­day if leg­is­la­tors were to avoid los­ing a 9 per­cent pay hike next year.

New York Times

Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo called this year’s bud­get the most sweep­ing state plan he’s done.

Getty Im­ages

Andrea Ste­wart-Cousins will have a say in the makeup of a panel that will make rec­om­men­da­tions on cam­paign fi­nanc­ing re­form.

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