State lawmakers are discussing details of a potential budget deal...

State lawmakers are discussing details of a potential budget deal that could be voted on early this week. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — While housing and education have taken up most of the oxygen in state budget negotiations, resolutions to some second-tier issues are taking shape, sources say.

Plans to curb illegal cannabis shops, retail theft and toll evasion are among those on track to be included in a final budget agreement, even if the finer points aren’t quite finalized yet, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

Other initiatives include an increase in the state’s Tuition Assistance Program for college students.

“There are agreements in direction or framework, but not in all the details,” one source said of items such as cracking down on illegal pot shops. “The end appears to be in sight,” another official said, asking not to be identified because the deal hasn’t been finalized.

The budget was due April 1, but Gov. Kathy Hochul and legislative leaders haven't reached agreements on housing and school aid, arguably the two highest-profile items in the negotiations. Lawmakers have passed a series of short-term, emergency spending bills to keep government operating and state payrolls flowing, the most recent of which expires Monday.

Legislators were discussing details of a potential deal that could be voted on early this week.

One of the agreements could be action to reduce the proliferation of illegal cannabis shops.

A key element would be to effectively delegate power to close the shops to local government authorities. Hochul and legislators have gotten behind the idea because the state — either through the Office of Cannabis Management, the tax department or other vehicles — doesn’t have the staff power to enforce closures around the state.

Lawmakers have said “thousands” of illegal shops have been operating in part because the Office of Cannabis Management has been so slow in approving state-licensed dispensaries.

Municipalities would have to affirmatively “opt in” to taking the authority to close illegal shops. Enforcement would be under civil law, not criminal.

Lawmakers also were weighing a series of loans, grants and tax credits to help cannabis farmers whose sales have been stymied by the slow rollout of the legal market.

“There’s definitely a framework around cannabis,” an official said.

There’s also momentum for a crackdown on toll evaders, officials said.

A recent data analysis by Newsday found drivers dodging 224,000 tolls per month in 2023 at bridges and tunnels overseen by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA recently estimated it’s losing nearly $50 million per year on toll evasion.

Further, at Port Authority crossings, tolls that couldn’t be billed because of obscured plates averaged about 191,000 per month.

Source said there is a consensus around ideas floated by Hochul, such as suspending vehicle registrations for those who don’t pay their tolls and giving law enforcement authority to seize license plate covers and increasing fines.

At the same time, they want to include provisions to make it easier for customers to prove they paid a toll and to receive more timely and specific notices about unpaid tolls and how to challenge them.

Sources said a “package” of measures to combat rising retail theft also is likely. The ideas could include tax credits for business owners to invest in capital or hire more staff, tougher criminal penalties for assaulting retail staff, and state money to help local police focus on the problem.

Education aid is always one of the most contentious issues of the state budget, but lawmakers are widely expecting an agreement in which Hochul, for now, drops the idea of reducing any district’s aid this year, even if it has lost enrollment, in exchange for revamping the state’s school-aid formula, which is based on population, wealth and other factors.

In higher education, sources said a budget deal likely will include a boost in the Tuition Assistance Program, though not as large as advocates wanted.

The Senate and Assembly both called for increasing the family income cap for participation to $125,000, from $80,000. They also wanted to boost the minimum award to a student to $1,000, from $500.

All told, lawmakers are looking to add about $2 billion to the $233 billion spending plan the governor proposed earlier this year.

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