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Plastic bag ban, new seat belt rule: State budget is coming together

ALBANY – State budget deals are starting to come together on some less controversial aspects of a new 2019 spending plan, according to sources close to the talks.

A tentative deal would restore a provision in law requiring the state to pay the full tab of the Aid and Incentives for Municipalities, or AIM, to towns, villages and cities. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed that county governments pay $60 million of the program's costs, money counties say they don’t have without cutting their own services or raising taxes.

The revenue-sharing deal is one of dozens starting to come together while Cuomo and legislative leaders settle sometime this week on more controversial areas of the budget, including possible major criminal justice changes regarding how the bail system will work, aid to public schools and an issue that has dominated closed-door budget talks: a new “congestion pricing” system for much of Manhattan that will charge tolls for vehicles entering the area, with revenue going to help fund downstate subway and rail costs.

The AIM deal, if the tentative agreement holds in the final budget, will be a major win for counties, which made the issue their top priority to get undone in the budget. Passage of the budget is due by Sunday if it is to be in place by the fiscal year start on April 1 – and if lawmakers are to avoid a penalty of seeing a 9 percent salary increase for themselves disappear next year.

Sources who spoke to The Buffalo News did so on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive, nearing-conclusion stage of the budget talks and the bipartisan Albany saying that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.

But here are some things expected to be a part of the final budget later this week:

• Extending the rape shield law to victims of sex trafficking.

• Requiring seat belts for passengers sitting in the rear seats in vehicles on New York’s roads and streets.

• Rejecting an attempt to legalize the use of electric scooters and electric bikes. Though already on the streets and sidewalks in some communities, they are illegal and lawmakers expressed concern for the safety of pedestrians and others if the devices – which can hit speeds of 20 mph – are legalized in the state.

• A ban on single-use plastic bags given out by grocery stores and other retailers and imposing a 5-cent surcharge on consumers who want stores to give them paper bags. Officials are trying to push consumers to embrace reusable bags. Still not close to a deal: Who gets the money from the paper bag surcharge? Some want the revenues going to environmental programs, while one group is pushing that stores get to keep a part of the nickel paper bag levy.

"We're encouraged by the emerging consensus on this issue," said Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo senior adviser, said of the bag issue. The idea has been kicking around Albany for years – since California banned single-use plastic bags in 2014 – and Cuomo proposed it in his budget plan in January.

"There has been a conversation if you just ban plastic and are flooded with paper then how does that resolve (the environmental problem)," said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins after emerging from closed-door talks with Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at the Capitol. "It's something we're considering," she said of the plastic bag ban and surcharge on paper bags.

• Changing the jail sentencing for certain misdemeanor convictions from 365 days to 364 days, thereby ending automatic deportation that undocumented immigrants face under federal law if they serve a 365-day sentence.

• Raises for direct care workers who provide an array of health and other services on behalf of the state. The level of the raises has not been publicly revealed.

The final budget is also expected to jettison a plan to close a carried interest loophole used by hedge fund managers.

The budget would create a vehicle rental tax surcharge in upstate, the proceeds of which will be earmarked for upstate transit agencies, including the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. The Assembly has been pushing for a higher tax level on auto rentals – 6 percent – which would be worth about $4 million more than a 5 percent tax the Senate has sought, sources say.

"That's definitely a bone of contention between the Assembly and Senate. ... It's real money," Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said this morning of the additional $4 million that could go to upstate transit agencies from the Assembly's higher tax level.

Making the state’s current property tax cap program permanent in state law also appears to have been the subject of a tentative agreement, or at least many Assembly Democrats are resolved to the fact that Cuomo is serious about not signing a budget deal unless the proposal is enacted. The only question lingering: How will Assembly Democrats soothe the feelings of various groups, including the New York State United Teachers union, if the tax cap is made permanent?

Cuomo has said he also is demanding action on some kind of taxpayer-financed campaign system. But officials are worried about the large costs of such a campaign finance effort, sources say, especially when the state is seeing its income tax revenues drop to worrisome levels. One idea floated a few days ago is to put the matter into a constitutional amendment process, which would kick the final resolution of such a new campaign system until voters statewide would first be able to consider it in 2021. Officials this morning cautioned that such an amendment process is not happening.

Transparency measures that have kicked around for years are also in trouble. One, for instance, would require that people who serve without pay on government panels and who recommend to Cuomo $750 million in annual economic development grants would have to publicly reveal information about their personal finances, like tens of thousand of state employees and members of other voluntary panels. That effort by the two houses appears to be dead in the budget coming together this week.

Legislative conference committees, which negotiate in secret but give public status updates on occasion, began meeting again this morning in Albany. State Sen. Shelley Mayer, the Senate education committtee chairwoman and co-chair of the budget conference committee on education issues, said the sides have still not gotten a deal on overall state funding level for Foundation Aid – the basic operating aid category – for the state's 700 public school districts.

"Our priority remains getting additional and necessary funding for foundation aid and every school district in this state deserves additional state aid," Mayer said.

The autonomous vehicle industry didn't get everything it wants in order to test self-driving cars on state roadways. A plan to make permanent in law the rights of the companies to do testing on New York roads was amended to a two-year sunset period.

Pro-marijuana legalization protesters loudly demonstrated in the Capitol in a last-ditch effort to move that effort forward in the budget.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are still pushing for a plan to legalize online sports wagering. Such betting is expected to be coming to four upstate commercial casinos later this year, but only for in-person wagering. Gambling interests want to have mobile sports betting, but Cuomo has called the idea unconstitutional.

State Sen. Joseph Addabbo, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Senate's racing, gaming and wagering committee, said Senate negotiators every day are raising the online sports betting issue in closed-door budget talks at the Capitol. He said the constitutional issue can be resolved by having the computer servers be located at the four upstate casinos and then bets could be made via the internet anywhere in the state on those servers. He said the Senate would also extend online sports betting for the three tribes, including the Seneca Nation, that hold gambling compacts with the state.

"I'm not giving up. ... This is not a wild and crazy idea," he said of a plan that could raise $100 million for the upcoming fiscal year in licensing fees and tax payments.

The final budget will total somewhere in the neighborhood of $175 billion. Indeed, lawmakers and Cuomo have no disputes over many tens of billions of dollars that automatically will flow for everything from state worker salaries to various entitlement programs.

"I think it is fair to say that we are close on many things," Stewart-Cousins said, adding that the prospects are good for an on-time budget adoption.

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