ALBANY – As lawmakers try to wrap up bread-and-butter fiscal issues of school funding and tax levels before a new fiscal year starts Saturday, negotiators at the state Capitol are still apart on how 16- and 17-year-olds who commit crimes are handled in the state’s justice system.
The “raise the age” advocates are pushing to end decades of the criminal justice system in New York treating such teenagers as adults instead of as youth in family courts.
Though a subject of debate for years in Albany, raising the age of criminal responsibility is among the side policy issues that, if resolved, could break other logjams this week. It is part of Albany's world of linkages, in which unrelated items are knotted together as part of broader deals not necessarily connected to the state's finances.
Lawmakers say if the crime-related debate is settled to the liking of Assembly Democrats, who have pushed for the changes for more than a decade, it could like resolve snags over legalization of ride-hailing services upstate and lowering business workers compensation expenses – items that Senate Republicans want.
Still unresolved – until the thorniest of issues get settled – is how much state money will be directed to public schools, whether more students will qualify for college tuition assistance and how, or if, lawmakers will wrestle more control from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over how the state’s large pot of economic development funds is spent.
There are still big borrowings for water quality improvements on the negotiating table, while life support can be described for a host of proposals, such as Cuomo's effort to have voters approve local cost-savings programs.
The budget, if it is to be approved on time, is due by midnight Friday for the April 1 fiscal year start. As often happens in Albany in the final week, hallway chatter from lawmakers and lobbyists alike is split whether talks will conclude this week. One option: a series of “extender” budget measures, in part, to wait for more clarity from Washington on a range of possible federal cuts that could affect the state’s finances. About one-third of the state budget, in one way or another, is federally funded.
Cuomo for two months has said his budget plan did not include contingencies for possible federal cuts because of the uncertainty over what Washington might reduce to the states. On Monday, in a NY1 interview, Cuomo amended that somewhat, saying possible federal spending cuts have presented the state budget talks with "a new problem." He said he is not willing to okay a budget "that spends more money than we have a reasonable expectation of collecting.'' Cuomo, though, did not elaborate what precisely that means for the final state spending plan.
Whether real or just negotiation tactics, the budget-is-going-to-be-tardy talk ran rampant Monday. "I’m not conceding anything,’’ Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said after emerging from an afternoon closed-door session with Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. He said there is an “excellent chance” for a timely budget.
Asked earlier in the afternoon how talks are going, Heastie said, “They’re going.’’
Monday was a time for hundreds of lobbyists and dozens of special interest groups to engage in last-ditch efforts to get, or kill, plans in the budget. For a couple of hours, dozens of protesters shut down some entrances to areas of the Capitol, including one door leading to Cuomo’s suite. Twenty-one people, who were demanding more attention and funding for homeless programs, were arrested by troopers.
On the raise the age issue, the Assembly and Senate are split over what would define a violent crime and whether 16- and 17-year-olds charged with such crimes would be tried in family or adult criminal courts. “That’s what the big fight is about. It’s what it’s always been about. Where do they get adjudicated?’’ said Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, a Queens Democrat.
Along with North Carolina, New York is one of two states that do not automatically treat 16- and 17-year-olds as youths for the purposes of adjudication. Assembly Democrats want such teenagers sent to the family court system. Senate Republicans say they are willing to send the majority of arrested teens to family court, but want those charged with violent felonies to go through the adult court system.
“I don’t think everybody is in agreement on the definition of what a violent crime is,’’ said Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican and one of the rank-and-file lawmakers involved in the talks.
State records show that a total of 33,000 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested in 2013. Of those, 1,655 were convicted of felony or misdemeanors and 531 of those defendants went to prison. Most of the convictions were for robbery or burglary, with 35 convicted of homicide.
“I’d argue we are already treating them differently,’’ Gallivan said of the 1 percent or so of 16- and 17-year-olds who are sent to state prison on average in a year.
Senate Republicans say 95 percent of those arrested in that age group would be sent through family courts under their plan.
Gallivan called the definition of what is a violent crime a “threshold issue” in the negotiations.