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Albany budget talk boils down to dead-or-alive

ALBANY – Dead, alive. Dead, alive.

Welcome to what is supposed to be the final week of state budget deal-making at the Capitol.

With the April 1 deadline looming for adoption of an on-time $150 billion spending plan for the 2015-16 fiscal year, the coming days are when pencils have to be put down and handshakes exchanged.

But Albany being an obstinate town, deals are not coming so easily, especially when there are so many nonfiscal policy matters – from ethics laws to teacher performance evaluations – that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is trying to link to the budget.

With lawmakers returning to the Capitol on Monday, it was a good day for spreading the word, accurate or not, about what issues were in and out of the budget:

• A tax credit to help parents and the private schools where they send their children? Out.

• State college aid to children of undocumented immigrants? Gone.

• Creation of a commission to provide cover for a legislative pay increase? Dead.

• Expansion of client disclosure by lawmakers with outside legal work? Severely weakened.

But as one veteran legislator noted, it was only Monday, and there’s a long week to go.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John A. DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, put it best about the swirl of reported deals and nondeals. He said that it was very difficult for him to answer specifics about the budget talks “because it’s going to be different an hour and a half from now.”

One thing that was still alive: Albany fundraisers by legislators. By the time the week is over, there will have been at least 27 campaign fundraising events at clubs and restaurants in the course of just two weeks.

Education issues remained the major sticking points, as Assembly Democrats, in particular, offered the stiffest resistance to many of Cuomo’s plans for teacher tenure evaluations, increased aid for and the number of charter schools, and tax credits to benefit religious and other private schools. It was growing clear that a number of Cuomo’s education policies are in trouble – measures affecting everything from the cap on charter schools to what to do about failing schools. The extent of state funding for schools and the major winners in what is expected to be at least a $1 billion increase are also up in the air.

One needed to only walk the Capitol’s hallways Monday to realize that education matters are still unsettled. Outside the Assembly Chamber, lobbyists from the Catholic Conference huddled. Down the hall, an army of New York State United Teachers union lobbyists surrounded Assembly Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle, D-Irondequoit, in a hushed conversation. Around the corner, charter school lobbyists were strategizing. Between the two chambers, staff from the school superintendents association breezed by and lobbyists for school districts from the Big 5 cities, including Buffalo, worked lawmakers.

For NYSUT, it was a mixed day. In the morning, the second poll in a week was released showing that more New Yorkers side with the teachers union than Cuomo in the budget fight over funding and policies. In the afternoon, a state judge rejected a challenge by the union to the property tax cap program, what a Cuomo spokesman called “another meritless special interest lawsuit.”

The Siena Research Institute poll also gave some ammunition to lawmakers, such as Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, pushing back against a Cuomo plan to require some upstate regions to compete against one another for a $1.5 billion in economic-development funds; only three would “win” $500 million apiece.

Cuomo’s plan is based on the Buffalo Billion program, and his budget would exclude Western New York from the competition. Schimminger said that the money should not be subject to a Cuomo-run competition and that the Buffalo area should be eligible for some of the funding.

The Siena poll said 77 percent of New Yorkers want the money spread to all upstate areas, not limited to three areas.

Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx., after one of his closed-door conferences with Assembly Democrats, said their plan to give state college financial aid to children of undocumented immigrants and a Senate education tax credit proposal are “not looking good” for the budget.

The Cuomo administration left its views to a written statement late Monday afternoon. Melissa DeRosa, a spokeswoman for the governor, signaled that a number of issues could be dealt with after the budget, including raising a cap on charter schools and the immigration measure known as the DREAM Act. She said Cuomo meant it with his demands for ethics law changes; he agreed last week with Assembly Democrats on a plan that some watchdogs say is too weak, and Senate Republicans want more disclosure laws aimed at Cuomo’s administration.

DeRosa said schools will get a big boost in aid if lawmakers approve plans to strengthen teacher evaluations and the teacher tenure process.

The administration statement, offering threats and olive branches of sorts, served one purpose: It signaled areas of the budget likely still open, from a proposed increase in the minimum wage to the $1.5 billion upstate fund.