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Albany leaders agree on budget, sex harassment bill, opioid tax

Members of the New York Assembly work on

Members of the New York Assembly work on passing budget bills at the state Capitol Friday, March 30, 2018, in Albany. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the legislature agreed Friday night to a $168 billion budget that included a sweeping sexual harassment law and nearly $1 billion in additional school aid, but jettisoned policy goals that included gun control and ethics.

With the governor and all 213 legislative seats up for re-election this fall, lawmakers worked through a slew of squabbles all week to reach a deal ahead of a Sunday deadline marking the beginning of the state’s 2018-19 fiscal year.

The two houses began voting on the major budget bills late Friday and were expected to finish sometime after midnight.

A commission to consider pay raises for Cuomo and legislators, a scaled-down development plan for the Penn Station area, a tax on opioids and an optional payroll tax plan were among the high-profile issues included in the deal. Early voting and tougher oversight of much-criticized economic development programs fell by the wayside.

“The budget hit the priorities we had set out,” Cuomo, a Democrat running for re-election, said at a late-night news conference.

Cuomo also said his proposal to create an optional payroll tax will be offered to employers to mitigate the new federal income tax, which caps the deductibility of state and local taxes. If any employer chooses the option, employees could continue to deduct their state income taxes from their federal tax returns.

After closed-door negotiations and private briefings over a week of long nights wrangling over a $1.8 billion deficit, most of the huge policy issues were eventually dropped. The six-day ordeal left some legislators napping in back rooms Friday, the day they were supposed to begin their Passover-Easter break.

“Painful, frustrating, there are so many adjectives you could use,” said Assemb. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue). “It’s one of the worst. It was ‘hurry up and wait’ on steroids.”

The only major policy issue in Cuomo’s ambitious agenda to survive negotiations in the election-year budget was a measure to combat sexual harassment in the public and private sectors while keeping taxpayers from paying for settlements in government.

“I believe this is one of the most significant pieces of legislation that this legislature has passed in a long time,” Sen. Cathy Young (R-Olean) said.

The measure also bans employers from requiring employees to agree to mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims that could cut workers off from filing civil lawsuits, protects independent contractors the same as full-time employees, and covers all state employees.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan). She said the measure doesn’t specifically cover workers in the legislative and executive branches, doesn’t address retaliation, and has too limited a definition of what is sexual harassment.

In fiscal issues, the budget is also expected to include about $1 billion more in school aid statewide, or about a 4 percent increase. The budget also includes Cuomo’s requirement that school districts report to the state how they distribute aid to each school, with a close eye on the shares provided to high-needs schools in poor neighborhoods.

Senate Republicans blocked most of the $1 billion in added taxes and fees that Cuomo had proposed in January.

The budget does contain $250 million that Cuomo sought for the New York City Housing Authority to immediately repair crumbling subsidized apartments.

An ambitious Cuomo plan to take control of prime real estate around Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan also made a late entry into the budget, but was dramatically reduced in scope after city officials cried foul.

The 2018-19 budget also includes more Metropolitan Transportation Authority funding to repair and improve subways and the Long Island Rail Road, and a new $2.50-per-ride charge for taxis and $2.75-per-ride charge for services such as Uber in Manhattan south of 96th Street.

While approving the opioid tax, lawmakers went through some verbal gymnastics not to rename it an “assessment.”

Instead of taxing prescriptions per milligram, as Cuomo originally suggested, the state will evaluate annual opioid sales in the state by manufacturer/distributor, then set an assessment rate intended to generate around $100 million per year.

“Assessment? That’s another word for tax, right?” Assemb. Andrew Raia (R-East Northport) asked during the debate.

“Right,” answered Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn), chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Only about $20 million of the revenue will go to treatment, while the rest will go to the state’s general fund, critics noted.

Among the omitted proposals was the “Child Victims Act,” which would have extended the statute of limitations for bringing claims about past sexual abuse. The act was opposed by the Catholic Church.

The Assembly’s Democratic majority didn’t get its gun-control proposals -- such as banning so-called “bump stocks” -- while the Senate’s Republican majority didn’t get a measure to place armed guards at some schools.

The one gun proposal accepted by all sides was a proposal to remove firearms from abusers in domestic violence cases.

Seventeen days after Cuomo’s longtime top aide and confidant was convicted on corruption charges and weeks before the retrial of the former Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker on separate corruption charges, the budget included no ethics reforms. Calls to subject Cuomo’s projects to more oversight failed.

“People from both sides of the aisle have been hauled out of here in handcuffs year after year after year and this budget does nothing about that,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a former federal prosecutor.

With Jesse Coburn

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