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Pathway to state budget deal may be emerging

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference on a legislative ethics reform agreement as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, left, listens in the Red Room at the Capitol on March 18, 2015, in Albany. Credit: AP

ALBANY -- While Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators are battling over the state budget, a pathway to a deal is becoming clear: If the governor gets an ethics bill, he can give lawmakers some of what they want on school and infrastructure aid, settling the three biggest outstanding issues, experts said Wednesday.

Cuomo, a Democrat, recently told legislators that enacting new ethics legislation is his top priority, following the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), and that other issues are more negotiable, lawmakers said. Meanwhile, legislators have focused primarily on school aid and New York's $6 billion windfall from national banking settlements.

In a significant development Wednesday, Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) announced a two-way agreement on ethics, focusing on more disclosure of legislators' outside incomes. That puts pressure on the Republican-led Senate, but also gets the ball rolling on an eventual budget pact by April 1, the state's fiscal deadline.

"This could mean the door to a budget deal is open," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "The budget is always a whole series of interlocking issues. Solve one, and it can have a domino effect on all the others."

As part of his $142 billion budget proposal in January, Cuomo offered to hike school aid 4.8 percent ($1.1 billion), but only in return for changes in how teachers are evaluated. Otherwise, the increase would be just 1 percent. Chiefly, Cuomo wants students' results on standardized tests to account for 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation rather than the current 20 percent, leaving room for compromise, officials said.

He also called for authorizing more charter schools.

The Senate and Assembly have been split on charters, but each wants to boost school spending by more than $1.1 billion. The Senate is focusing on a type of aid that primarily would help suburban and rural schools (the gap elimination adjustment); the Assembly, on urban schools.

"Neither side probably gets all it wants, but one could foresee a compromise on that," said Bruce Gyory, a political consultant, noting that school aid is annually legislators' top priority.

Cuomo has proposed using about $3 billion of the banking settlement windfall on infrastructure, but lawmakers in both houses have urged using more of it and spreading it around statewide. Long Island advocates, for example, have called for spending on highway upgrades and bus and sewer service.

"The gravitational force that pulls all these negotiations together is to have all the parties feel as though they left with important wins," Gyory said.

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