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Cuomo’s budget signals big reforms for public schools, more charters

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew Cuomo today signaled his second term will be guided by the same issues as his first four years: changes to the public schools, holding to the left on social issues, controlling property taxes, expanding the economy, promoting big capital spending projects and making more strides to improve ethics in Albany.

Many of the details of the governor’s fifth State of the State and combined 2015 budget release were released over the past week or so, leaving Cuomo to highlight changes to the state’s public education.

Among the education highlights, Cuomo’s plan includes:

• Making it easier for the state to go after schools officially dubbed as “failing,” including appoint of receivers to take over their operations.

• Changing the current teacher evaluation to end the 20 percent of a teacher’s score based on a “local” standard, which Cuomo said varies too much across the state and “inflates scores.’’ He wants 50 percent, up from 20 percent, to be based on a state-devised standard.

• Granting tenure only to teachers who get five consecutive evaluation reviews of “effective” or “highly effective” and making it faster to remove teachers accused of misconduct.

• Permitting up to 100 new charter schools, a move seen as mostly affecting New York City.

• Preventing students from being assigned to two teachers deemed “ineffective” for two years in a row.

Cuomo said he also wants the state to consider mayoral control of school districts for cities that want that approach.

Spending for the state’s overall budget for 2015 would total $141.6 billion, up 2.8 percent over the current year’s budget. The portion of the budget paid for by state taxpayers would rise less than 2 percent.

Overall aid to public schools would rise by $1.1 billion, half the amount school advocates and several dozen lawmakers had urged.

The governor’s budget also seeks to make permanent the state’s 2 percent property tax cap program. It is set to expire later this year.

He is calling for major infrastructure improvement projects, though much of the money is being spent downstate on several mega-projects.

The governor’s budget plan, as previously trickled out over the past week, also includes a state subsidy to help a limited number of homeowners get a property tax cut if they make under $250,000 a year and live in especially high-tax areas, money from Albany for two years for college graduates who meet income and residency thresholds, changes to a tax credit program for developers who clean and build on abandoned factory sites and a hike in the minimum wage to $11.50 in New York City and $10.50 elsewhere in the state.

Cuomo’s budget also will use money from a $5 billion fund filled by legal settlements and fines to bail the Thruway out of its red ink, thus preventing an expected toll hike this year. The infusion of cash, however, is a one-shot salve; tolls can still rise next year at an agency that already said it expects rising toll revenues in the future.

But of the $1.3 billion going to the Thruway, almost all of it is being diverted to help pay for the construction of the $4 billion new Tappan Zee bridge in downstate. Fiscal critics have already sounded worries about that bridge project because the agency still has not developed a complete way to pay for it. Fiscal watchdogs question the idea of taxpayers from around the state paying for the massive project.

Besides the $1.3 billion for the Thruway, the $5 billion settlement fund is being carved up by Cuomo into a number of other spending categories:

• $1.5 billion will go for an upstate economic development pot available to all areas of upstate except Buffalo

• $500 million will go to expand internet broadband services to the nearly 1 million homes and businesses without such access now in the state.

The governor also repeated past calls by his administration and Assembly Democrats, over the objections of Republicans who now fully control the Senate, to begin a state college aid program for children of illegal immigrants.

At the same time, over the objections of Assembly Democrats, Cuomo said he will again push for a program, called a back-door voucher by critics, to help parents fund their children’s private school educations. That plan has been pushed by Catholic and Jewish leaders, who were angered last year when Cuomo backed away from the effort.

The budget again seeks to enact a system of taxpayer-financed campaigns, which the Senate GOP has rejected beyond a pilot project for the state comptroller, and he wants further restrictions on the use of political campaign funds for personal use.

The budget proposal will also sharply limit benefits to developers of the state’s brownfields tax credit program, a move Cuomo officials say will focus the program on areas of true blight; Erie County more than any county has used the program that cleans and develops abandoned manufacturing and other sites.

The Cuomo budget would also give financial incentives to state university presidents “who provide leadership resulting in commercialization of research” and begin a pilot program at 12 community colleges to provide a community services – from family counseling and elder care services to health care services – in areas of the state deemed especially distressed.

Cuomo said he also wants to adjust the way state colleges are funded from a system based on student enrollment to a portion of financial support based on student performance.

The electronic cigarette industry could become regulated in New York, Cuomo is proposing. And Cuomo is also calling for one of his favorite gatherings: summits. He wants to hold them on topics from how to help small businesses to how to assist localities in controlling tax increases; localities for years have asked Albany to reduce state-imposed mandates, such as in the Medicaid program, as the best way to control taxes.

Perhaps showing the signs of a fifth year in office, many of the Cuomo proposals are either old or re-shaped from previous years. The words “continue” or “expand” pepper his plan. His 548-page message to the Legislature, provided to reporters one hour before his speech, shows page after page of shout-outs to practically every special interest in the state, from Catholic leaders to farmers to tourism agencies.