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Self-driving cars, diaper stations in as state budget talks continue

Lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo limped through another day Thursday trying to cobble together a new state budget, as a self-imposed deadline of midday Friday rapidly approached.

A range of last-minute snags developed during the day as Cuomo and lawmakers – who are all facing re-election contests this year – pressed to get items included, and tossed, from the final budget that will total in the neighborhood of $170 billion.

Assuming there are no blow-ups in the talks, lawmakers are not expected to be shown how more than $25 billion of the budget will be allocated to individual school districts – always one of the most sought-after details for rank-and-file legislators – until sometime Friday.

The budget, when it gets passed, is set to include about $600 million in operating aid increases for districts – nearly double what Cuomo proposed in January – and an overall school funding boost of just above $1 billion.

Senate Republicans were proclaiming early victories in efforts to beat back about $1 billion in tax hikes proposed by Cuomo. Assembly Democrats were pushing funding boosts to both elementary and secondary public schools and restoration of cuts to need-based college grant programs.

Two of 10 budget bills received two-house passage shortly after 1 a.m. Those were the simplest, since most controversial items were removed and to be amended and inserted, or not, sometime Friday into an omnibus measure known in Albany as the "Big Ugly."

A third bill , which passed the Assembly and set to be approved this morning by the Senate, which is due back in at 9 a.m., includes provisions for a series of transportation and environmental matters. It permits, for instance, automated, or self-driving, car makers to get another one-year window in order to test their vehicles on New York roads, with various safety-related requirements; it comes after an Uber automated car killed a pedestrian in Arizona.

The bill also sets new requirements for new government-owned buildings in New York to have lactation rooms for the purposes of breastfeeding or for expressing breast milk; it also sets new rules for certain buildings to make diaper changing stations that would be available to both men and women to change their baby's diapers.

As of 8 a.m. Friday, the most controversial bills have not appeared in a state-owned legislative tracking system. Missing still are how the state will fund its massive capital project programs, the so-called "revenue" bill – that will address such things as business tax credit programs and an opioid manufacturing surcharge – and what are known as language bills to carry out policies such as new policies for handling workplace sexual harassment allegations.

In a Capitol where clocks were not so long ago stopped to accommodate voting schedules, no one has such political ability any longer. And so logistical problems were arising as lawmakers pondered how to pass the thousands of pages of budget bills that go into crafting a New York State budget.

The actual budget deadline is Saturday. But some lawmakers are planning to depart by sometime early Friday afternoon for religious holiday plans.

“It’s not going to be tonight,’’ Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican, said of passage of a final budget. “It’s going to be into Friday … if it happens at all.’’

“Talks are continuing,’’ Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said Thursday night.

Senators claimed Cuomo was threatening to send lawmakers an emergency spending bill to temporarily keep the government running if there was no budget deal – but have the short-term authorization run until May. That would be after special elections on April 24 that include two contests in which Democrats could gain a numerical edge over Republicans. Whether warring Democratic factions would actually unite if they win those two seats remains an open question.

Officials with the New York State Council of School Superintendents pushed to knock down that delay possibility, saying school boards across the state are looking to approve their coming fiscal year budgets by April 19. Schools rely heavily on state aid to set their spending and property tax revenue levels.

Whenever adopted, the final budget is expected to reject a number of tax hikes proposed by Cuomo, restore a number of business tax credits he wanted to limit and set new policies for how workplace sexual harassment cases are handled.

In the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, both houses pressed for vying responses. The Senate GOP sought additional dollars for school safety measures and for additional or new armed security in schools while the Assembly Democrats pressed for additional gun control steps. The final budget is expected to require that people convicted in domestic violence cases surrender any guns they own.

Unless tentative decisions are reversed, the final budget will not include an expansion of the statute of limitations in child abuse civil and criminal cases, nor will it include new ethics provisions to address ongoing pay-to-play allegations in Albany or close loopholes that allow certain donors to skirt campaign contribution limits.

Also apparently dead, for another year, are legislative calls to increase transparency about how the state spends billions of dollars on economic development efforts. A “database of deals” to track dollars going to what company, for what purpose and job creation numbers is apparently dead, as was an effort by lawmakers to require financial disclosure information about volunteers on regional panels that recommend $750 million in annual economic development spending.

“We tried,’’ said one legislative official.

It was touch-and-go for most of Thursday. Scheduled meetings were scrubbed, new items not before discussed suddenly appeared on the budget negotiating table and some lawmakers were left to ask reporters for status updates.

After a private briefing in their third floor Capitol conference room, several Senate Republicans laid out items they thought had been OK'd and rejected in budget talks. But one, Sen. John Bonacic, an Orange County Republican, said there was “still a chance” that lawmakers would pass an emergency appropriation measure to keep government funded and return after the April 24 special elections that feature contests for two open Senate seats.

Also declared dead: a financial bailout of a 13-month-old commercial casino located between Rochester and Syracuse; the casino operator blamed its revenue projection shortfalls on the Seneca Nation of Indians and its marketing effort to lure gamblers to its casinos in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

The final deal is also expected to, once again, freeze state aid funding to 932 towns, 61 cities and 540 villages. “Our members are going to be extremely disappointed that for a full 10 years there has been no increase in municipal aid, said Peter Baynes, executive director of the New York Conference of Mayors. He said services and local property taxes have been affected by the ongoing state aid freeze.

The final budget is also expected to include two end-run options for taxpayers who face limits on how much they can deduct annually in state and local tax payments under a new federal tax law. The “work-arounds” affect higher income taxpayers in areas of the state with relatively high property tax levels, especially in the New York City suburbs.

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