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Cuomo budget draws praise, criticism

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, seen in

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, seen in Nov. 4, 2014 file photo, has received both praise and criticism with his $150 billion budget plan. Credit: Getty Images / Kenneth Gabrielsen

ALBANY -- The $150 billion state budget that passed early Wednesday includes ethics measures meant to transform behavior in Albany.

But in a blow to campaign bragging rights, Albany ended its streak at four on-time budgets. The Senate passed its bills at 11:15 p.m. Tuesday, but the Assembly continued to debate and vote beyond the midnight deadline.

A nearly $6 billion windfall also was part of the budget. The fund from bank enforcement settlements will be directed to fix roads, bridges, airports and improve mass transit statewide, as well as bring Internet broadband services to remote areas.

The independent Citizens Budget Commission gave the budget high marks for continuing to keep the overall spending increase to about 2 percent for the fifth year.

"But too much of the surplus is spent on economic development -- a dubious investment at best," said Elizabeth Lynam, the commission's vice president and director of state studies.

Economic development programs often are aimed at specific developments that are politically popular, but Lynam said more of the surplus needed to be invested in "hard-core infrastructure."

"It's a wasted opportunity," she said.

Under the ethics measures, legislator/lawyers will have to disclose clients who pay them $5,000, or when compensation to the firm and the legislator is $5,000 or more. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said lawmakers will have to detail the work they do for the pay, such as writing briefs. That will enable investigators to track the work to specific clients, Cuomo said.

State law would continue to allow law firms with legislators who are "of counsel" to do business with the state. However, the legislator/lawyer can't work on state business or try to influence state officials to benefit a private law client.

Cuomo threatened to force the ethics policies and others into emergency spending measures that would have left lawmakers with little choice but to approve the whole budget measure or shut down government.

His gambit never had to play out.

But neither did Cuomo get everything he wanted.

The Senate's Republican majority added a provision to Cuomo's ethics proposal that allows legislators who work as attorneys to appeal to the state Office of Court Administration to keep clients secret under certain conditions, as long as they posed no conflict of interest.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) rejected other Cuomo initiatives. One was the Dream Act to provide college aid under the popular Tuition Assistance Program to immigrants brought to the United States without proper documentation.

"This guy," one legislator said of the second-term governor, "he doesn't respect you unless you push back."

Others criticized the administration for a lack of transparency.

"In some ways, it's the same old-time Albany," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "The budget was hammered out almost entirely in secret . . . Albany is back to its black box ways."A budget deal announced Sunday night by Cuomo, Skelos and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) listed some broad agreements, and the news release ended with the promise: "Full details and language to be released Monday."

That didn't happen even for the most-watched bills on ethics and education until hours before they were voted on Tuesday.

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