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Legislature OKs $150 billion budget overnight

ALBANY – The state legislature passed a $150 billion new state budget overnight, and in the process cemented Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s battered relations with lawmakers who successfully challenged his authority on several fronts.

Lawmakers scored a series of wins.

They got more money for schools than Cuomo proposed, weakened his legislative ethics plan and placed controls on his teacher evaluation program.

They also shoved aside Cuomo policy initiatives Cuomo for property tax cuts for some New Yorkers, criminal justice, minimum wage, charter schools, college aid for children of illegal immigrants and tax breaks to help religious schools.

The governor did get his way, however, with billions in spending initiatives, including much of what he wanted for the state’s $5.4 billion surplus. Of that amount, $900 million will go to his Tappan Zee Bridge project and $1.5 billion is earmarked for an upstate economic development competition lawmakers call “The Hunger Games.” Western New York is not eligible for those funds since it already has money left from the Buffalo Billion program.

The Assembly passed the last of the budget bills about 3 a.m. Wednesday. It is the first time in five years, and the first for Cuomo since he became governor, that an on-time budget was not attained.

The Senate pass its final bill before the before midnight, after which Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos announced on the floor that Cuomo invited senators, including minority party Democrats to the governor’s mansion for a party.

Skelos then said lawmakers will take a three-week vacation, which Albany history has shown could stretch out longer.

The final hours of the budget deliberations were not pretty. Bills had to be reworked to fix mistakes and there was no advance viewing of the thousands of pages of bills totaling tens of billions of dollars. Cuomo gave lawmakers a “message of necessity” for each of the bills passed, avoiding the legally required three-day wait.

Asked by a colleague during a floor debate about how much a capital construction bill totaled, Senate Finance Chairman John DeFrancisco said, “Well, that’s a very good question. Whatever all these numbers add up to.”

A few moments later he put the number at $7.6 billion.

Cuomo gives in

The 2015 budget process dented Cuomo’s armor of previous years. This year, he loaded up the budget with an unusually large number of policy ideas unrelated to state finances. He sought in many areas to link some ideas to specific spending wishes of lawmakers.

In the end, he dropped item after item from the table.

Both Republicans and Democrats called that a victory for the Legislature.

“What was unique about this year was that we were presented a budget heavily laden with extraneous issues. As they fell off, people would say, ‘He’s losing,’ ” Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat, said of Cuomo. “But they shouldn’t have been there in the first place and they did delay the process, no doubt about it.”

Cuomo has called such claims “red herrings.” But lawmakers said the governor’s move backfired because it sought to hold spending plans hostage to often-controversial policy ideas. Cuomo, for instance, sought to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to age 18, an idea Democrats supported but which Republicans said failed to consider all the implications and was being pushed without any public hearings.

Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, a Queens Democrat, was among the many lawmakers who pushed back against Cuomo’s approach.

“If you believe in a legislative process, to have all kinds of things thrown at you in this short, concise period in a complicated state like New York can be dangerous,” he said.

DeFrancisco, the Senate finance chairman and a Syracuse-area Republican, said he believes Cuomo won’t try the same approach next year after the push-back he saw this year from both parties.

“We are a separately elected body that should have some input on some things. To tie in whether a district gets school aid to whether they agree to what the governor wants to get done I think it’s a little bit overstepping because we represent the same people,” DeFrancisco said of Cuomo’s threat to sharply cut a school aid hike if lawmakers didn’t buy into his teacher evaluation program.

Several Cuomo backers, including charter schools and the Working Families Party, which endorsed the governor’s re-election last year, described the session as a “missed opportunity.”

Still, Cuomo and lawmakers sought to soothe critics, saying there is still plenty of time before lawmakers leave in June to take up dozens of large and small unresolved issues.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com