ALBANY – In a mix of frenzied bill passing and sitting around throughout the day and night Friday, state lawmakers early Saturday morning adopted a new state budget that hikes state education aid by more than the inflation rate, rejects hundreds of millions in tax increases proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and sets new policies for the handling of workplace sexual harassment cases.
Pork barrel spending flourishes throughout the budget bills, and the final deal includes the creation of a commission intended to pave the way for a pay hike for legislators and top state officials.
The Senate pushed through its final budget bill shortly after midnight, and the Assembly wrapped up a couple hours before sunrise -- an Albany tradition that saw deliberations on the biggest portions of the budget occur under cover of darkness. A final fiscal deal was announced Friday night by Cuomo, who called it "a very, very difficult budget.'' Precisely how a projected $4.4 billion deficit was closed was not immediately clear.
Meeting the looming on-time budget deadline of March 31 was encouraged by observant Christian and Jewish lawmakers wanting to get home and, more importantly, by agreements to punt on a number of partisan-dividing policy issues not directly connected to the state’s financial plan.
Gone were efforts to expand the statute of limitations in child abuse civil and criminal cases and new ethics provisions to address ongoing pay-to-play allegations in Albany. They also passed on closing loopholes allowing certain donors to skirt campaign contribution limits and increasing transparency for billions in state economic development spending.
The budget will total more than $168.4 billion when all sources of funding are included. The portion of the budget paid for by state taxpayers rises 2 percent from the current fiscal year.
The deal includes:
- a $1 billion hike in state aid to New York’s 700 public school districts for a total of $26.7 billion. While waiting for district-by-district allotment information, sources said Buffalo Public Schools are in line for a 3.36 percent school aid hike from the current year, up $6.8 million over Cuomo's plan in January.
- restoration of some college scholarship programs that Cuomo proposed to cut, rejection of tax hikes the governor wanted to help close this year’s multibillion-dollar budget gap and an extension of tax breaks for developers of qualified historic preservation and brownfield projects.
- more than $200 million to address the raging opioid addiction crisis, a boost in property tax rebate checks and enough pork to satisfy the appetites of Cuomo and all the members of the Legislature as they head to fall re-election contests.
- Besides operating funding assistance, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority received $5.2 million for capital projects, according to a 1,099-page bill covering capital programs from state university campuses to libraries to the Buffalo Medical Campus.
How much of all those capital funds gets spent this year – or years down the road – is not clear from any budget documents.
The sexual harassment provisions was passed Friday in one of 10 budget bills under consideration in reaction to the onslaught of national cases this year. Among its provisions, the measure limits non-disclosure agreements that might prevent victims from revealing “the underlying facts and circumstances” in a sexual harassment case. The provision applies to all public and private employers in New York.
The legislation requires bidders on state contracts to have workplace sexual harassment policies in place and to conduct annual training sessions for employees.
It also requires public employees who are found guilty – in a trial, not an out-of-court settlement – to repay the government employing them. The final version of the bill also outlaws sexual harassment against non-employees – such as vendors or contractors.
“This is sweeping legislation that deals with the scourge that is sexual harassment,’’ said Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican who sponsored a Senate bill that incorporated some of the provisions in the final deal.
But critics said Cuomo rushed a partial-loaf deal into the final budget and should have worked on a more comprehensive measure before the end of the session in June. Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, told colleagues that the legislation contains too much “gray area” over who is defined as an employee and fails to clarify how investigations of sexual harassment in the executive and legislative branches of state government will be conducted.
The budget includes what lawmakers proclaimed were massive pork barrel spending allotments, both for them and the governor, including money to senior citizen centers, local police agencies, Christmas tree growers, local economic development causes, and children’s sports leagues. One bill containing such spending stretched 1,051 pages.
Every controlling political party group in the Legislature – Senate Republicans, the Senate Independent Democratic Conference and Assembly Democrats – was taken care of in the earmark process. E.J. McMahon of the watchdog group Empire Center for Public Policy wrote that the new budget includes nearly $500 million in "the biggest, murkiest, pork-barrel slush fund in Albany – and perhaps any state capital – has ever seen.''
Many provisions in the budget are just, for now, simply curious: a $29 million line item for the health department is for continuing certain existing state contracts "without any additional requirements that such contracts be subject to competitive bidding or a request for proposal process."
On Saturday morning, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said the secretive budget negotiation process left the public "in the dark about how taxpayer money will be spent.'' He is due to have his own analysis of the final spending plan in the next week.
The final budget deal, as expected, did not include a range of non-fiscal matters, including extending the statute of limitations in child abuse cases, school safety measures, gun control, relaxing certain criminal bail requirements and any bolstering of ethics and campaign finance laws in reaction to what has become an annual parade of Albany corruption cases, including two major trials this year of people with close ties to Cuomo.
Sen. Robert Ortt, a Republican from North Tonawanda, said the annual bid to stuff non-policy matters into the budget ends up forcing “everyone to eat it or vote for it because you want an on-time budget, or more for infrastructure or schools.’’
By ejecting most of the policy matters, Ortt said, the final set of deals “yields a better product and a better spending plan.’’
For at least the third year in a row, Cuomo successfully beat back attempts by the two houses to increase transparency of state economic development spending.
“A wise man once said, to get results in Albany, it’s a three-legged stool and on these issues there were only two legs on the stool,’’ Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat, said of Cuomo blocking plans like a searchable database of spending projects by the state’s economic development agency.
Despite Senate Republican claims that tax hikes proposed by Cuomo were eliminated, the new budget was put together with a number of sizeable revenue-raising items that avoided the term "tax,'' but comes with the same effect. People who use ride-hailing services and taxi cabs below 96th Street in Manhattan will see a surcharge on their rides that will bring in more than $400 million annually, while opioid manufacturers, all but certain to pass on the costs ultimately to consumers, will see an assessment on those prescription drugs that they sell in New York; it will raise $100 million.
It was not an easy budget birth. The Legislature and Cuomo deleted many controversial items from the bills passed Thursday night and Friday. A massive education budget bill was passed, but before decisions were made about how it would be funded.
“This process doesn’t get any better any year,’’ said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, an Ontario County Republican, who blamed “egos involved in both houses and the governor, especially.’’
The day turned sour late Friday morning, when Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie lashed out at Senate Republicans for what he called their holding up a final deal in order to push an item by Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who has an alliance with Senate Republicans, to relax certain education curriculum requirements by yeshivas.
“That’s the very last issue that remains,’’ Heastie, a Bronx Democrat.
Felder, who could be key to Republicans holding control of the Senate this year, took it all in stride, smiling and saying his influence was overstated by Heastie. For their part, Senate Republicans came to Felder’s rescue, and said there were a host of remaining issues to be resolved.