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Freeze in SUNY tuition, better school aid awaited from Albany

ALBANY – Tuition at the State University of New York will be frozen in the coming year and a state raid on education funding that started during the financial meltdown era is about to be eliminated, state officials said Tuesday as the rush intensified to adopt a New York budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

The parameters of an increase in the minimum wage also are said to be in place, although legislators said a final deal has not yet been presented to them. Sources say the leading plan would raise the current minimum wage of $9 per hour to $12.50 in upstate counties by 2021 followed by an economic study to determine whether the wage level should keep rising to an eventual cap of $15 per hour, possibly by 2023.

One official said the formula to get the wage to $15 per hour upstate, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed, would be “wildly prone to manipulation” in the years ahead. Downstate areas would hit $15 per hour much faster and in different phases.

Officials say it also is necessary for lawmakers to sign off on a plan for paid family leave, including a resolution about who would qualify for the benefit and whether payments would last for a maximum of 12 weeks. Sources say a total tax cut package of $1 billion is in the works, although the full phase-in period for those tax breaks was undetermined Tuesday night.

“The conversations are good. The process is very orderly and professional,” Cuomo said in a briefing with reporters in his office that was light on details. He called the plans for the minimum wage and family leave highly “nuanced economic issues.” Gone from the talks is a special carve-out for small businesses, Cuomo said, because it could put them at a disadvantage in hiring workers with those companies that would have to pay the higher minimum wage.

Cuomo and lawmakers are facing a deadline of midnight Thursday if the budget is to be adopted on time. The new fiscal year begins Friday.

Negotiators this year are catching a bit of a break – at least 12 or so hours of extra talking time – with that looming deadline. That’s because a 2014 amendment to the State Constitution that allowed for digital introduction of bills – effective for the first time with this year’s budget – avoids the many hours it took in the past to print hundreds of bills totaling thousands of pages. Now, a budget bill can be introduced simply by hitting the “send” button.

Circumstances can change at the last minute as officials find a need for more revenues, but sources said some money-raising ideas – such as legalization of daily fantasy sports contests and online poker – are not being considered.

‘Three expectations’ cited

SUNY has seen a 25 percent increase in undergraduate, in-state tuition levels in the last five years under what officials call a “rational” tuition program that puts the tuition decisions in the hands of the SUNY board and not the Legislature and the governor. SUNY has pressed for another five-year renewal of that authority; without that power, there could be no tuition hike.

“I don’t believe they will renew it this year,” Cuomo said of lawmakers.

The Assembly and Senate both balked at the SUNY request. On the table Tuesday was a push by Assembly Democrats to drive more state money to SUNY, which has increasingly shifted its expenses over the years onto students and away from the state’s general fund.

“We don’t want to continue to shift the costs to the students,” said Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo. “So we don’t want to give SUNY permission to raise its tuition, but we have to make sure we’ve adequately funded SUNY to compensate for that tuition loss. We don’t want a hollow victory where we prevent the tuition increase but we do financial harm to SUNY.”

SUNY officials have said they need $73 million in additional state aid to make up for a tuition freeze next year. Tuition has gone up by $300 in each of the last five years.

Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan Jr., R-Huntington, told The Buffalo News that he is convinced the final budget also will put an end to the Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, a 2010 financial maneuver in which the state takes back school aid. Districts have warned of layoffs and program cuts if the GEA is not eliminated this year, and the Republican-led Senate has made the issue one of its top priorities.

“I have three expectations,” Flanagan said after leaving one of at least two private meetings he had with Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, and Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeffrey D. Klein, also of the Bronx. “We’re going to have a record increase in (education) aid. We’re going to have a record increase in foundation (school formula-based funding). And I’m very optimistic we’re going to see elimination of the GEA,” Flanagan said.

In January, Cuomo already called for aid hike of $991 million, or about 4 percent, for nearly 700 public schools; the Assembly, on the high end, proposed a $2.1 billion increase.

Legislative leaders and Cuomo were stingy with many details.

Heastie briefed his conference and told reporters that a major sticking point involves Cuomo’s proposals to raise Medicaid costs for New York City, whose mayor, Bill de Blasio, has been in a very public feud with Cuomo over a host of matters.

Last-minute issues

Beyond the major items, a host of under-the-radar issues arose or fell off the table late Tuesday.

Negotiators are said to be close on a deal to provide state-funded rebates to consumers who buy zero-emission vehicles, such as electric cars. One number being discussed Tuesday was a $2,000-per-car rebate. The sides also are looking to use part of the state’s Environmental Protection Fund for more infrastructure spending on such things as battery-recharging stations.

The News recently quoted the top air-quality official in California and environmental advocates in New York, saying that the Cuomo administration had to step up initiatives to encourage zero-emission vehicle sales if it is to meet the goals of a pact Cuomo made with other states for the purchase of a certain number of the vehicles by 2025.

The final hours were producing some winners and looming losers, and leaving some government watchdogs and big and small companies upset with the secrecy surrounding the budget talks. Behind glass doors outside Cuomo’s office, protesters shouted as Heastie and Flanagan spoke; they were lobbying for more money for AIDS programs.

Some interest groups sought to raise the profile of their budget problems. Chip Davis, president of the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, called to provide what he termed a “real world example of the lack of transparency” in the Albany budget negotiations.

Davis said the Washington-based trade group is hearing the governor and lawmakers are on the verge of finalizing a deal that would be what he called a $23 million penalty on generic drug companies that participate in the state’s Medicaid program.

Davis said the higher rebate generic manufacturers would have to pay the state – what he termed a penalty – would kick in at certain levels if a generic drug price is raised. But Davis said the companies making branded drugs are, to his knowledge, not being hit by the same penalty. He said that generic drugs account for 88 percent of the prescriptions in New York in 2014 but that 72 percent of the costs came from branded drugs.

“Apparently, the Governor’s Office, in dealing with the Legislature, is not interested in addressing that underlying problem but would rather penalize this sector,” Davis said. “… It just doesn’t seem to make sense to us.”