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State budget deal relaxes Common Core program

ALBANY – The state’s Common Core program will be relaxed for hundreds of thousands of public school students. A taxpayer campaign finance system will apply only to the state comptroller’s race. And tax breaks will be granted to everyone from farmers to the estates of wealthy.

Those are among the highlights of the 2014 state budget deal that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders reached and rank-and-file lawmakers are expected to pass Monday. The deal became apparent with the introduction of thousands of pages of budget bills introduced overnight.

The agreement also includes Cuomo’s plan to give what will amount to modest rebate checks to property taxpayers, though his demand that tax breaks go only to communities that agree to reduce spending was considerably watered down in the final deal.

As in most election years, the budget is heavily focused on education issues. Chief among them are changes to the state’s Common Core program that includes standardized math and English exams. Teachers, students and parents have complained the state ineffectively rolled out the program, causing confusion – and falling student performance on tests,

Regarding the Common Core, the new budget will:

• Ban standardized tests for students in kindergarten through grade two and ban districts from putting Common Core test result information onto a student’s permanent record for those students in grades fourth through eighth; results of the tests can go to parents for “diagnostic purposes;”

• Prohibit decisions about grade promotion to be made “solely or primarily" on Common Core test results and provides certain exemptions to the program for disabled students and those still learning to speak English;

• Limit the amount of time teachers can prepare students for the standardized tests to 2 percent of the total classroom time in a year and require the state to provide parents with “instructional tools and outreach materials."

• Create new training programs for teachers and set up safeguards to protect against the dissemination of personal information about students.

Total state aid to education could top $1.1 billion, but aid to individual school districts – a key number that affects local property taxes – will not be available until Sunday night or Monday.

The Gap Elimination Adjustment -- a fiscal maneuver the state used the past four years to grab money back from schools to help balance the state books -- will get more than $500 million in relief in the new budget, state officials told The Buffalo News Friday.

Trying to figure out the precise Gap Elimination Adjustment formula is a feat only about three people in Albany understand: the portion of the new budget regarding that single line item takes up 2,419 words.

The budget also includes a $2 billion bond act – which voters will consider on the November ballot – with money going to help schools do everything from purchase computers and build broadband systems to building classroom space for a new statewide, voluntary pre-kindergarten program in public schools.

The budget creates a “teacher excellence fund" to award up to $20,000 in bonuses to teachers deemed “highly effective" on their teacher performance evaluations, partly determined by students’ performance on Common Core tests. The program focuses on teachers serving in schools “with the greatest academic need," among other conditions.

High school students graduating in the top 10 percent of their class who go to a state university and major in certain science, technology, engineering and math programs will be eligible for a new scholarship program.

Big tax breaks are on the way for manufacturers, and the state will move to more quickly phase out a surcharge on utilities that is passed along to consumers. Other tax breaks include everything from those who buy automatic external defibrillators to owners of vending machines that dispense candy and soda. The threshold for estate taxes to kick in rise from $2.1 million in 2014 to $5.2 million in 2017, according to the budget bills.

The governor’s property tax rebate program, which he called his top priority, is in the budget, though with some changes. In the first year, property owners will get a tax break if they live in communities whose taxing jurisdictions – such as counties, towns and schools – do not break the state’s annual 2 percent property tax program. In the second year, Cuomo had wanted those tax breaks to occur only in communities where governments agreed to cut 1 percent of their total spending by entering into mergers or shared service deals with nearby towns, villages, counties or school districts.

The final deal states that localities now must devise “a plan” to cut costs over a three-year period. Moreover, the state must take into account savings the communities made in previous years, though a precise look-back period for that timeframe could not immediately be found in the massive set of budget documents.

Other tax breaks include a $4 million program for the pre-production costs that touring companies spend on musical and theatrical productions at theaters outside New York City. Upstate theaters, especially Shea’s in Buffalo, say the deal will convince more major touring companies to begin their productions in upstate.

Cuomo’s vision for a statewide taxpayer-financed campaign system was gutted in the final budget bill. Now, only a pilot program affecting just the state comptroller’s race – typically one of the cheapest statewide campaigns run every four years – will be covered with state matching funds for certain small-level donations. Government reform groups were already condemning the deal before the budget bills were printed.

The deal includes the release of more information about often-mysterious “independent expenditure committees" that spend money promoting political candidates or policy causes. It also creates a new enforcement counsel office at the state Board of Elections to better monitor election law abuses by campaigns. The governor will select the new enforcement head, approved by both houses. That enforcement officer will serve a five-year term.

There are also new criminal sanctions for public officials engaging in “corrupting the government” and new lawmaker financial disclosure requirements. It mostly affects the lawyers in private practice and requires them, after January 1, 2015, to reveal certain details about their clients, though with some major loopholes, such as if the client might be “embarrassed’’ by the public disclosures.

If there was any mistaking 2014 is an election year for the governor and all lawmakers, the budget makes it clear. There are fiscal shout-outs to millions: business owners, homeowners, renters, parents of school children, sick people, and hunters. People who agree to become a farmer for the first time and run a farm with fewer than 100 acres could get a grant from the state for up to $50,000 while certain “young farmers” could be eligible for up to $10,000 in college loan forgiveness grants for agreeing to keep farming.