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Transparent New York State budget is being lost to deadline

ALBANY – The goal of transparency in the state budget process came and went Monday as lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo instead kept their eyes on another ambition: meeting Thursday’s deadline.

A series of snags – over issues such as the minimum wage, paid family leave, education funding and medical malpractice – kept officials from their stated goal of finalizing state budget bills by Monday night so the legislation could be released to the public for a legally required three-day waiting period.

It was always unlikely that the timetable would be met. For years, governors and lawmakers have preferred not to have a budget deal “hang” in public for three days with the chance of it blowing up. Now, the budget will need special messages of “necessity” issued by Cuomo if he wants to meet the on-time goal for the new fiscal year, which will begin Friday.

Among the unresolved issues is whether to let the State University of New York continue to decide its own tuition levels with a $300 per year cap on increases or – after a 25 percent hike over the last five years – to freeze tuition for at least a year. Last week, SUNY officials offered a one-year freeze in return for $73 million in additional state funding.

Lawmakers said funding for public schools, a bread-and-butter issue for all legislators, has also not yet been decided.

The approximately $154 billion spending plan was discussed for hours behind closed doors with Republicans who control the Senate and Democrats who run the Assembly. Upon emerging, both sides could agree on one mantra for the day: Things remain fluid.

Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, said Democrats are concerned about how well New York City – facing cuts under Cuomo’s proposal – will fare. Moreover, he said, big-ticket items such as Medicaid and higher education, let alone funding decisions for the state’s 700 school districts, were all open issues.

The most contentious issue has been a plan by Democrats to raise the minimum wage, in stages, to $15 per hour. Some of the public relations wind for New York Democrats was lost when California Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday announced a deal for his state to hit the $15-per-hour mark.

“We congratulate California,” said Heastie, whose house was the first in Albany to press for that level of a minimum wage.

The California announcement weaved through the Capitol on Monday afternoon in hallway chatter among lobbyists and lawmakers as they searched for the potential impact of the decision nearly 3,000 miles away in Sacramento.

The Cuomo administration quickly shot down one lawmaker’s suggestion to postpone the minimum-wage debate and resolve it later in the session.

“There is no contemplation about doing a budget without the minimum wage,” said Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman.

It was a crowded scene, as usual, during the start of budget week. On the third floor, government watchdogs held court demanding that new ethics rules be part of the budget. Downstairs, activists for a minimum-wage hike had to reschedule their 12:30 event when a group seeking more money for AIDS programs took over the historic War Room located down the hall from Cuomo’s office.

It’s a tricky time for Senate Republicans, who face a special election next month for a seat that they have held for years and, more importantly, an uncertain fall when the entire Senate is up for re-election in a year that could determine the control of the 63-member body.

Senate Republicans met for a couple of hours behind closed doors, and it seemed clear afterward that negotiations are not just among Cuomo, the Senate and Assembly, but also within the Senate GOP conference itself. “There’s still a lot of issues that we, as a Republican conference, are talking about. There’s been no final resolution among ourselves on where we should be on a number of issues,” said Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst.

One of those issues is the minimum-wage hike, and how to soothe business interests, which have been historically tight with the Senate GOP, by altering the wage increase to slow its phase-in period and including a package of corporate tax breaks.

Issues such as education and transportation funding are also “still being negotiated among us as senators,” Ranzenhofer said. The players at the table are, once again, a shortlist. Senate Democrats, who are out of power but could be in control after the November elections, had been invited for a private lunch with Cuomo in the Executive Mansion.

“I fasted for three days, and the governor canceled on us,” said Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., D-Bronx.