State budget starts coming together. And then stops. - The Buffalo News
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State budget starts coming together. And then stops.

ALBANY – State budget talks collapsed Wednesday night.

Lawmakers, who had sat around all week waiting for final deals to come together, left Albany to go home.

When they return was anyone's guess.

The sides continued to be split over criminal justice and education issues, even as a half dozen budget bills were completed in the two houses and lawmakers were able to tally the total spending plan in the coming year at $163.2 billion.

“We have not yet reached a final conclusion,’’ Cuomo said on Wednesday evening.

In an hour-long news conference that incensed lawmakers, Cuomo at one point praised the Legislature for doing a “great job,’’ and then pounded their work ethic and blamed them for the budget being late this year.

“I think the legislators should have respected that,’’ Cuomo said of New Yorkers’ expectations that a budget be completed on time.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie sought to put a positive spin on things after Cuomo’s appearance. He said disputes could be resolved within minutes.

“All parties are trying to get a budget done,” he said.

Minutes later, Heastie sent Cuomo a more direct response: he adjourned the Assembly for the night.

Shortly after Heastie's action, Senate GOP leaders told their rank-and-file members to go home. Unlike a week ago, there will be no cars turning around on the Thruway to dash back for possible votes.

Senators said it was a waste of taxpayer money to wait around the Capitol day after day for a budget deal.

"We'll come back when there's a deal,'' Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said.

Assembly Democrats planned a Thursday morning private conference, but that decision could change overnight as it was made before the Senate announced it was leaving.

Whether Cuomo’s appearance was meant to jump-start talks, or signal a cooling off period for the talks, was up for debate at the Capitol.

Unilateral powers

Having been rebuffed by lawmakers, Cuomo brought back his call that he be given special unilateral powers to alter spending after a budget is adopted if “inevitable” federal spending cuts hit New York later in the year.

Lawmakers, who said that idea died more than a week ago, have called it a power grab by Cuomo and say any fiscal emergency that might result can be handled in a special session of the Legislature.

While the government will continue operating for the next two months under a temporary spending bill approved earlier this week, Cuomo appeared to lay out a rationale for not completing a final budget now because of uncertainty over federal funding levels by the Trump White House and Congress.

“It’s very important that we not put our financial feet in cement,’’ Cuomo said.

Schools affected

Lawmakers spent the entire day waiting for final deals to be made so the last set of spending and tax bills could be sent for voting. It was a long wait that Cuomo sought to put an exclamation point on at dinnertime with his sudden public appearance.

Until then, the sides had been saying that disputes were getting resolved, bills were about to be printed and a final budget could be in place by sometime Thursday.

Left in the fiscal lurch most immediately are 700 public school districts that, by law, have to adopt their upcoming school year budgets in time to go before local voters across the state on May 16.

Cuomo said schools should now take a “cautious” planning route because there is no deal on education aid with the sides still split over how much money will go to charter schools – an annual fight between Democrats and Republicans in Albany.

Public schools, which rely heavily on state aid, have been awaiting district-by-district funding level decisions from Albany, which cannot be done until the budget is resolved.

Cuomo said his office will release projected aid levels based on an overall statewide aid hike of 3.9 percent that districts can use if a budget is not passed soon.

Lawmakers, who vowed not to begin passing the budget until all outstanding issues had been resolved, began plowing ahead anyway late Tuesday night in the Senate and on Wednesday afternoon in the Assembly.

The budget, according to Assemblyman Andy Goodell, a Jamestown-area Republican, spends at such a rate that it would operate $2 billion in the red if reserves weren’t tapped.

It's in balance, he said, "because we're drawing down our savings.''

Details trickle out

The budget, according to documents not available to the public, tentatively was set to include a $200 annual State University of New York tuition hike over the next five years for families making over $125,000 and tuition breaks for those making under that amount.

It also includes tuition breaks for students with family incomes under $100,00 this year and $125,000 in three years.

The budget plans include a watering down of Cuomo’s bid to force cities, towns and villages to consolidate or share services, adds more money for immigration services and lets companies test their driverless cars on state roadways -- if they have a state trooper present.

Tentative budget deals, according to documents, include a range of big and small gifts for some narrow interests. If they hold until the stalemate is resolved, they will include:

  • Extended tax breaks for property owners with electric vehicle charging stations.
  • Abandoning an effort to regulate and tax e-cigarettes, which left health groups assailing Senate Republicans for killing the idea.
  • Removing limits on the number of industrial hemp cultivators and providing hundreds of millions of dollars in pork barrel spending, from $10,000 for the Chautauqua Beekeepers Association, $125,000 for the state’s Christmas tree growers, and millions for local law enforcement efforts.
  • Rejection of a Cuomo plan to permit wine and beer sales in movie theaters.

Additional money would go toward immigration services and refugee resettlement agencies and funds to keep maximum security prison visitations open for seven days instead of a proposed three days a week.

There is even a provision, according to documents, exempting cemetery monuments from state sales taxes.

Paths and trails funded

The budget, whenever it is adopted, will include a 90 cents surcharge on prepaid cellular devices and expand sharply the availability of charitable gambling.

Also tentatively agreed to is $200 million for a Empire State Trail, which Cuomo proposed to complete existing paths and trails between New York City and Quebec and Albany and Buffalo.

The Erie Canal portion would get $77 million and a trail along the Hudson River corridor will see $123 million.

The sides are still split over details to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 years old.

A deal was done, but Cuomo said it unraveled after the sides disagreed on who would supervise youths once they are released from detention centers.

Besides the charter school split, which Cuomo said was among the “ideological” divisions, the sides were also still arguing over an affordable housing plan for New York City.

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