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School aid would climb 4% under proposed state budget deal

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks during a news

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks during a news conference at the Capitol. (March 20, 2013) Credit: Mike Groll

ALBANY -- School aid statewide would grow an estimated $900 million next year, about a 4 percent increase on average, under a new state budget deal set to be enacted this weekend. But lawmakers still couldn't specify Thursday how much each district would receive.

As lawmakers prepared to vote on a 2013-14 budget, some major details were still missing. Besides boosting education aid, they said they will increase highway aid to localities. But funds for programs for the developmentally disabled will be slashed -- angering some activists.

Rank-and-file legislators expect to vote on the plan Saturday and Sunday. Overall, the 2013-14 spending plan would increase spending by less than 2 percent, to about $136 billion. The total increases to $142.6 billion when federal aid for superstorm Sandy is included.

Officials said the education aid would grow by roughly $900 million, to about $21 billion, after legislators added $290 million to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's original proposal. The plan is supposed to fund expanded prekindergarten in low-income schools, aid to school districts that choose to extend the school day or year, and merit pay for top teachers.

Legislators said the highway aid plan earmarks $438 million for local governments -- a $75 million increase from last year. Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick) said it was the first year-to-year increase in five years. He called the boost a "smart and much needed investment."

Though details aren't final, programs for the developmentally disabled face up to a $180 million cut in combined federal and state funds under the tentative deal. It's one of the few areas that would be reduced, which has irked some parents of the disabled.

In contrast, activists noted, the budget plan calls for issuing $350 "tax relief" checks to households with children and with incomes between $40,000 and $300,000.

"They are going to send you a letter and say, 'Here, the governor gave you a nice check,' " said Margaret Raustiala of St. James, whose 42-year-old autistic son lives in a group home. "Balanced against these cuts? I honestly don't get it."

Cuomo originally proposed cutting about $120 million, or 6 percent, because the federal government reduced New York's funds after saying the state had overbilled it. Because the program works with federal matching funds, the overall proposed hit was $240 million.

Cuomo and house leaders agreed to add $30 million in state money. Budget director Robert Megna said the state would shift other federal funds it recently received to further reduce the impact, but he said nothing was final. Cuomo said he wanted to ensure that additional funds are used for services -- not for overhead or executive salaries.

Legislators said privately the administration was concerned about adding money in light of the overbilling accusation. Activists said the funds come from a federal program meant to "rebalance the long-term care system."

"I can't believe they can't be creative and find ways to correct this," said Raustiala, one of many activists who have attended hearings and legislative sessions over the past several weeks to advocate restorations.

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