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After nearing finish, small details hold up massive NY budget

Exterior view of the New York state Capitol

Exterior view of the New York state Capitol as legislative leaders work on the state budget in Albany on Sunday, April 2, 2017. Credit: AP


ALBANY — Halfway to enacting a $163 billion New York State budget, which funds school districts, universities, nonprofits and government agencies, lawmakers abruptly halted the process Wednesday and cast into doubt when they would return to finish the job.

Ostensibly, the plan is hung up over three issues: supervision of 16- and 17-year-old criminal suspects after court — a component of a proposal to raise the age of criminal liability from 16 to 18 — financial aid for charter schools, and a real estate tax break. But the stalemate also comes amid lingering hard feelings between legislators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo after seven bruising years of working together and a week of finger-pointing about who was responsible for a budget that is now nearly a week late.

The stalemate effectively suspended voting, just hours after the Assembly and Senate already had approved 10 of 18 necessary bills and seemed headed toward a conclusion.

But just before 6:30 p.m., Cuomo held an impromptu news conference declaring the sides were at loggerheads and suggested, as he has before, that they might give up for now and try to resolve their differences after a scheduled 18-day Passover/Easter break.

“We have not reached a full conclusion,” Cuomo told reporters while the two houses were in a prolonged recess.

The governor’s declaration — the latest maneuver in a continual, high-stakes political chess match — stunned legislators, some of whom said two of the issues the governor cited seemed essentially settled. The Assembly said it would return to work Thursday morning.

But the Republican-led Senate released its members to return to their home districts. Wednesday was the last scheduled session day of the week anyway and there was no point in staying with the budget stalled. As it stands, senators might not return to the Capitol until April 24.

The budget missed its Friday deadline for approval but lawmakers avoided a government shutdown by passing emergency spending measures Monday — authorizing state spending through May 31. And with that safety net in place, Cuomo, a Democrat, sounded in no hurry to close the budget debate.

Importantly, lawmakers don’t get paid unless a budget is in place — a delay would give Cuomo more leverage. Further, running the state through emergency spending measures gives the governor near-total control over the process, without much input from lawmakers.

“The operations are continuing,” Cuomo said. “Our economic development efforts are secured for the year, done for the year.”

Minutes later, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), surrounded by dozens of Democrats, said the final items were important but could be solved in a “matter of minutes.” Charter school funding — Democrats don’t want a huge aid boost to charters at the expense of public schools — is the most contentious and the key to ending the logjam.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport), sounding more in line with Cuomo, said “there was not closure” and “more work to do” on the items the governor listed.

Cuomo said school districts, which must act on their budgets in mid May, could bank on an average 3.9 percent state-aid increase. Cuomo originally proposed the aid hike and legislators are all but certain to increase it even more. Further, the governor outlined his rationale for waiting until the federal government presents a budget in May. He believes federal cuts to New York are likely and “it’s very important that we not put our financial feet in cement.”

Before Cuomo’s news conference, the houses seemed to be moving, albeit slowly, toward finishing a spending plan. Key lawmakers said they had reached tentative deals on nearly every major outstanding issue, including raising the age of criminal responsibility, increasing school aid by 4 percent to $1.1 billion, authorizing a massive water infrastructure improvement program, and allowing ride-hailing services throughout the state.

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