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Albany lawmakers show their budget hands

ALBANY – The Assembly and the State Senate showed their budget hands Thursday with passage of separate, one-house budget resolutions. The measures show splits still to be resolved over education spending, ethics rules, minimum wage, property taxes, criminal-justice matters and billions in capital spending for everything from roads to transit systems.

The resolutions, which are nonbinding, lay out the fiscal and policy positions of the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Republican-led Senate. They also provide comfort to special-interest groups that get to see their pet causes included in a budget bill – whether or not they get adopted in the final budget.

The resolutions, while dismissed by one senator as an “exercise in futility,” can serve as a prod to step up budget talks as the April 1 start of the 2015-16 fiscal year approaches.

“We’re getting there. We will have an on-time budget,” Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, told his colleagues.

Some priorities in the budget plans are repeat performances. The Senate is again pushing for a major increase in education aid, with particular focus on Long Island and upstate rural and suburban districts, while the Assembly wants its own big aid increase but is more heavily focused on lower-income urban districts.

The Senate resolution, passed by a voice vote, seeks no minimum-wage increase or state college aid funding for children of undocumented immigrants. Those items are in the Assembly proposal.

Not received well Thursday was Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s idea of linking a school aid increase to sweeping changes in educational policies, including a tougher evaluation system for teachers.

The governor would give up to $1.1 billion extra, compared with the Assembly’s $1.8 billion and the Senate’s $1.9 billion.

And the governor’s proposal for expanded ethics rules aimed at lawmakers was punted back with a response by both houses: any new ethics provisions also will affect the Cuomo administration, not just lawmakers. Lawmakers also showed their desire to redirect money Cuomo proposed to spend from a $5 billion fund from legal settlements with financial institutions; the amount grew by $610 million Thursday with a penalty payment by Commerzbank.

The Legislature also made clear in the two budget resolutions it has concerns about a Cuomo plan to have upstate areas – not including Western New York – compete for a $1.5 billion economic-development fund. In the Senate, Republicans proposed a property tax relief package to assist 3.3 million New Yorkers, 2 million more than Cuomo’s income-based idea.

The two houses spent about three hours apiece debating their one-house resolutions. In the Assembly, the resolution totaled just a page and a half; in the Senate, 35 pages.

Both resolutions “point” to pieces of budget legislation, not approved, as representing the positions of the two houses or, at least, the majority of their members. Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats in the minority in the two houses, as usual, have been cut out of all discussions.

The resolutions provide a formal way for the majorities to make their policy points.

Consider the Senate plan. With a big upstate rural delegation, there are numerous bows to agriculture, with, for example, $544,000 to apple growers and $125,000 to Christmas tree farmers. For its right-leaning backers, the Senate GOP plan rejects public campaign financing and a Cuomo plan to increase the age at which most criminal defendants are treated as adults in the judicial system from 16 to 18 years old. It gives more money to local police, increases penalties for heroin possession and leaves the minimum wage untouched. The Assembly plan would raise the wage to $12.60 per hour.

For college students, there is more money in both plans for the State University of New York, community colleges and, under the Senate plan, an increase in the Tuition Assistance Program’s family income eligibility from $80,000 to $100,000, benefiting 16,000 additional students.

There are many policy splits. The Senate and Cuomo want to expand the number of charter schools and funding for them. The Assembly opposes another Cuomo-Senate plan: a tax break for individuals and corporations that donate money to private and public schools, an effort critics label a backdoor private-school voucher.

The Assembly wants $250 million for some homeowners whose mortgages are “underwater,” while the Senate put forth its bid to again eliminate an energy tax that gets passed along to consumers.

For lawmakers, Thursday was a day to separate themselves from some Cuomo ideas. The Assembly rejected a Cuomo plan to toughen penalties for toll violators, saying existing penalties are enough. “Next thing you know, you’ll be cutting your fingers off,” Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chairman Herman D. Farrell Jr., D-Manhattan, said of the tougher penalty idea.

Despite the differences, most of the budget is already agreed to, as the Senate and Assembly, for instance, have accepted billions of dollars in money for operation of state agencies.

The remaining disputes, large and small, must be resolved by March 31 if Cuomo and lawmakers are to have an on-time budget.