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State budget has $1.5 billion school aid increase, hikes minimum wage

ALBANY – State aid to the nearly 700 school districts will grow by about $1.5 billion this year and lower-paid New Yorkers will benefit from an increase in the minimum wage, though at different phases depending on whether they live upstate or downstate.

Legislators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo hammered out most of the details of a new state budget but failed to meet the midnight Thursday deadline for the budget to be completed on time for the start of the new fiscal year. It marks the second straight year they failed to meet that goal.

The final deal includes a tax cut for middle-income New Yorkers, a big increase in environmental spending and new funding earmarked for special community-based public schools.

Lawmakers said the budget also will include a massive, multiyear $27 billion capital program for roads, bridges and transit systems in upstate and on Long Island.

As a long day of closed-door meetings morphed into an evening of more closed-door meetings, officials ran into an obstacle in the on-time goal: an absence of actual bills, including the most sweeping ones to pay for the actual spending plan that will total $156 billion.

Still, Cuomo was upbeat. “I believe this is the best budget we have crafted,” he said late Thursday night.

Minimum wage

The Democrats’ push for a sharp hike in the minimum wage continued to drag on the talks, as Senate Republicans grappled in private conferences with how to go along with a measure opposed by a number of key interest groups that have supported the Republicans, including big and small businesses.

Earlier in the day, negotiators said they struck a tentative deal to raise the minimum wage from its present $9-per-hour level.

Driven by a mix of election-year politics and what critics of the hike say is the governor’s ongoing tilt to the left, the tentative solution is a complex one.

In upstate, the hourly wage level would rise 70 cents each year until it reaches $12.50 in 2021. At that point, according to Senate Finance Chairwoman Catharine Young, an Olean Republican, there would be a “pause to study” the economic impact of increasing the wage to a higher level.

In New York City, the $15-per-hour level – which Cuomo has made his priority wage rate – would be hit in 2018, but under a deal to allay the concerns of Senate Republicans, that level would not be reached for four years for employees who work for a company with 10 or fewer workers.

Another caveat involves Westchester County and Long Island. The $15 level would not be attained there until the end of 2022.

Cuomo made the $15-per-hour minimum wage his most visible priority in the budget talks, motoring in an RV to some spots in New York with union leaders and other allies to press the case and naming the campaign after his late father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

Asked by a reporter if Cuomo had gone so far as to threaten to use a state wage board he controls to push ahead with the $15 wage if lawmakers rebuffed his plan, Young said: “I think the governor has used the wage board in the past and it wouldn’t be surprising if he used them in the future if this wasn’t resolved.” Cuomo used the board last year to push ahead with a wage hike, without legislative approval, for fast-food workers.

Some upstate community groups blasted the minimum wage deal, which does not guarantee upstate will hit the $15-per-hour level in the manner provided for downstate communities. The Rev. Kirk Laubenstein, executive director of the Buffalo-based Coalition for Economic Justice, said the deal benefits downstate workers “while relegating those in cities hardest hit by the Great Recession to second-class citizen status.”

The wage deal will affect about 2.3 million workers. Cuomo said it also includes a time-out in 2019 if the state’s economy sours. He said the governor’s budget division also will examine the state of the upstate economy in 2021 to determine if and by how much the wage would above the $12.50 level at that point.

The budget also includes a 12-week family leave program to be funded by employees that, Cuomo said, is “literally a life-changer” for workers who need time off to care for sick family members or a new child. It does not begin, though, until 2018.

The National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business group, said the minimum wage and family leave deals “will put Main Street in fiscal peril.”


Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at midday said the “biggest issue outstanding” for Assembly Democrats was an issue about how to treat academically troubled schools that were placed on a receivership list. Administrators at about 70 schools statewide believed they had made changes necessary to come off that list, but the governor, Assembly Democrats said, was insisting that such schools be kept in receivership status.

Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, put the total state school aid increase at about $1.5 billion from the current year. Out of that, about $400 million ends an Albany claw-back of funding for schools known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment that dates to 2010. About $600 million is set aside for Foundation Aid, the chief operating fund state aid account that is partly based on a district’s wealth level.

“That helps the City of Buffalo but it really helps every district in Western New York, said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat. “We don’t really have any high-wealth districts so Western New York benefits from an increase in Foundation Aid.”

The Gap Elimination Adjustment has essentially clawed back state funding otherwise destined for public schools as part of what critics call a 2010 fiscal gimmick to help balance state budgets. Senate Republicans made its total elimination this year a top priority, and Thursday scored a final victory to end the GEA.

Cuomo said the school aid increase brings the state aid level to $24.8 billion in the coming year, a 6.5 percent increase.

Community schools

The final budget will include about $75 million earmarked for expansion of community schools in high-needs districts, said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat who pushed the effort. Beyond classroom instruction, the schools would offer an array of services for students and family members, including legal services, social workers and mental health counselors “and any social service you need to make for a better life for you and your children.”

With the $75 million in dedicated funding, as well as a large increase in state aid in the budget for low-income districts, Peoples-Stokes said she hopes the Buffalo district eventually could get as many as four existing public schools turned into full-blown community schools. She said the schools will be open earlier in the morning and stay open longer at the end of the school day so various services can be offered.

The money would help pay for staff costs associated with keeping buildings open longer and personnel to help coordinate the different levels of services. Peoples-Stokes said the community services will offer “a holistic approach to dealing with children and families.”

Other measures

Though one wouldn’t know by the length of debates and floor amendments, the Legislature Thursday afternoon began deliberating some of the easiest budget bills involving transportation, economic development and health programs. Among the bills introduced were additional financial commitments to snowmobile trail maintenance and a capital funding program for projects that replace “inefficient and outdated” health care facilities, extra money to deal with an opioid addiction epidemic in many parts of the state and new investments to encourage organ donations efforts.

A budget bill passed Thursday includes $30 million for communities affected by the closure of electric power generating stations, such as the recently shuttered Huntley power station in the Town of Tonawanda. The Huntley funding is expected to provide a state-funded financial lift to the Town of Tonawanda, as well as the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District, which is looking at a loss of $6 million in tax revenues by the March 1 closing of the NRG Energy-owned plan on River Road. Beyond coal-fired power plants, which was the original purpose of the fund since the governor has made closing down such facilities a state goal, the final budget wraps other kinds of power plants – such as the Fitzpatrick nuclear plant in Central New York – into the legislation to help localities deal with the loss of tax funds when the plants are shuttered.

As expected, the final budget will also include $200 million for a state-funded project to bring pharmaceutical drug manufacturer Athenex in Dunkirk.

The Environmental Protection Fund would get, as Cuomo proposed, $300 million. The budget also creates a program for “climate smart community projects,” which can include funding for such projects as flood mitigation.

The budget also provides consumers with a $2,000 state-funded rebate for the purchase of zero-emission vehicles.

Proposals to triple Niagara Falls’ share of casino profits are not included in the proposed state budget.

State Sen. Robert G. Ortt and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto had introduced separate bills that would alter how the government’s share of Seneca Niagara Casino profits are divided.

The proposed budget would extend the current funding formula through 2023, Mayor Paul A. Dyster said.

A $300 million tax credit program for frequent users of the Thruway was rejected by lawmakers.