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Assembly starts giving final OK to $135 billion New York State budget

Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, D-Long Beach, is embraced by

Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, D-Long Beach, is embraced by fellow lawmaker Carmen Arroyo, D-Bronx, during a standing ovation after speaking against a budget bill cutting services to the disabled in the Assembly Chamber at the Capitol on Thursday in Albany. (March 28, 2013) Credit: AP

ALBANY - The Assembly's march to approve the state budget was interrupted briefly on Thursday by an impassioned rank-and-file effort to reverse cuts in programs for the developmentally disabled.

"Whoever negotiated these cuts has never struggled with the pain of watching a child with disabilities," said Assemblyman Bill Nojay, a Monroe County Republican.

"I want to know why the state of New York is making is making an attack on people with disabilities," said Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, a Westchester County Democrat whose son is autistic.

Assembly members argued the programs that feed and care for the developmentally disabled youths and adults in group homes already often face short staffing that hurts care. They said money should be taken from elsewhere in the $135 billion budget. They cited the $420 million tax credit to subsidize movie and TV productions and $54 million that will be spent to help renovate the stadium used by the NFL's Buffalo Bills.

"Where are our values?" said Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, a Nassau County Democrat whose son is disabled and needs intensive care. "We cannot let dollars be more important than people!"

The effort by Republicans and some Democrats in the Assembly majority to fully restore a $90 million cut in aid failed. But it was followed by a rare standing ovation, and hugs by colleagues for Weisenberg, who was in tears.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had proposed a $120 million cut for the program that cares for developmentally disabled youths and adults in group homes. That was about a 6-percent cut in the $2 billion state share of the cost. Cuomo and legislative readers reduced that cut to about 4.5 percent in a budget that increases overall spending just under 2 percent.

Cuomo's plan was forced because New York owes the federal government about $3 billion for overcharging it for decades. He wants to force the cut to come from administrative costs, not direct care.

The debate was one of the efforts by the minority Republicans to change the budget, or at least to make their official protests to elements of it. The budget deal was struck in closed-door sessions by Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate leaders Dean Skelos, a Republican; and Jeff Klein, a Democrat heading the Independent Democratic Conference.

The budget was expected to easily pass by the midnight Sunday night deadline, resulting in the third straight on-time budget after decades of mostly late budgets.

"We accomplished a lot of things we wanted to accomplish," Silver told reporters Thursday. He said the cut to the disabled programs is a concern, but he hopes trimming administrative costs and some new federal money could avoid hurting programs.

Among the budget's highlights are:

—Keeping spending growth under 2 percent for the third straight year.

—An increase in the minimum wage to $9, phased in over three years.

—Extending two taxes that were to expire, raising billions. They are a temporary income tax on millionaires and a tax on energy costs paid by businesses.

—Several tax credits and cuts including $350 checks to most middle class families with children to be delivered just before election day in 2014 and a tax to encourage the hiring of recent veterans.

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