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Cuomo, lawmakers stumble in bid to strike budget deals

ALBANY – It was another day and another unresolved effort by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and lawmakers to approve a new state budget.

Though some parts of the budget were still being negotiated Saturday, only a few-dozen lobbyists were stationed at key points of the Capitol to corral lawmakers and staffers. It was a scene – starkly different from Friday, when the Capitol was packed with a who’s who of special interest representatives – that confirmed large parts of the fiscal plan had been closed down and there was little left to impact.

The most visible sign of activity during the day was a couple getting married on the Capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase. Soon after, a group of protesters made their way from near Cuomo’s second-floor office to outside a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans. Their issues ranged from education funding and taxes on wealthy New Yorkers to housing for the homeless.

Legislative officials said there were still several major components of the spending plan yet to be resolved, including how to divvy up public school funding, how to help charter schools, and what kind of incentives to give developers in New York City for affordable housing projects. There also was the issue that appears to have split Republicans and Democrats all week (indeed, for years) – whether to relax criminal justice laws affecting 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes.

“It’s a lot of the issues we’ve talked about for a long time,’’ Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat and head of the Senate Independent Democratic Conference, said after emerging from talks with Cuomo and other legislators on the adolescent crime bill.

Lawmakers and Cuomo have cut a deal to make more students eligible for tuition assistance at public and private colleges. One potential method of payment is raiding private foundations connected to State University of New York campuses, including the University at Buffalo.

That possibility led the presidents of the four major SUNY campuses, including University at Buffalo President Satish Tripathi, to lodge a protest . In a letter to Cuomo’s budget director and the leaders of the two houses, first reported Saturday by Newsday, the four leaders strongly urged that state officials not raid campus foundations, including the UB Foundation, to help fund a program to provide free tuition for public college students.

The campus presidents said their foundations already support student scholarships and such an action  would be “extremely threatening to our ability to successfully meet our mission.’’ Moreover, the presidents reminded the budget negotiators that the foundations are private nonprofits.

“If we understand correctly, this proposal is incompatible with state and federal legal mandates that regulate private foundations,’’ the campus leaders wrote.

The Cuomo administration did not have a comment.

Though there was optimism in the morning that both houses might gavel into session Saturday and start passing the less-controversial components of the budget, late Saturday afternoon, all signs pointed to inaction. The Senate dismissed some staff and, before dinner, lights were turned off in the Senate chamber and its large metal doors locked shut. Down the hall, Assembly Democrats were plodding through more briefings on individual agency and subject-area budget deals. All those are contingent on an overall agreement on the $160 billion budget.

Political differences aside, the intricacies of crafting a budget served to slow things down, too. For instance, Cuomo has been meeting with rank-and-file lawmakers on the criminal justice dispute. Despite progress from those discussions,  matters  become snagged when staff members who are experts in criminal law try convert that progress into a workable legal framework.

As for education funding, there  are fewer than a half-dozen people in Albany who know how to take the broad outlines of a school aid funding package and run that through a complex formula that ends up determining what 700 school districts will be getting in the way of state funding in the coming school year. As of Saturday night, the process of performing those computer “runs” – as they are called in Albany – had not yet begun.

And, in another day of heightened mistrust in Albany, neither house had introduced a single budget bill outlining how $160 billion will be spent.

Cuomo met with legislative leaders Saturday morning, less than 12 hours after he said he was giving lawmakers a “grace period” to get budget deals this weekend or he would send the Legislature an extender bill to keep the government running.

Long gone from the equation is any notion of aging the budget bills – as state law requires – for three days to give lawmakers and the public a chance to read the voluminous package of spending and policy plans. Instead, Cuomo will be giving the Legislature a “message of necessity,’’ which will enable them to quickly go into session and pass bills within an hour or less of being publicly introduced.

One legislative source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Cuomo has given legislative leaders three options:

  • Pass a full budget.
  • Pass an emergency extender bill to keep the government running and able to pay its bills, along with some ” other items, such as capital spending intended to lure votes from the Legislature.
  • Pass the nuclear option, in which Cuomo introduces an emergency bill that extends the levels of the 2016-17 budget.  Under this option, the source said, the measure could keep spending going for a year – and  lawmakers would not get paid. By state statute, lawmakers’ pay is frozen when a budget is late.

The houses will try again Sunday afternoon when they return to the Capitol, though it is unlikely a budget will be approved until Monday, at the earliest. Lawmakers are already scheduled to be in session Monday through Wednesday this week before taking off for more than two weeks.

However, many issues already have already been resolved, including legalizing ride-hailing transportation services in upstate. Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D- Kenmore, said he is “optimistic” the final budget will include new tax cuts for small businesses. The lawmaker, chairman of the Assembly economic development committee, said he expects the final budget to expand the Excelsior Jobs Program to small businesses by lowering, for instance, the number of net new manufacturing jobs a company must create to be eligible for the incentives.

The current program, he said, is skewed to helping larger companies.

“It is a program that has underperformed its potential," in part, because it has not focused on helping smaller companies, he said.

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