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School aid, new tolls expected to win approval in NY budget

The State Capital building in Albany is seen

The State Capital building in Albany is seen on Jan 14. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

ALBANY — A $1 billion increase for school aid, new tolls for driving into Manhattan, a ban on single-use plastic bags and a revamped bail system are expected to be adopted by New York lawmakers when they begin voting on a state budget Sunday.

Other measures anticipated in the $175 billion spending plan include renewing the “millionaire's tax” on high earners for another five years, a special tax on homes selling for more than $5 million in New York City, and closing two state prisons.

Another measure expected to be included would change the status of the state’s 2 percent property-tax cap, from renewable every few years to permanently written into state law. The updated statute will, however, exempt some spending increases at local boards of cooperative educational services (BOCES) from counting against a local school district’s tax cap, a state official said.

Late Saturday, officials said they were close to agreeing on creating a commission to study the possibility of enacting public financing of political campaigns. Legislators said they believed the panel's recommendations could be made binding; details were being hashed out. Activists who want to limit the influence of big money on campaigns blasted the initiative as insufficient.

And along with high-profile items, the thousands of pages of budget bills will include notable low-profile elements. One would require all backseat vehicle passengers to buckle up, just as front-seat riders do now. Another would prohibit law enforcement from releasing booking information and mug shots from arrests unless doing so serves a public protection purpose.

The Senate and Assembly called its members back to the State Capitol for Saturday night closed-door meetings to go over the final details of the budget. Rank-and-file members are planning to rise early and start voting on a series of massive bills before noon Sunday, with the goal of finishing the budget — or, at least, the bulk of it — before midnight Sunday, when New York’s 2019-20 fiscal year begins.

“I think we are at the finish line,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said late Friday. “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.”

Stewart-Cousins met with her negotiating counterparts, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), on Saturday morning to iron out some of the remaining issues, officials said. The two house leaders were set to review the details with their majority members Saturday evening.

Democrats control both houses following last year’s elections, and though bargaining with the Democratic governor has had its rough spots, reaching agreements on a spending plan generally has been smoother than when Republicans controlled the Senate.

That said, the budget also is notable for what will be left out.

Cuomo in January had proposed legalizing — and taxing — marijuana as a way to generate revenue. But he didn’t bank on the program to be up and running until 2021, which legislators said removed the urgency from rushing the issue now. Later, some counties said they probably would “opt out” of legalizing marijuana sales — including Nassau and Suffolk counties — further taking away momentum.

Cuomo called the issue all but dead a week earlier. On Friday, he performed last rites. For now.

“Probably the biggest single issue that will not be addressed is the legalization of marijuana,” Cuomo said Friday. “In concept, we have an agreement … and that is going to take more time to work out.”

Heastie has said there is no reason lawmakers can’t review and approve marijuana legislation in the second half of the session, which runs till mid-June. But some legislators believe the issue is dead for now and probably can’t win enough support unless it is rolled into a future state budget, which, because it covers thousands of state programs, would give it enough political cover to win support.

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.

On Friday, Cuomo said the budget agreement will add about $50 million to what he initially proposed, putting the overall increase around $1 billion. That would bring overall aid to $28 billion, or about a 3.7 percent increase over last year.

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

Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan is intended to reduce Manhattan gridlock while raising money for subways, buses and commuter rail. It calls for drivers to pay a toll to enter Manhattan below 60th Street. The fee hasn’t been finalized but earlier estimates put it at more than $11.

New York City transit would get 80 percent of the toll revenue designated and eventually borrowed for infrastructure, Metro-North rail would get 10 percent as would the Long Island Rail Road. That will mean  more than $1 billion for the LIRR, though the exact amount and the time frame would depend on how quickly the state borrows money for projects, state officials have said.

Criminal-justice overhauls would include tightening rules governing rights to a speedy trial, allowing defense attorneys to receive “discovery” evidence sooner in the adjudication process, and ending cash bail for almost 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, some sex-related misdemeanors and crimes involving the theft or embezzlement of large amounts of money.

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