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Analysis: More money for schools, transit as NY budget ritual nears end

ALBANY – The protesters are all gone.

The throngs of lobbyists have dwindled to a couple dozen of the usual core of influencers.

This is the how the state Capitol appears in the final hours when a $175 billion state budget is getting the final touches.

By Monday, unless some sudden, unexpected blow-up occurs, the months of jockeying, angling and posturing will be all over and the state government will start a new fiscal year with a budget in place that does the usual: offers big hikes in spending for education, health care and an assortment of politically popular programs, while raising an assortment of taxes and fees to help balance the books.

It’s a long and predictable Albany ritual: Lines in the sand have been publicly declared over the many weeks since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed his budget ideas in January. Special interests have influenced – or not – the final outcome.

The last act is set to come later Sunday, as lawmakers from both houses will spend all of the day rising from their leather Assembly and Senate chairs to make their left-versus-rights assertions in ornate, soaring legislative chambers with public viewing galleries that will be nearly empty.

It is the single most important set of votes lawmakers will make all year, and yet the outcome is predetermined: budget bills will pass. Will it be done on time before the clock turns to Monday morning? It appears the answer is yes, but things can happen.

In the end, even many detractors of the spending or taxing or borrowing levels will vote “yes” on some of the bills to avoid being characterized back home as an opponent of popular spending initiatives, like schools or parks or the environment.

The 2019 state budget does not quite contain some of the drama of past budgets over the decades. There are school aid increases, which fall far below what advocates like the Board of Regents have recommended. Feared cuts to Medicaid are erased and there will be more money – lots – for transit agencies. There will be tax law changes, like making permanent the existing state property tax cap program – in a town where so many past laws have shown nothing can be guaranteed to be permanent.

Many bills

The final weeks of budget talks have been heavily focused on New York City issues – from installation of tolls for motorists driving into Manhattan to focus on the city’s crumbling subway system. The new, all Democratic-controlled Legislature is overwhelmingly dominated by lawmakers from New York City.

Details have been trickling out for days, long before legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have been willing to publicly discuss them. There are big and small items:

• $620 million or so increase in Foundation Aid, which is the state funding pot that helps about 700 public school districts pay their operating costs. Schools will say it’s nice, but more is needed. When all funding pots are included, the state will spend about $28 billion on public schools this year.

• A ban on single-use plastic bags with a companion 5-cent charge – optional if counties and cities want to impose it – on paper bags given out to consumers by retailers.

• Restoration of proposed Medicaid cuts, the closing of two or three prisons somewhere upstate, extension of an existing income tax rate surcharge on millionaires and a tax on third-party sellers of products through internet sites like Amazon, eBay and Etsy. A controversial tax on opioid sales is also expected in the final budget.

• New safety rules for limousines in the aftermath of a stretch limo last October upstate that left 20 people dead, a new tax on car rentals upstate to help pay for upstate transit agencies’ operating costs, and restoration of proposed cuts to some higher education financial grant programs.

One of the details yet to come: member items. In Washington, they call them “earmarks.” Either way, it’s pork barrel spending.

This year, with many new lawmakers, including in politically marginal districts come the 2020 elections, member items will be heavily broadcast in news releases and constituent newsletters over the weeks and months to come.

They include funding for senior centers or youth sports leagues or any assortment of programs.

But, as longtime Capitol insiders note, will there be actual funds behind those promises? Will a lawmaker’s news release that touts funding for this or that program actually result in money going from the state’s treasury in the next 12 months? That’s an unresolved question, especially in a state where the governor so heavily controls the system that decides when and where checks are cut for lawmakers’ pet projects.

Final issues

As is often the case, the Albany focus at the end of the budget talks is on a handful of issues. The 2019 go-around: it’s been about what rank-and-file lawmakers refer to, un-affectionately, as the marquee matters: taxpayer-financed elections, various changes to criminal justice statutes, and a new toll for vehicles traveling into Manhattan that will raise billions over time to help pay for downstate transit needs.

Those issues were subject of talks as late as Saturday, and some issues – including an unknown surprise item here or there – will be the subject of discussions even while lawmakers are voting on their first budget bill Sunday morning.

“We’re at the finish line,’’ Senate Majority Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat, said Friday evening after many lawmakers fled Albany to make a mad dash home to get some new clothes or see their families before returning to the Capitol Saturday or, for some, Sunday morning.

With the final details still being discussed, Cuomo on Friday night declared the coming budget will be fiscally prudent. He said it deals with a slide in personal income revenues that the state has been witnessing since December.

It also gives inflation rate-busting increases for programs like education, which will rise by an overall 3.7 percent this year compared with last year.

Still, there are already criticisms mounting about missed opportunities, about programs getting shortchanged.

“It’s math. The numbers have to add up. I know everybody wants to spend everything. So do I. But, there’s still an economic reality and the fiscal integrity of the budget,’’ Cuomo said.

The budget, assuming it is completed Sunday, will be done on time partly because lawmakers had a new incentive: a state panel that last year awarded them a hefty pay raise said the second phase-in of that hike – worth another 9 percent on top of their current pay – would not be awarded in 2020 if the 2019 budget is late.

But some lawmakers credit their negotiating decisions with Cuomo as the impetus for what appeared – in the last few days at least – to be a fairly smooth-running budget process.

“In this year’s budget, things are going pretty smoothly. Part of the reason is we stripped out many of the policy initiatives. In years past, budgets often became bogged down over not dollars and cents, but policy initiatives,’’ said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat. “Those initiatives don’t belong in the budget and they should go through the legislative process where they get full public vetting.”

There will be, of course, policy items in the final plan, such as new procedural changes for people who are charged with crimes. But a number of major issues were taken out of Cuomo’s original budget plan. Some were passed already in January, like new abortion rights, gun control steps, expanded voting opportunities and new legal rights for adults who were sexually abused as children.

In other cases, some policy ideas were simply taken out with a promise to be dealt with sometime down the road, like legalization of marijuana.

The future

That down the road period is June, the frenzied period where hundreds of bills a day can get rammed through the two houses as lawmakers look to end their 2019 session.

Before they leave, though, they will face lobbyists who lost battles in the budget and will want to resurrect their issues before lawmakers head home for the year. There will be interests representing companies in industries from gambling and banking to energy and insurance. The electronic scooter industry, growing in some states, will again push to legalize the devices on New York’s roads and sidewalks.

And marijuana.

“Probably the biggest single issue that will not be addressed is the legalization of marijuana,’’ Cuomo said of that issue falling off the budget negotiation table.

“That is, in concept, we have agreement. But that is all about the devil is in the details. And that is going to take more time to work out,’’ he added.

That’s what June is for in Albany.

Advocates, Cuomo disagree on status of marijuana legalization talks

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