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State budget fight could affect balance of power

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Legislature are ensnarled in a fight behind closed doors that not only will shape this year's $149.9 billion budget, but the balance of power in Albany for years to come.

Those closed-door negotiations slipp into higher gear this week as the Senate and Assembly present their counterproposals to Cuomo's executive budget. Monday, the Assembly proposed to increase school aid by $830 over Cuomo's budget for a total increase of $1.8 billion. Assembly Democrats would bring total state school aid to $24.9 billion, while rejecting Cuomo's policies tied to his budget, such as more rigorous teacher evaluations. The Senate proposal is expected as early as Tuesday.

Cuomo's overall budget gambit ties the Tuition Assistance Program for hundreds of thousands of college students to two ground-breaking proposals that have split the Legislature. One would provide college aid to students who came to America as children without documentation. That Dream Act is strongly supported by the Assembly's Democratic majority and opposed by the Senate's Republican majority. The other proposal would create a tax credit to encourage donations to private schools, a measure strongly supported by the Senate's Republican majority and opposed by the Assembly's Democratic majority.

Under Cuomo's tactic, the Senate and Assembly would have to accept the governor's package or risk losing TAP -- a politically unpalatable option.

Cuomo is testing the extraordinary budgeting power of a governor under a 2004 Court of Appeals ruling in a case brought by the Assembly against former Gov. George Pataki. The Court of Appeals upheld Pataki's dozens of vetoes of $1.6 billion in added spending in 1998 and further reduced the Legislature's role in changing the executive budget. Now, once a budget misses the April 1 deadline, a governor can impose his budget and the policies he ties to it, leaving the Legislature the options of either accepting it or shutting down government.

Cuomo also by inserted into the budget his ethics package aimed at lawmakers and their lucrative outside income in law firms. The Legislature had previously flatly rejected that idea. It's a bold move by Cuomo because the ethics proposal lacks a clear budget connection.

"Court cases have strengthened the hand of the governor, although we've seen restraint by governors since then," said Elizabeth Lynam of the independent Citizens Budget Commission. "But this year the governor has already doubled-down . . . the governor has a strong hand and he showed he's willing to play it."

In response, the Legislature has done the unheard of: The Senate and Assembly, so far, have refused to formally introduce Cuomo's proposals. That could keep them out of the final budget.

"Someone will have to blink," said E.J. McMahon, president of the independent Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative think tank.

The closed-door fight could turn into another court battle, said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "The Legislature has drawn a line in the sand and they say the governor has gone over it," he said. "If they knuckle under for the 30-day amendments, they are going to face this problem every year."

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