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Governor offers ‘ambitious agenda’

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo set up a number of fronts with which to do battle with lawmakers and various special interest groups Wednesday, proposing a 2016 state budget with massive spending increases on infrastructure, less state aid for schools than education advocates want, and new restrictions on outside earnings by legislators.

“There is no doubt this is an ambitious agenda,” Cuomo, a Democrat, told lawmakers in his annual State of the State address, appealing to their “gutsy” attitude as New Yorkers to join his march to the political left on a series of fiscal and policy initiatives.

Cuomo proposed 100,000 new low-income housing units to be built over the next five years and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour, while also offering what Republicans say were only modest tax breaks for businesses, as well as special incentives for everything from the solar energy industry to alcoholic beverage companies.

The governor, heckled at one point by a Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn over his commitment to education funding, proposed a one-year aid increase to the state’s 700 public school districts of $991 million, far below the $2.4 billion called for by the state Board of Regents.

Cuomo also backed calls to continue a five-year tuition increase program for the State University of New York, which has already seen a 30 percent rise in tuition levels in the last five years.

The governor’s executive budget, when all of its components are added up, totals $154.5 billion, up $2.46 billion from this year. The portion paid for chiefly by state taxpayers rises by 1.7 percent. The budget needs legislative approval, and the fiscal year starts April 1.

From measures involving paid family leave, alternatives to prison incarceration, the minimum wage increase, another try at giving state financial aid to college students whose parents were undocumented immigrants and a variety of what he calls “economic justice” issues, Cuomo’s speech and budget release Wednesday cement a continuing lean to the left for the governor, who is now in the second year of his second term.

“There are just core things that you stand for if you’re a Democrat, so I’m just very happy to hear that these things are the things the governor is championing,” said Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx.

The state Republican Party was less generous, with Chairman Edward F. Cox calling the State of the State “chock-full of overblown rhetoric and empty promises.”

The budget drew expected responses, as advocates for the homeless came around the Capitol pressroom to praise Cuomo while a group representing cities and villages said government services are at risk because of his failure to increase the state’s commitment to localities.

Here are some of the main proposals presented by Cuomo:

Ethics, campaign finance – Cuomo offered an array of new ethics-related plans, just a month after the corruption convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre. He asked lawmakers to close a loophole in the campaign finance law that permits certain donors to bypass donation limits, and try again to enact a voluntary taxpayer-financed campaign finance system.

The Cuomo plan, already meeting resistance in the Senate, also seeks to limit the outside income of legislators to 15 percent of their base $79,500 annual salary. It is similar to a restriction now on members of Congress. It is uncertain whether Cuomo will back a legislative pay raise to lure lawmakers to embrace his idea.

The governor also proposed to fully apply the state’s Freedom of Information Law to the Legislature and to allow pensions to be barred from lawmakers convicted of crimes.

On voter access, he wants to allow early voting in all elections by requiring counties to open at least one polling place 12 days prior to an election. He also proposed requiring political consultants who advise elected officials – of which there has been a long line for the governor during his years in office – to register as lobbyists.

The New York Public Interest Research Group called Cuomo’s plans “sweeping” – if they are enacted. “His proposals match up with the unprecedented scandals that have plagued the Capitol. But we don’t know how hard he’s going to push,” said NYPIRG’s Blair Horner.

Education – Cuomo embraced the call by SUNY leaders to continue raising tuition each year at campuses statewide. For the last five years, SUNY has been able to raise tuition by up to $300 a year for in-state undergraduates without approval from the Legislature. Cuomo says that “rational” tuition policy should continue for another five years.

Like the Senate Republicans, Cuomo wants to eliminate what critics call a fiscal gimmick imposed on school districts in which the state took back aid otherwise due the districts as part of a 2010 budget-balancing move for Albany. Unlike the Senate Republicans, Cuomo wants to get rid of that Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, over two years. Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan Jr., R-Huntington, repeated a pledge that the budget will not happen unless the GEA is ended this year. The price tag on that is $434 million.

The governor sought to highlight his call for a $2.1 billion increase in education aid, but that number is over a two-year period; the one-year aid increase is less than half that level. How much the state funds public schools has a direct impact on local property taxes.

Cuomo also wants $30 million to pay for expanding prekindergarten access to several thousand 3- and 4-year-olds. He also again called for a tax break for parents who send their children to private or parochial schools, an idea Assembly Democrats have rejected for years as a backdoor school voucher effort.

Economic development – Cuomo has already rolled out most of his economic-development plans over the past week, such as $100 million for a competitive grant program for 10 upstate cities to improve downtown areas. Unlike most of his past budget cycles, this year’s State of the State did not include any major announcements of new projects for Western New York. The governor’s spending plan also embraces legalization of mixed martial arts, an industry that has been battling for years to get into New York.

Cuomo continues to warmly embrace the state’s alcohol, beer and wine industries, which he has been propping up with tax breaks and other incentives for several years. In his new budget, he proposes additional tax breaks for craft beverage brewers and to create the “clear legal framework” for the sale of alcohol over the Internet.

The governor also is proposing a major expenditure – $20 billion – to combat homelessness and fund affordable-housing programs. The plan includes $10 billion to build 100,000 low-income housing units across the state over the next five years.

Small businesses would get a $300 million tax break, while small to large businesses are being asked by Cuomo to pay for a minimum wage hike to $15 per hour over the coming years. Flanagan said that the tax break hardly offsets the minimum wage increase and that “I don’t think that works at all.”

Some lawmakers have demanded “parity” in funding between the downstate transit system and repairs for upstate roads and bridge. Cuomo is asking for $26.1 billion for the downstate system and $22 billion for road and bridge projects across Long Island and upstate.

Cuomo portrayed his initiatives as pro-jobs, pro-environment and ready to make a major attack on homelessness. “They elected you to lead. Let’s lead together,” Cuomo told lawmakers.

But a budget watchdog was sharply critical of the Cuomo plan, especially plans to have the state pay for a toll freeze on the Thruway and for moving expenses of the state’s canal system onto the back of the New York Power Authority.

E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, said, “The spending plan Gov. Cuomo presented today features more waste and gimmickry than we’ve seen from any New York state budget in years.”