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Cuomo says state budget was 'worth the wait'

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he was "proudest” of the new state budget over any previous one, even if it was forged in one of the Capitol’s most contentious sessions of recent memory.

But he acknowledges that President Trump's budget plans pose threats to key provisions. And he assigned to New York’s congressional representatives the responsibility of ensuring that extending Metro Rail, cleaning up the Great Lakes and aiding economic development all receive the federal funds needed to continue.

“We have an election every two years,” he said Tuesday during a meeting with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News. “The question is: What did you do for me while you were in Washington? What did you do for Buffalo?”

The $163 billion state budget (which Cuomo pegs at $153 billion without including some state and federal funds) adopted eight days late offers economic development programs and free SUNY tuition for qualifying students.

And if he is proud of his overall budget proposal, he most touts continuing the Buffalo Billion initiative with another $500 million in local economic development efforts.

“The Buffalo Billion worked, Buffalo Billion II takes it to the next level,” he said.

“It’s not a flash in the pan,” he added. “It’s a long-term, strategic plan.”

David Robinson: Buffalo Billion II is safe even if state has to cut

The new budget also:

  • Extends the current tax rate on millionaires and preserves $3.4 billion in revenue
  • Provides an average tax cut of $1,319 for about 6 million people
  • Increases education aid by 4.4 percent
  • Doubles the New York State Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, providing 9,600 taxpayers in Western New York with an average additional benefit of $181

The governor labeled the latest budget as his most difficult to finalize. It featured more than a week of wrangling past the April 1 deadline and bitter inter- and intra-party divisions. Senators traveling home on the Thruway even had to be summoned back to Albany for sessions that never materialized.

“It was the harshest political climate I’ve operated in,” Cuomo said. “You have the same political winds that blow in Washington blow in New York. You have the extreme right and the extreme left that are overstimulated and it makes finding consensus difficult.

“It was a week late. I wish it weren’t,” he said. “But it was worth the wait.”

Cuomo also discussed other issues:

Free tuition to SUNY

The state’s new tuition-free scholarship program will benefit about 32,000 students at State University of New York colleges, Cuomo predicts.

Roughly 180,000 students attending SUNY colleges or universities already pay no tuition, because they are fully covered by the state’s Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell grants, according to Robert F. Mujica Jr., the state’s budget director.

That number would rise by 22,000 students this fall, when the state’s new Excelsior Scholarship program kicks in for SUNY students whose families earn less than $100,000, and by 32,000 when the income cap is raised to $125,000 in 2019, Mujica said.

Cuomo said the tuition-free program – a “last-dollar” scholarship that picks up whatever tuition TAP and Pell don’t cover – is also one of the proudest accomplishments of his tenure. The new state budget includes $163 million to pay for the program.

“I believe other states are going to follow this because it makes sense,” the governor said.

Cuomo also responded to critics who said the tuition-free scholarship program for SUNY would hurt New York’s vast network of private colleges.

“You’re limited by the SUNY capacity by definition,” Cuomo said, “and the SUNY capacity would never be enough to really endanger the private colleges.”

Train station in Buffalo

Buffalo’s running debate on where to build a new Amtrak station will not involve the governor, as he made it clear that local leaders face an April 26 deadline to choose between sites downtown or at the Central Terminal.

“I said to the mayor – decide,” he said. “I don’t care what the decision is – decide.

“If there is not a decision on time, you pay for the consultant,” he added, referring to the $1 million state sponsorship of the study being done by WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff consulting firm.

The committee headed by Mayor Byron W. Brown is expected to return a decision by the governor’s deadline in order to qualify for the costs of the consulting study and the $25 million earmarked for the new station.

Senate gives final passage to controversial state budget

School reform efforts  

Cuomo for years took a hard-line approach to reforming New York’s schools, calling for rigorous evaluations of teachers and turning over failing schools to an outside receiver to operate.

Now he appears to have stepped back from the reform agenda he touted when he first took office. He said decisions about school turnaround plans and how teachers will be evaluated should be made locally.

“That’s going to be up to local school districts,” Cuomo said when asked about reform efforts in Buffalo’s struggling schools.

That’s a sharp reversal from just two years ago, when Cuomo condemned an evaluation system that rated the vast majority of New York teachers effective or highly effective – even in Buffalo, where the majority of schools fail to meet state standards.

On Tuesday, he seemed to fully remove the state from any significant role in assessing teacher or school performance.

“It really depends on the region,” he said in assessing the success of putting failing schools in receivership, a key part of his original reform plan and one that was used in Buffalo.

As for the state’s role, he said, “We can provide money. We can provide guidance. We can provide parameters.”

Natural gas as a bridge

Cuomo wants half of New York State’s energy to come from renewable energy sources like wind and solar power by 2030.

He expects natural gas to play a big part in bridging the gap as coal and nuclear plants around the state are decommissioned, but he defended the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s decision to reject National Fuel’s proposed half-billion dollar Northern Access Pipeline.

“I think in all probability you need natural gas,” Cuomo said. “I don’t think you can get from here to there without using natural gas.”

He added: “The conduit for natural gas then becomes the question. And pipelines, in general? Fine. As long as they’re done well and they’re done correctly.”

The DEC concluded the gas supply company’s proposal, which required it to cross more than 190 creeks and streams over a 97-mile path from Pennsylvania to Erie County, failed to comply with water quality standards.

National Fuel said the state’s denial will result in a loss of more than 1,000 new jobs and millions of dollars in lost tax revenue to schools.

You bet your app: Ride hailing upstate may debut by July 4

Ride-hailing

After obtaining a budget agreement that permits ride-hailing in upstate New York, Cuomo claimed the first Uber ride en route to an appearance with Empire State Development CEO Howard Zemsky at the Rev. Dr. Bennett Smith Sr. Family Life Center on Michigan Avenue.

New York City-based driver Tariq Nawaz, a Buffalo native, was at the wheel. Nawaz said he might be able to move back to Western New York now that ride-hailing is coming to upstate.

Cuomo, for his part, joked that Zemsky wanted to steal the spotlight from the governor by jumping out of the car first, only to have his plan thwarted when Nawaz tripped the child safety locks and prevented the door from opening.

“I was excited about ride-sharing coming to upstate New York,” Zemsky said.

News staff reporters Jay Rey, Tiffany Lankes, David Robinson and T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report.

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