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State budget battle is about to get real as legislators get their say

ALBANY – Both houses of the state Legislature next week will embrace legalization of marijuana.

But not quite the way Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has in mind.

The Assembly will instead publicly back the way Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, has in mind, including driving some of the anticipated state tax revenues into communities hit hard by high marijuana arrest rates over the year.

Over in the Senate, lawmakers are looking at a host of changes to the budget Cuomo proposed in January.

A series of concerns have been raised about Cuomo’s plan to expand the state’s nickel deposit bottle law to cover most nonalcoholic beverage containers not now part of the redemption law. Sources say the expansion would create logistical problems within the beverage industry, raise prices on beverages and yet still not impose redemption fees on wine or alcohol bottles, which critics call a glaring loophole.

The Senate, too, is planning to “tweak” the governor’s call to ban single-use plastic bags by retailers.

In an all-Democratic era, Cuomo proposes state budget heavy on social matters

On Thursday, lawmakers reported some movement to expand sports gambling beyond just four upstate casinos that are hoping to begin offering the wagering perhaps later this year.

But on Friday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told a Manhattan business audience that he and his fellow Assembly Democrats aren’t keen on embracing an online sports gambling scheme.

Lawmakers will, as they do every year, add more money for public schools, but they aren’t thrilled with the funding formula Cuomo is proposing and a final resolution of that major issue is still weeks away.

Meanwhile, a slew of policy items will be jammed into the budget. Or they won’t.

So go the final days of talks in advance of next week at the Capitol, when the Senate and Assembly will approve nonbinding budget resolutions that signal the priorities lawmakers want in the real budget negotiations between the Legislature and Cuomo that are supposed to conclude later this month.

New players

When the Legislature was split by GOP control in the Senate and Democratic control in the Assembly, the one-house budget resolution process was a mix of symbolism and a way for lawmakers to give fiscal shout-outs to political supporters and lobbyists. It led to both houses jamming in items lawmakers knew would never be enacted in the final budget deal, but it served a political interest to woo campaign donors and stakeholders with like-minded interests in either house.

This year is different.

Democrats control both houses, and their one-house bills next week are expected to contain a high number of similar budget priorities. Secondly, there is little love lost right now between Cuomo and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature, who have been making chest-pounding sounds that Cuomo is not going to be so in command of the budget process as he has the past eight years.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

On Wednesday, both houses are expected to pass their one-house budget bills, which are more resolutions than bills. But they do represent calling cards for legislative leaders to present to Cuomo to show him their spending and tax wishes.

“It’s a very important process to go through because we’re making decisions on scarce resources," said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat.

“Like the governor’s budget proposal, the Assembly one-house budget conveys the priorities of the Democratic Assembly. Many of the priorities will be matching, but as always, there will be differences. And most of the funding differences come in funding for education and health care," Ryan added.

Senate plans changes

“We are working through the process to ensure that every single area of the state, including Western New York, is not only part of the discussions but leading the budget process," said Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat.

In the Senate one-house bill, which is still taking shape, Kennedy said he hopes a film tax credit will remain in the law as a way to lure movie companies to film in areas they might not otherwise consider, such as Western New York.

New York State Senator Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

The Senate bill, Kennedy said, is expected to restore $65 million cut by Cuomo for the Extreme Winter Recovery program used by localities to repair roads. Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the Senate is poised to add $150 million above Cuomo’s budget for the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program, a 38-year-old state funding pot for local infrastructure work.

The Senate, like the Assembly, is expected to call for more funding for the state university system, and the Senate is looking at expanding day care subsidies for certain income levels of working adults.

Both houses are expected to reject Cuomo’s plan for Aid and Incentives to Municipalities, a nondiscretionary pot of funding that goes to localities across the state. Cuomo first proposed cutting millions of dollars from the program; he backed away from that idea but now wants county governments to help subsidize the AIM program through sales tax revenues they are in line to get under a proposed internet sales tax program affecting third-party transactions through sites such as Amazon.

“Our conference is 100 percent committed to ensuring communities dependent on AIM funding to function and keep property taxes down get those funds," Kennedy said.

There is no guarantee that the final budget will reflect those legislative wishes. That’s what the next three weeks of horse-trading at the Capitol will determine.

Cuomo says on-time budget no longer crucial

For his part, Cuomo has been using his budget director, Robert Mujica, to fire off statements in recent days with the governor’s own line-in-the-sand demands. For instance, he wants a specific plan to fund New York City subway capital expenses, along with making the state’s property tax cap program into permanent law and enacting more defendant-friendly measures like an end to cash bail mandates.

This year’s new mantra from Cuomo, decidedly different than his past rhetoric: Timeliness is nice, but “getting it right is more important than any deadline," Mujica said Thursday.

The budget must be adopted by March 31 if a fiscal plan is to be in place for the start of the new fiscal year at the stroke of midnight April 1. In the past, Cuomo has demanded on-time budgets, though his record is spotty over the eight years in achieving that goal.

This year, Cuomo is OK with a late budget. Why? The more he says he doesn’t really care about timeliness the more pressure it puts on lawmakers who will have to forgo a scheduled 9 percent pay raise next year if the 2019 state budget is not enacted on time.

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