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Editorial: State budget includes a healthy dose of policy

State budgets always produce winners and losers, but rarely are the spending plans as controversial or influential as the one that Albany concluded on Sunday.

In fact, it’s not just a spending plan, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo observed on Monday. Rather, he said, the document amounts to a one-year operating plan that reflects New York’s values, priorities and finances. There is a lot to like about the $163.2 billion document, including its relative restraint in spending growth, while other aspects will require close monitoring.

For Western New York, the big lift was part two of the Buffalo Billion, Cuomo’s economic development program that is helping to build a new and modern economy in Western New York. The $500 million will do critical work in supporting and expanding on what has already been accomplished.

It is a critical part of Cuomo’s plan for Western New York, which has never had this kind of official attention, despite decades of need as economic decline dragged down the state’s second-largest city. Just as the Capital Region, at the insistence of former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, focused intently on remaking the economy of that part of the state, Cuomo has labored to make sure that the initial billion dollars didn’t become a “one-and-done” effort that lacked the necessary follow-up.

It wasn’t an easy task, as some local lawmakers wanted to attach a string to the investment in Western New York. They sought more authority over how the money would be spent and, while they have an appropriate oversight role, they had no business trying to fix a system that was working. They should, however, verify that agencies in charge of spending the money do so in a way that avoids the kind of contracting scandal that enveloped the RiverBend project and others around the state.

For all of upstate, the belated approval of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft counts as a significant win. While the authorization required sorting out some important issues, it was intolerable that while the services were able to operate in New York City, upstate and Long Island were left without access to one of the most transformative web-based services existing. Importantly, the agreement established a statewide set of regulations, rejecting the Assembly’s push to allow municipalities to impose their own rules.

One of the most controversial aspects of the budget was Cuomo’s push for free tuition to public colleges. He prevailed and, while there are legitimate concerns over its long-term impact on the state budget and its treatment of those families it doesn’t cover, the final bill provides protection for private colleges and ensures that no one will lose out on a college education because of costs that are ratcheting ever higher.

The agreement also requires its beneficiaries to remain in New York after graduation for the same number of years they benefited from free tuition. If they don’t, the tuition assistance becomes a loan. That’s an important safeguard. Taxpayers are giving students something of value; this provision ensures that they give something back.

While the program provides free tuition for students from families making less than $100,000 a year, for in-state students whose families make more, tuition costs will rise notably – by $200 a year for five years. Thus, those families are helping to defray the costs of free tuition for others, and while that in some way mirrors the state’s graduated income tax system, it will be a justifiably hard swallow for some families. Some of those people will already be paying more to the state than they expected, due to the renewal of the “millionaire’s tax,” which would otherwise have expired.

The age of adult criminal responsibility for non-violent offenses will rise to 18 years old from the current 16, in a move that brings New York in line with 48 other states – all except North Carolina. That’s a valuable change in criminal justice procedures. It gives youths a chance to grow up and do better.

As always, school aid increased and, also as always, lawmakers required nothing of school districts in return. New Yorkers already spend more per student than residents of any other state, yet results here are no better than mediocre. Albany should be demanding more – improved scores, higher graduation rates – in exchange for continued increases in state education spending. But Albany won’t demand that until taxpayers do.

One of the most intriguing parts of Cuomo’s budget proposal was another of his efforts to reduce the burden of local property taxes. A proposal to require municipalities to offer cost-saving ideas to county leaders, and then to be submitted for a referendum, was weakened because lawmakers weren’t strong enough to stand up to the protests of local governments. Still, the plans will be offered and, while localities can opt out of any plan, their residents will at least know what could have been.

The budget was nine days late – the first time it has been so tardy since 2010. Cuomo pitched that performance as a difficult birth that produced a beautiful baby. It is definitely good that the budget remained within the 2 percent growth cap that Cuomo has insisted upon for local governments, but New Yorkers would be wise to let their lawmakers know that they expect them next year to produce a satisfactory budget on time. That’s the job and legislators should do it.

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