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Will college aid hike, ride-hailing survive in state budget?

ALBANY – Despite the wrangling at the Capitol, in excess of 90 percent of the state’s upcoming $160 billion budget already has been decided.

It wasn’t because of keen negotiating by the governor or lawmakers, but the reality that so much of the state’s spending is largely on auto pilot, whether for Medicaid or state payroll.

But with two weeks to go before the state fiscal year starts April 1, key items remain to be resolved, and their status can be lumped into alive, dead or near dead.

Consider one of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “groundbreaking” proposals: reducing property tax burdens by forcing cities, towns and villages to deliver cost-sharing ideas to county executives, who then would send those ideas to voters for countywide referendums this fall.

It arrived with a thud.

The Senate said such an effort should be voluntary for localities. Moreover, legislative leaders said, Cuomo was trying to link more than $700 million in state aid to municipalities to passage of the  governor’s idea.

“I don’t think that’s very good policy,’’ Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said.

The Assembly was more precise: It erased Cuomo’s idea from the budget resolution that passed the house Wednesday.

Minus an occasional rhetorical flourish or two, little drama has accompanied negotiations. About the most personal things got this week between Cuomo and lawmakers was when Flanagan said a new Democratic Party ad pushing Cuomo’s budget was not “particularly helpful” to fiscal talks.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he did not want to talk about difficulties facing the negotiations.

“We’ll see what happens. Some make it, and some don’t, but that will all be determined over the next two weeks,’’ he said.

Here is a look at what remains on the table with two weeks to go until the budget deal is supposed to be sewn up:

Aid for college students: All sides agreed on providing more state aid for students to afford college tuition. They are apart on income eligibility, amount to spend, how much to help public versus private college students and whether any effort should just be focused on expanding the already existing Tuition Assistance Program.

All sides say a tuition assistance plan will be passed that enables Albany politicians to use the word “free” and “college tuition” in the same sentence.

“We all do want something regarding college affordability. It’s just a matter of coming together and forming an agreement on at least one plan,’’ said Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Senate Independent Democratic Conference, a group that has a power-sharing alliance with Senate Republicans.

And the Assembly?

“We feel we’ve improved upon the governor’s proposal,’’ Heastie said of his Democratic conference’s college plan.

Pay raise for direct care workers: Asked separately, Heastie and Flanagan said a pay raise for 100,000 direct care workers at nonprofits that provide a range of health-related services to people with a range of disabilities is an item of agreement.

Klein’s IDC splits from the GOP in pressing for aid to be given to the children of undocumented immigrants.

Millionaire’s surcharge: Klein’s group for the first time introduced its own budget resolution Wednesday, which broke with the GOP in its call to extend an existing income tax surcharge on millionaires.

Cuomo wants the tax extended, and Assembly Democrats want to significantly boost the levy on wealthy people.

Senate Republicans publicly reject that tax, but senators privately note that few millionaires live in districts represented by upstate Senate Republicans, who make up a majority of the GOP conference. Flanagan said Cuomo’s own long-term financial plan shows big long-term surpluses if the millionaires’ tax is extended.

[RELATED: Senate: Cuomo's fee and tax hikes would cost New Yorkers $4.5 billion]

“I don’t know why we need to do something like that,’’ he said.

This could end up as a negotiating item for other priorities that Republicans want.

Done and near-done deals
Tax breaks for film production companies: This multiyear incentive is worth $420 million a year to the industry.

“Buy American” program: Some sort of deal will be reached for some state procurement deals.

Water infrastructure: Big money – between $2 billion and $8 billion depending – will be spent to improve New York’s aging water infrastructure systems.

Heroin and opioid epidemic: Additional money will be allocated to address the problem with heroin and opioid addictions.

Agreements with asterisks
Walking and biking paths: The governor’s proposed walking and biking path from New York City to the Canadian border and from Albany to Buffalo gets approval but not much money. The Assembly wants to provide just 10 percent of the $200 million Cuomo wanted to spend on it.

If Cuomo wants to fully fund his hiking path, it will cost him $120 million more than the Assembly wants to give him, and he will have to give up something that the Assembly may want.

Aid to public schools: All sides want a significant boost in state aid to public schools.

On the low end is Cuomo. On the high end, spending nearly $900 million more than Cuomo proposed are Assembly Democrats. They want to boost aid by $1.8 billion from last year’s budget.

Closer to Cuomo are Senate Republicans, who proposed a $1.2 billion increase.

Though the number is important, the fight is over how to distribute the aid among urban, suburban and rural districts.

To get more money for school aid, Senate Republicans are likely to agree on an extension of the tax surcharge on millionaires.

Aid for charter schools: State money directed to charter schools remains a fight. Cuomo and the Senate GOP side with the charters. Assembly Democrats do not.

Unresolved issues
Ride-hailing in upstate: Sides are split over insurance coverage and level of criminal background checks for drivers, accessibility for disabled riders and whether localities should regulate the transportation companies in their communities. If push comes to shove, this can get bounced off the negotiating table and reserved for the next round of policy trade dealing at the end of June.

[RELATED: Assembly unveils bill to permit Uber, Lyft-like services upstate]

Raising the age for adult criminal responsibility: The sides are closer than they’ve been in years to raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years. Only one other state – North Carolina – does not prevent 16- and 17-year-olds to be treated as adults in its criminal justice system. Heastie said this is the Assembly’s No. 1 policy and it has joined Cuomo in additional funding for the initiative.

This is not a priority in the GOP-led Senate, but it is a bargaining chip to get other things Republican lawmakers want, or to provide some political victory for the Independent Democratic Conference, a group that several years ago broke away from the mainline Democratic conference to form a coalition with the GOP.

“We want to make sure raise the age is done this year,’’ said Klein, the IDC’s leader.

Extending governor's budget power: If Washington sends the state less aid in the coming year, the governor wants his administration to decide how to shift spending after the budget deal is passed. Neither house accepted that idea, and Heastie said Cuomo can call lawmakers back to a special session if a fiscal problem arises.

“Our members are very stridently opposed to the governor’s approach,’’ Flanagan said.

Asked if that idea will make its way into the final budget deal, he said, “No.”



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