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Albany quickens pace by lightening load

ALBANY – Looking to end one of the State Legislature’s more bizarre sessions, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders Tuesday announced deals giving $1.3 billion in rebate checks timed for campaign season to homeowners and an extension of the property tax cap.

But the day was noteworthy for what dropped off the negotiating table and was declared dead: a tax credit program to benefit nonpublic schools, raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 and giving the mayor of Buffalo control over the city’s public school system.

“This is a great agreement,” Cuomo said , flanked by Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, and Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan Jr., R-Huntington.

The announcement came with few details. “We still have a lot of negotiations to do on the smaller issues,” Heastie said.

Mayoral control of the New York City school system was extended for just a year. But the effort by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown to oust the existing city School Board and replace it with a nine-member panel of his choosing never got off the ground at the Capitol. The proposal also would have given the mayor power to select a superintendent.

Critics have said Brown did not expend any real political energy to get the measure passed; moreover, they say, such action would undo a democratic system of electing School Board members.

“We’ll just have to reintroduce it next year,” said Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, the sole majority party member in either house to publicly back the idea. “I’m disappointed for the sake of the children. I think it would have been a better method for the City of Buffalo.”

Killed during the legislative talks was a plan to provide a tax credit program to chiefly benefit private and parochial schools. It is being replaced, Cuomo said, with $250 million in payments to nonpublic schools for state-mandated services that they provide.

But legislative sources say that money will be spread over two years and that nearly all of it covers expenses already incurred and billed by the schools for state-mandated services; the precise list of expenses was still under negotiation.

Details also were fuzzy about a tentative agreement calling for more transparency for teachers and parents about state tests based on the Common Core Learning Standards. Flanagan said more information on the tests will be provided to teachers and parents.

Cuomo said the $1.3 billion property tax rebate program, pushed by Senate Republicans, will provide “hundreds” of dollars apiece in tax breaks for upstate residents. Exact amounts by county were not released, but Western New York taxpayers will end up getting far less per household than downstate counties whose residents pay far more in total property tax bills.

“The tax rebate is real money to real people,” Flanagan said.

As in past election years, the rebate checks will be mailed sometime in September in advance of the November elections. There also will be some sort of income-based component along the lines of the existing restrictions for the STAR program for property tax relief; the basic STAR exemption is not available to residents earning more than $500,000 per year.

Also, the property tax cap program, due to expire next year, will be extended an additional four years to match an extension of a rent-control program in New York City. “I think the tax cap is one of the most important pieces of legislation that I voted on in my time here. The thing that constituents have talked to me the most about is their property taxes,” said Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma.

Talks were continuing on whether the cap program will change, such as additional exemptions from the cap for certain expenses by a locality or school district. Officials are considering exempting from the cap formula payments made to local Board of Cooperative Educational Services entities.

An effort to raise from 16 to 18 the age at which teens can be tried for most crimes in New York was beaten back by Senate Republicans, who also a few weeks ago again rejected a push by Cuomo to give children of undocumented immigrants access to state college aid. Cuomo said he will issue an executive order banning those under 18 from serving time in state prisons, putting that relatively small population of inmates into other facilities. Lawmakers say that the pledge merely mirrors a mandate already imposed by the federal government.

The “Big Ugly” – an annual omnibus bill that will be released Wednesday, also contains no specific language changes to the SAFE Act gun-control law, as Senate Republicans sought. After the recent massacre by a gunman at a church in Charleston, S.C., lawmakers abandoned any effort to change that law.

However, talks were still proceeding Tuesday night on a memorandum of understanding in which Cuomo and both houses would have to agree on the creation of an ammunition sales database, which was to have been created under the SAFE Act. Such a memorandum would effectively kill the database for the time being.

Gallivan said he was “glad to make progress” on changing some aspects of the SAFE Act.

Nothing really gets a final sign-off until agreements are turned into final legislative language, but leaders of both houses expressed confidence that the bill would be printed and approved sometime Wednesday.

Some of the news conference announcements didn’t quite match reality, some critics said. For instance, Cuomo suggested that the number of charter schools upstate would be increasing. But lawmakers said that the overall cap was not being increased and that the only real beneficiary for additional charters will be New York City.

Two dozen charters have closed in recent years, and the state will allow those new charters to be issued to replace them, with New York City being the area of expected growth.

Cuomo also sought to portray the collapse of his Education Investment Tax Credit plan – benefiting private and religious schools – as a victory because $250 million would be set aside to help those schools pay for mandated state services.

Lawmakers say an aggressive campaign by education tax credit supporters ended up backfiring in the Assembly. Over the last several weeks, mailers and robocalls targeted a host of Assembly Democrats, who described going from being rattled at first by the campaign to delight Tuesday that the Cuomo-backed measure failed.

“They spent one of the most massive spending sprees we’ve seen in years in Albany in order to win tax credits for private schools and their wealthy donors and for a massive expansion of charter schools and on both fronts they were defeated,” said Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, which works closely with the state’s big teachers unions on public school issues.

The 2015 session – in which the now-former leaders of both houses of the Legislature were arrested on federal corruption charges – had been due to end last Wednesday. There is no certainty yet when the session will close down, though the Capitol can be a place where time suddenly can fly when governors and lawmakers want to leave town.