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Cuomo hails budget as ‘smart plan’ for the state

ALBANY – State legislators approved the 2014-15 state budget Monday, adopting the $138 billion spending plan that boosts overall aid to education by more than 5 percent, relaxes Common Core curriculum requirements, gives big tax breaks to businesses and offers some relief for property taxpayers.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders this morning took a victory lap in the Capitol’s ornate Red Room. “It is a smart plan for the state of New York,’’ Cuomo said, touting the plan’s tax cuts and “massive, massive investment’’ in education.

“This moves the state forward,’’ he added.

The governor and lawmakers repeatedly highlighted the budget approved late last night was the fourth on-time budget in a row – a first in four decades. They recalled years when budgets would not be adopted until summer, and the state had to be kept running through a series of temporary, emergency funding bills.

“Gridlock, paralysis is really behind us,’’ said Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who is co-leader of the Senate.

Cuomo held a ceremonial budget bill signing event this morning with legislative leaders. He signed the actual bills before midnight last night to ensure the budget was done on-time, his aides said this morning.

The final spending plan is a classic election year grab bag of spending boosts and tax breaks, providing financial benefits for everyone from farmers and thoroughbred jockeys to bank holding companies, Medicaid health care providers and the estates of wealthy dead people.

With lawmakers rushing to meet a midnight deadline to adopt an on-time budget for the fourth year in a row, the final approval came in the Assembly at 11:13 p.m.

To help get there before the 2014-15 fiscal year began today, Cuomo on Monday broke a vow he made to lawmakers and decided to send messages of necessity – a document used to get around a legal, three-day “aging” process for bills – for two pieces of budget legislation that did not meet last Friday’s midnight introduction deadline. Without the messages, there was no legal way to adopt an on-time budget.

While officials prefer to put the size of the budget at $138 billion, its true size is actually $142.8 billion when special federal Superstorm Sandy and “Obamacare” funding is added to the plan. But even with a massive education aid hike, the overall budget stays below a 2 percent cap on increased spending that Cuomo and lawmakers imposed.

Not included in the final budget was a proposed Cuomo plan to have the state again start funding college courses for prison inmates. A senior Cuomo administration official said that there was too much pushback to a program critics called inappropriate at a time when families are having difficulty affording college for their children.

Instead, the Cuomo administration said private groups, who believe that inmate recidivism rates can drop, have stepped forward and offered to give and raise money for the prison program, which the state would have to approve and oversee.

Although the budget includes a host of tax breaks for businesses, homeowners, renters in New York City, it actually projects taking in $1.4 billion more in taxes in the coming year that last year as a result, partly, because of higher income tax receipts due to an improving economy in some sectors.

The biggest winner in the budget, on an overall cash basis, are clearly New York’s 700 public school districts, which in total will receive $22.3 billion in the state aid formula that funds operating and other expenses. That is up $1.12 billion from last year, a sizable 5.4 percent increase, and up from the $682 million increase Cuomo proposed in January for that formula-based aid program. There is also a $2 billion bond act that voters will consider that schools can dip into for a host of spending, from buying laptops for students to repairing a roof.

Yet not everyone was happy with the final product.

“This year’s state budget provided our leaders with a historic opportunity to give thousands of children across the state a chance for a better life through quality education. Today, there are thousands of inner-city and working class families who are understandably angry and who just saw their hopes dashed,” said Richard Barnes, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, which lost in its bid to let donors to private schools get an income tax credit.

Government watchdog groups left the Capitol on Monday upset that a taxpayer-funded campaign finance system was not adopted beyond a pilot program for the state comptroller’s office. Those pushing back hardest against the plan were liberal-leaning organizations, who said tax breaks dominated funding for social services and other assistance for low-income people. Protesters wore “Cuomo-cchio” masks in a rally outside Cuomo’s office Monday. Others were upset that Cuomo did not fight hard enough for a “women’s equality” measure that included an abortion expansion provision.

One labor-backed advocacy group said Cuomo caved too much to big business interests.

“Where the budget comes up short is it virtually ignores the need for half the kids in upstate cities living in poverty and instead provides big tax cuts to banks, the wealthiest New Yorkers and to lower Manhattan real estate interests,” said Ron Deutsch, executive director of the labor-backed New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan sought to downplay some of the criticism. “This budget is all about compromise. There are things I’d rather not see in this budget, but on balance, I think it’s a great budget,” he said.

A senior Cuomo administration official, speaking with a handful of reporters on condition of anonymity, lashed out at what he called the “professional left,” which he defined as paid special interest advocates who work on behalf of groups that get money through the state budget. “It’s never enough,” the official said of money the groups want for programs.

The budget gives New Yorkers, regardless of income, a freeze on their property taxes if their taxing jurisdictions live within the 2 percent property tax cap in the coming year – a plan that, on average, will be worth about $125 per household statewide, but much lower in Western New York.

The budget also raises to $5.25 million, from $1 million, the threshold for state tax exclusion for estates of wealthy people who die, a tax break that critics said is a gift to the wealthy. But Cuomo said the measure will help keep wealthy people from leaving New York as they get older to more tax-friendly states, and the New York Farm Bureau, for instance, said it will help keep farms in families from one generation to the next when a farm owner dies.

Theatrical touring companies will get a $4 million tax break for preproduction expenses done at upstate theaters, a move Shea’s and others say will bring jobs and more shows to upstate.

Upstate business groups praised aspects of the budget, especially large tax breaks for manufacturers, but expressed worries that a key economic-development program to clean and redevelop abandoned industrial sites was not resolved. The brownfields program has given tax breaks to developers who turn the sites into new uses, which officials say has been used more in Erie County in the last six years than any other county.

Among the lesser-publicized ones lawmakers approved Monday were measures giving cost-of-living wage hikes to direct-care workers at nonprofit agencies that provide services on behalf of the state and a requirement that the state release quarterly reports on prison assault injuries on inmates and guards. The budget bans 16- and 17-year-old inmates from being housed with inmates older than 18 in local jails and gives major tax breaks to businesses that locate in Lower Manhattan, including the World Trade Center.

In yet another attempt to get young drivers to avoid distractions, the budget also increases penalties for holders of junior and probationary drivers licenses who text and drive. A first conviction means an automatic 120-day license suspension. A second offense gets the license taken for a year.

The budget also includes some mysteries that lawmakers could not resolve. For instance, Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, wondered why the financial plan shows the Thruway Authority’s revenues from tolls going from $650 million in the coming year to $950 million by 2017 when the agency has not unveiled a toll rate proposal.

“”Whether they’re real or not, they’re the numbers they gave us,"’’ replied Senate Finance Chairman John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican.

With a group of gun rights advocates due in Albany Tuesday to protest the state’s NY SAFE Act gun control law enacted last year, lawmakers were certain to put out pro-hunting measures included in the new budget, including legalizing crossbow hunting for small and big game in counties north of Westchester.