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NY lawmakers near agreement on $1B increase in school aid

Another deal near agreement would end cash bail for all nonviolent felonies, as well as low-level burglary and robbery charges.

The State Capitol building in Albany.

The State Capitol building in Albany. Photo Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — New York lawmakers are closing in on agreements to raise overall school aid by about $1 billion, which is a smaller increase than educators wanted but should be considered “terrific” given the state’s fiscal condition, rank-and-file legislators said Friday.

With a state budget deadline looming Sunday at midnight, legislators said they had all but finalized some of the major aspects of what’s expected to be a $175 billion financial plan for New York’s 2019-20 fiscal year.

One deal would end cash bail for all nonviolent felonies, as well as low-level burglary and robbery charges. And judges wouldn’t have to assess a defendant’s “dangerousness” in setting bail, officials said. Bail would still be required for violent felonies and some sex-related misdemeanors, although Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said this part of the issue wasn’t resolved yet.

The “millionaires’ tax,” a surcharge on individuals who earn more than $1 million annually and joint filers who earn more than $2 million, would be renewed for another five years. First created following the 2008 stock market meltdown as a temporary fix, the charge brings in about $4 billion annually for the state.

Also, the state’s 2 percent property-tax cap is expected to be changed to “permanent” status, ending the need to renew it every few years. But key lawmakers said the cap might come with new adjustments, though they declined to elaborate before all the budget bills were printed — which was expected to occur Saturday and, perhaps, Sunday.

“Property tax cap will be in there,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) told reporters late Friday afternoon. Asked about any changes to how the cap works, he said, “You got to read the bill,” which won’t be available till Saturday at the earliest.

Cuomo has said he won’t sign a budget without the property-tax cap provision.

Voting on the budget could get underway as early as Sunday morning, officials said.

“I think we are at the finish line,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) told reporters after a three-hour closed-door meeting among Democrats who control the chamber. “We are working hard to just get an on-time budget with New York’s priorities. We’re in a good place. I think we are almost there.”

School aid, almost always the thorniest issue of the state budget, had yet to be finalized. Cuomo in January had proposed an increase of $959 million, or 3.6 percent, to a total of $27 billion. Just days later, state officials reported December revenue came in nearly $3 billion below projections, prodding the Democratic governor to warn legislators to tamp down spending expectations.

Rank-and-file legislators said Friday spending in some school-aid categories was still being shifted and calculated, but they were eyeing a roughly $1 billion increase.

“In this budget, that’s terrific,” said Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), dean of the Democratic delegation from Suffolk County.

Later, Cuomo told reporters the overall school spending total will grow by “$50 million above our proposal,” putting the one-year increase at $1 billion, or 3.7 percent.

Within overall school funding, “foundation aid,” the state’s main program for sending money to school districts, could rise about $620 million in this year’s budget, legislators and officials said. That’s nearly $300 million more than the governor proposed.

“We would have loved to have done better, but we have some bad economic times,” Heastie said.

As with school aid, a compromise on bail would disappoint some activists in that it won’t end cash bail entirely. But Heastie said it will bring a major change to the criminal justice system.

“It’s something that’s been very important to me since becoming leader,” said Heastie (D-Bronx), who became the speaker in 2015. “We didn’t go as far as we’d like, but, I think, overall we’re very pleased … I’d say 85 percent of the population (facing criminal charges) will now be looking at a cashless bail system.”

Rank-and-file legislators had said a flashpoint in the debate was whether to allow judges to assess a person’s potential “danger to the community” in determining whether to require bail. Criminal-justice advocates had argued against it, saying most judges would order bail because of public pressure.

They had cited high-profile cases in which defendants were jailed for months or years on low-level charges because they couldn’t afford bail and their cases stalled in the court system.

Legislators said “dangerousness” won’t be in the new law, but Heastie and Stewart-Cousins declined to give details.

Lawmakers previously this week said they had all but finalized agreements to implement congestion pricing in Manhattan, ban single-use plastic bags and give counties and cities the option of imposing a 5-cent fee on paper bags.

The latter two actions are intended to reduce pollution, especially in waterways. The congestion pricing plan is aimed at easing Manhattan gridlock while generating money for mass-transit improvements, at least $1 billion for the Long Island Rail Road. The plan would impose tolls on drivers entering Manhattan south of 60th Street.

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