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Albany has a budget deal, but virus' impact still unclear

The State Capitol building in Albany. Voting for

The State Capitol building in Albany. Voting for the state budget deal began Tuesday night and continues on Wednesday. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

ALBANY — New York lawmakers said Wednesday they reached a “conceptual” deal on a state budget that some said is mathematically more aspirational than assured because of the still-unknown impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a document, composed of 10 pieces of legislation, that contains millions of numbers that could be better viewed as projections rather than solidly grounded, some lawmakers said. They’re even cautioning constituents to consider the numbers written in pencil, not ink.

 “This isn’t a year where you say to schools, ‘Here’s your state aid, go bank it.’ It’s more volatile than that,” said Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor).

The budget includes unprecedented measures to allow for quarterly adjustments in the amounts Albany spends not only on state programs but also in how much it sends to schools, local governments and other entities.

In another unusual move for Albany, it earmarks no new money for regional economic development initiatives, sometimes known as pork-barrel projects.

On school aid statewide, for example, the budget allocates not a hard-and-fast amount but instead prescribes a figure basically unchanged from last year, $26.6 billion, officials said. Allocations for individual districts also appeared almost unchanged, some said.

“Everything is subject to adjustment, depending on how much money we’ll receive from the federal government,” Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) said. “All we can do is approximate.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo hailed lawmakers for acting in a timely manner — the budget was due Wednesday, so they’ll be just a tad late. He called it a “hard budget” because of the uncertainty triggered by the coronavirus, the shutdown of most businesses and a volatile market.

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“We cannot spend what we don’t have,” Cuomo said. “If money comes in during the year, we will spend it. If money doesn’t come in, we won’t. That’s life.”

Voting began in the Senate late Tuesday. The Assembly began taking up bills Wednesday evening.

Lawmakers hadn’t even publicly agreed on the overall size of the budget, though some officials said it was about $173 billion, reflecting a $2 billion decrease from last year.

Cuomo administration officials acknowledged that the state might have to borrow money and dip into reserves to avoid a cash problem before July 15, which is the new income-tax filing date this year because of the pandemic.

Footing was more solid on issues not wholly dependent on the budget. Officials said under the tentative deal:

  • Bail laws will be amended to lengthen the list of crimes subject to bail or pretrial detention. Just last year, lawmakers eliminated bail and remand for almost all misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Now, some charges will again be subject to bail or remand.
  • $40 million will be earmarked to county prosecutors to accommodate new discovery laws that compel them to turn over evidence to defense attorneys quicker.
  • “Green” energy projects will have a new “fast track” process. Single-use polystyrene foam containers will be banned beginning in 2022. A $3 billion environmental borrowing bill would be placed on the statewide ballot this fall — although officials have authority to cancel the vote depending on the bond market.
  • A version of Cuomo’s “prevailing wage” proposal — guaranteeing union-level wages on certain publicly funded projects — will be included.
  • A mechanism for public financing of political campaigns will be set up, through a matching grant program.
  • Minor parties would face a new, steeper threshold for maintaining ballot status. Instead of needing to garner 50,000 votes on their ballot line in a gubernatorial election, they will need to receive 130,000 votes or 2% percent of the total votes cast — whichever is greater.

Earlier this week, lawmakers and legislative officials said the deal won't include making legal recreational use of marijuana. It would include a ban on flavored vaping products, including menthol. Also, it would allow the Nassau Interim Finance Authority to double its borrowing capacity to help the county through the virus-induced budget crunch.

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