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College aid, ride-hailing roll closer to budget reality

ALBANY – Deals were tentatively struck Wednesday at the state Capitol to assist public and private students with rising college expenses, legalize ride-hailing upstate and enact the state’s largest-ever water infrastructure improvement program.

The topics were among others nearing completion in state budget talks -- including raising to 18 years the age of adult criminal responsibility and providing additional sunshine on the state’s economic development spending.

Still open on the negotiating table between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Legislature was whether the state will force cities, towns and villages to abide by county-led consolidation of services efforts.

The funding tussle between two politically potent forces – traditional public schools and charter schools – raged Wednesday night.

A new state budget, to be on time, is due by Friday at midnight.

Tentative deals made at this time of year tend to stick. But the sides cautioned various policy and fiscal matters remain unresolved.

College affordability

The final budget is expected to include a “hybrid” effort between what Cuomo and the Legislature has proposed that gives tuition-free assistance to more students at the State University of New York while raising the publicly funded Tuition Assistance Program for private college students.

“We’re coming together … on something that helps all students in New York,’’ said Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat and leader of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference.

Unresolved, though, remains how much additional aid the SUNY system will receive in order to accommodate an expected rise in education. Such “maintenance of effort” funding is needed, lawmakers said, for such expenses as hiring more professors to ensure students have the resources to get their undergraduate degrees in four years.

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Assembly higher education committee, said the state would be offering students “a false promise” of more tuition assistance pegged to an on-time graduation if it did not ensure the required courses needed to graduate were not available to all students.

“It can’t be a bait and switch,’’ Glick said.

Cuomo proposed in January what he said would be a $160 million taxpayer-financed initiative to provide “free” tuition to students whose family income is up above the level covered by TAP and below $125,000 annually. Students would be required to take a full course load and the aid would be available for four years.

Those with incomes over that amount would see a hike in SUNY tuition, which has risen 30 percent since 2011. The aid deal would not help students with non-tuition expenses and private colleges would be financially hit by the state if they did not keep annual tuition levels at a certain pace.

In their own plans, the Legislature rejected several elements of the Cuomo plan. Lawmakers, who heard complaints that some struggling, smaller colleges would be hit especially hard by Cuomo’s plan, sought to boost TAP assistance and take steps to also assist private college and their students.

Final, precise details of the college plan were still in flux Wednesday night.

Ride-hailing

Permitting internet-based transportation services like Uber and Lyft, now only permitted in New York City, has been all but inevitable for months.

Sources in both houses said permitting the services upstate and on Long Island will be a part of the final budget this week.

On Wednesday, sources said the Assembly was throwing in the towel on a recently proposed pitch to have local governments be the ones to regulate the industry, and thereby setting rules for such things as driver background checks and minimum fleet levels for accommodating disabled passengers.

The industry, Cuomo and the Senate pushed, instead, for a statewide set of regulations to govern the industry.

The tentative agreement would let counties opt out of allowing ride-hailing, as would cities with populations over 100,000 people. One area of the talks still open, lawmakers said, is where the government fees collected on rides will be directed; a framework arrangement would set a 4 percent state sales tax on each ride.

“With this budget, Uber is definitely coming,’’ said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat.

Peoples-Stokes said she wants to see a portion of the government fees distributed to upstate transit agencies, which she said risk having to cut services because of loss of business to the ride-hailing companies.

People with disabilities are likely to see fewer transportation opportunities if transit and taxi companies are able to offer fewer services to them, Peoples-Stokes said.

“There should be some ability to provide services to the disabled and the best way to do that is to have a connection with the local transportation agencies,’’ she said.

If approved in the final budget, ride-hailing services could be months away, depending on when the state finalizes rules to regulate the industry.

Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats met for hours behind closed doors Wednesday. In an Assembly parlor on the Capitol’s third floor, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie briefed lawmakers on the latest details agreed to by negotiators. Lawmakers described the session as part information, part griping.

There was considerable heated discussion, lawmakers said, over Cuomo’s request for what they said is $41 million for State Police patrols in New York City.

No one is certain when a budget might be passed, but gone, for Wednesday, was any talk raised by Cuomo the day before of enacting the budget in phases through temporary measures.

Cuomo did not appear in public after meetings Wednesday with legislative leaders.

The final budget will include a major boost in education spending, though no legislator has yet to see district-by-district breakdowns for state aid in the coming school year. Those numbers have a major impact on local property tax levels.

The budget will include a new borrowing program for public water systems. The Senate has pushed a total package of nearly $8 billion. Heastie said the final deal will not approach that number, but he signaled there will be a major boost for such capital spending.

“Everybody wants clean drinking water,’’ he said.

Senate Republicans have been pushing for a $5 billion bond act that would go before voters in 2018 – on the same ballot when the Legislature is up for re-election. One source put the number tentatively agreed to Wednesday at $2.5 billion.

Unless talks break down, the budget will also include raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old.

Still on the table are plans to reduce businesses’ workers compensation costs.

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