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Budget deadline puts Albany in crunch mode

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo presents his 2013-14

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo presents his 2013-14 Executive Budget proposal in Albany, N.Y. (Jan. 22, 2013) Credit: AP

ALBANY - School aid, funds for the disabled and control over discretionary money loom as the major hurdles as New York lawmakers rush to complete a state budget in a heavily compressed schedule.

Though on track for a third-straight on-time budget, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators must tackle some nitty-gritty items to beat the deadline.

The budget is due April 1, the start of the fiscal year. But thanks to a calendar quirk, the Legislature's two-week Passover-Easter recess is set to begin March 22, so the budget is likely to be adopted by then. Rank-and-file legislators say making the deadline is "paramount."

"I don't want to make it sound simple, but I don't see any roadblocks," said Sen. Tom Libous (R-Binghamton), the No. 2 Republican in the politically split chamber.

With less than two weeks to go, these issues have emerged:

Distribution of school aid

The education fight this year pits suburban and rural districts against the state's largest urban and other "distressed" districts. Cuomo proposed raising school aid by an average 3 percent. Within that, he has earmarked about $200 million for distressed schools and another $175 million in a competitive grants program.

But many Republican and Democratic lawmakers are pushing to have that money rolled back into general aid and distributed statewide. Without it, many said, their districts will see a year-to-year aid reduction.

Long Island schools would get about 12.2 percent of state aid under Cuomo's proposal. The Island's "traditional share" of aid is 13 percent. "We need to change the governor's proposed [aid] formula for Long Island schools," Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) said.

Funds for the developmentally disabled

This has become the hot-button issue for Republicans and Democrats alike after Cuomo proposed trimming 6 percent of what it typically allocates to nonprofit groups to provide services for the disabled. The governor, who attributes the cut to a reduction in federal Medicaid aid to the state, has said he'd be "open" to restoring the funding, but legislators would have to find ways to make up the revenue.

"I can't imagine we would sign off on a budget that doesn't address this," said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), dean of the Suffolk County Assembly delegation.

Since Cuomo proposed the cut, parents of disabled adults have flooded the State Capitol, asking legislators for help.

Both the Senate and Assembly have called for fully restoring the $120 million cut.

"This is a societal mission," Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) said on a public radio show. "These are folks we have to take care of, no matter what."

Control of discretionary funds, especially for economic development and health programs

"The debate is philosophical in nature," said Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport). "The governor is trying to marginalize both houses."

Cuomo proposed boosting discretionary economic funds by $800 million, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. This includes $150 million for "regional economic development councils" that he appoints. He also wants these councils to sign off on any tax breaks proposed by local industrial development agencies, which have been criticized by fiscal watchdogs.

Cuomo also would require many preventive health programs, such as anti-smoking, to compete for money from a funding pool, instead of allocating funds in 89 separate line items.

On each issue, the governor says he is trying to reform and make efficient the state's spending. Lawmakers and some activists say Cuomo is attempting to expand his control.

Taxes and tax cuts

Cuomo maintains that the proposed budget contains no new taxes, but it does call for renewing some temporary surcharges that were supposed to expire this year.

The chief example is the so-called 18-a assessment on utilities, enacted in 2009 to help state finances after the stock market meltdown. Renewing it would bring the state roughly $250 million this year and $1.8 billion over four years.

Republicans have made it the centerpiece of their tax-cut package. "This surcharge was supposed to be temporary, and let's keep it that way," Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said recently.

Republicans also want to expand tax credits for dependents and child care, and to revive a property-tax rebate program.

Controversies postponed?

Although Cuomo included them in the budget, proposals to raise the minimum wage and limit new casinos to three upstate locations could be deferred to the second half of the legislative session.


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