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Editorial: State budget negotiators need to focus on taxpayers

If it’s NCAA time in America, then it’s crunch time in Albany for the New York State budget. The 2017-18 spending plan is due a week from this Friday and, if past is prologue, the governor and lawmakers will be horse-trading right up to the deadline and perhaps a few hours past it. But time remains to get this right – or not – as the state puts a price tag on its priorities for the coming 12 months.

The most creative and hopeful aspect of the budget is one that appears to be at imminent risk of failing. Legislators want nothing to do with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal to force counties to look for ways to reduce their costs.

Cuomo’s plan was well conceived, but for its failure to include school districts, which are the main drivers of property taxes. Under it, county executives or county managers would be required to call together all officials from their counties to devise ways to share government services to cut expenses. The plans would then be put before voters in countywide referendums.

Given the complaints about the extreme burden created by local property taxes, you would think this would be a no-brainer, even without including the state’s school districts. But lower costs could mean less employment, and with public sector unions living snug in the pockets of the state lawmakers, especially Assembly Democrats, pressure to keep costs high is bound to play a role.
Cuomo shouldn’t give up on his latest effort to attack the problem of high property taxes in New York. He may yet have an opportunity to win support for it.

Conversely, as important as it is to find a way to restrain the costs of a college education, the Legislature should pass on Cuomo’s plan to offer free tuition to students of the state university system. It’s too much too quickly.

The plan heads in the right direction, but it feels half-baked, and with too many complications likely to follow. There needs to be greater consideration of the impact on private colleges, while understanding that free public grade schools don’t keep private schools from thriving. That said, an increase in the Tuition Assistance Program is, in good part, an expensive gift from taxpayers to private colleges. Why?

It is essential to extend the operations of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft to upstate. Buffalo suffers without it, and the state – which once prided itself on being modern – is an outlier. There are legitimate issues to be settled, but they can’t be allowed to prevent the state from acknowledging the facts of a changing economy. It wouldn’t be unfair, though, for the Legislature to insist that ride-hailing companies working in the state operate in an ethical manner. Uber, the subject of some troubling revelations, will have to up its game.

Cuomo’s push to raise the age at which minors can be prosecuted as adults deserves support. Besides New York, only North Carolina does not prohibit 16- and 17-year-olds from being treated as adults in criminal cases. It’s true that children of that age can commit terrible crimes, but 18 is a commonly accepted age of majority and, given that adolescents’ brains are still developing at 16 and 17, this is an appropriate change.

Absent from the agenda, but still requiring attention, are the problems that lead to wrongful conviction in New York. Erie County is no stranger to this largely avoidable tragedy, yet Albany consistently refuses to act on what is, in fact, a law-and-order issue. Convicting the wrong person of a crime is a travesty on its own, but one that leaves the real criminal on the streets.

There are documented methods to limit the chances of wrongful conviction. Better witness lineup procedures have been shown to reduce the too-common problem of witness misidentification – the defect that sent Anthony Capozzi to prison for rapes he did not commit, leaving the actual rapist, Altemio Sanchez, to begin murdering women in Western New York.

Recorded interrogation, meanwhile, can reduce the strange-but-true phenomenon of false confession, in which suspects – often mentally ill or drug-dependent – admit to crimes they did not commit. What’s the holdup?

Other issues include the governor’s proposed statewide system of hiking and biking paths. Even if lawmakers don’t approve funding the entire project this year, they should begin the work and lay specific plans for finishing it.

As always, legislators want gobs more money for public education. Its need is debatable, since New York already spends more per student than any other state, but if it must be, the increase must come with performance standards attached. Taxpayers should get something for their money.
In fact, that’s not a bad standard for the entire budget.

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