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School aid, plastic bag ban on track as state budget deals flow

ALBANY — State lawmakers say budget agreements have been reached to give a sizeable increase in state aid to public schools, ban single-use plastic bags while imposing a fee on paper bags and reject a plan by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to make Election Day a state holiday.

A state budget is due Sunday if the fiscal plan is to be in place for the start of the new fiscal year April 1.

Some issues were still on the table Thursday evening, including criminal justice changes such as ending New York’s cash bail system for most people arrested — as well as whether to fund a statewide, taxpayer-funded campaign finance system.

“It’s not a drop in the bucket,’’ said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, of the $500 million he estimated it will cost the state over four years to have a public matching system for a certain level of small donations.

“We want people to have access to elections, but this is going to be a costly proposition,’’ added Heastie, who said his Democratic conference doesn’t have the votes to approve a public campaign finance system similar to what’s on the books in New York City.

The ban and fee – on plastic and paper bags, respectively – would go into effect next year, on March 1, 2020.

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

A host of deals were coming together again on another busy day in Albany as state lawmakers looked ahead to this weekend’s budget deadline. Each day leading up to the deadline is seeing a drop in the number of protesters and drop-in lobbyists.

Still, until the actual bills are printed and approved, a common term flourished to describe the deals:

Tentative.

Education

Precise school district breakdowns of state financial aid allotments have not yet been distributed to lawmakers at the Capitol. That typically comes right before the education component of the set of budget bills is put to the legislative floors for approval.

Lawmakers estimated the state’s 700 public school districts would see an overall hike in Foundation Aid — which is used for operating expenses — of about $620 million. That is about double the increase Cuomo proposed in January.

The Legislature was expected to increase Cuomo’s community college aid funding plan, and will restore a number of cuts to college financial aid programs used heavily by lower income residents to attend the state’s public university system.

A dual enrollment program will be funded to permit free college coursework for high school or BOCES students if enrolled at a community college or SUNY school.

New reporting mandates on for-profit colleges were dying in budget talks.

Transportation

Negotiations for weeks have centered around a downstate initiative: establishing vehicle tolls for entering a large part of Manhattan as one way to raise money for New York City subway and suburban rail capital funding programs.

The budget will include a new 6 percent tax on car rentals upstate. The revenues will go to fund the operational budgets of upstate transit agencies — such as the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority — which have had to rely on state aid coming heavily from state gasoline tax revenues.

“Since the cost of gasoline has been so low, those revenues going to the transit authorities have really dropped,’’ said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, who said the deal will result in about a 25 percent state aid hike for NFTA’s operating budget.

Senator Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, who heads the Senate transportation committee, said the raising of taxes on car rentals will mostly avoid hitting residents.

“This will provide operating funds our transit authorities need to maintain their equipment and routes that tens of thousands of residents rely on every day,’’ he said.

Local aid

Lawmakers were able to beat back a plan proposed by Cuomo to require counties to pay $60 million annually to towns, villages and cities under a program funded by the state for decades. County leaders said the idea would force local tax hikes or service cuts.

But sources Thursday evening said a new plan was advancing that would cost counties new revenues they were expecting to receive. Under the provision being negotiated, the state’s plan to impose sales taxes on third party sales via internet sites such as Amazon would be structured so that the state would keep all the revenues. In all other sales taxes, 4 percent is taken by the state and the county keeps the balance of whatever the total sales tax is in an area.

Election law

The sides were still talking into the evening Thursday about a public financing system for political campaigns. It would be, if enacted, voluntary for candidates.

A final budget is expected to reject Cuomo’s plan to make Election Day a state holiday, but increase from two to three the number of unpaid hours employees can take off on election days.

Electronic devices, instead of paper, will be used at polling places to generate registration lists of voters. Lawmakers say such devices, paid for by the state, will help protect against fraud as the state moves to a new early system allowing voting to occur before Election Day.

The state will end the discrepancy that saw most upstate counties provide six fewer hours to vote on primary day than downstate.

Now all counties will be open for primary voting from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m.

Other budget deals expected in the final fiscal plan included:

  • Putting into law the tenets of a 2018 Cuomo executive order protecting the personal privacy information of state workers who are union members. It comes after a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled unions could not extract agency fees from non-consenting government employees. There will also be a five-year extender of binding arbitration of existing civil service contracts.
  • New protections for people facing home foreclosure, including 90-day warnings from lenders, mandatory settlement conferences and continuation of a $20 million program to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.
  • Earmarking $30 million of uncollected lottery winnings for public schools and authorizing a five-year extension of what’s known as the “millionaires tax,’’ an income tax rate surcharge on high-earners. An Assembly plan to raise rates even higher on super-wealthy individuals has died.
  • Adopting a proposal Cuomo made in January to make clear that lactation is a pregnancy-related condition giving certain non-discrimination protections to people in workplace settings. A national diabetes protection program would be extended to Medicaid recipients.
  • Limit the release of mugshots and booking information about people arrested, except for law enforcement purposes.

With state income tax revenues on the decline earlier this year, lawmakers are considering giving the governor's budget director discretion to cut up $190 million from the budget if tax receipts don't improve during the busy tax month of April.

In one smaller deal, the sides agreed to rename the state Division of Veterans' Affairs the Division of Veterans' Services. Lawmakers said they did not want the state agency confused with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

An effort to legalize marijuana, facing mounting opposition, has not been agreed to.

A late budget would have little immediate practical effect. It would force lawmakers, however, to give up a scheduled 9 percent salary hike next year — as a penalty for a tardy budget.

Lawmakers Thursday were hopeful budget bills would be introduced by midnight, going through a legal three-day aging process that rarely happens in Albany with fiscal bills, and get approved on time Sunday.

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