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Here are the top issues in the state budget debate

Sports betting, taxes, congestion pricing, school aid and marijuana legalization head the list.

The State Capitol building in Albany is seen

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

ALBANY — Marijuana, sports betting, congestion pricing and, of course, school aid are just some of the hot topics on the table as New York lawmakers move toward serious negotiations on a roughly $175 billion state budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year.

This year’s fight differs from previous ones because it’s not just about money. There’s also an institutional battle pitting the State Legislature versus Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over whether to load up a state spending plan with policy initiatives such as ending cash bail and making permanent the state’s 2 percent property-tax cap. The governor generally favors putting policy into the fiscal plan, which gives him more negotiating leverage. Legislators want to handle items separately, which helps them.

Along with the fight for power, here is where some key statewide and Long Island issues stand just two weeks before the April 1 budget deadline:

Education spending

No surprise, the Senate and Assembly want to spend more than Cuomo. The governor wants to increase overall K-12 spending by $960 million, to $27.7 billion. The Senate and Assembly each have called for a $1.6 billion increase.

On “foundation aid,” the state’s primary source of operating assistance for schools, Cuomo proposed a $338 million bump. The Senate and Assembly call for $1.2 billion.

Healthcare

With state revenue running short of projections, this is the primary area the governor has looked to for spending reductions or slowdowns.

Cuomo has proposed reducing Medicaid reimbursements to providers by 0.8 percent across the board. He wants to reduce the growth of overall Medicaid spending to 2.1 percent instead of the 4.4 percent projected last year. He’s proposed cutting a special type of reimbursement that would impact commercial ambulance services — which they say will force many of them out of business.

Both houses call for restoring Cuomo’s cuts to hospitals and nursing homes. Further, the governor’s office said it might reconsider the issue if the federal budget reduces Medicaid spending.

Special taxes

The Assembly has called for higher taxes on the super wealthy. They would impose three new tax brackets and would increase the current top tax rate, 8.82 percent, to: 9.32 percent for incomes between $5 million and $10 million; 9.82 percent for incomes between $10 million and $100 million; and 10.32 percent for incomes more than $100 million.

Neither the Senate nor governor have called for those tax hikes. But the Senate and Assembly do call for extending the current top tax rate for the wealthy for another five years. In contrast, all three entities have voiced support for a “pied-à-terre” tax on people who have second homes in New York City. Lawmakers are considering imposing an additional 0.5 percent property tax on second homes valued at more than $5 million and 4 percent on those valued at more than $25 million.

Local aid

Both houses want to restore Cuomo’s proposed cuts to the Aid and Incentives to Municipalities (AIM) funding, valued at $60 million.

They also want to increase state funding for local streets and bridges by nearly $600 million.

Higher Education

The two houses want to increase the minimum grant under the Tuition Assistance Program (from $5,165 to $5,310) and increase the maximum family income for eligibility (from $80,000 to $110,000).

Prisons

Cuomo has called for closing three more state prisons. He notes the inmate population continues to decrease and that New York has shuttered more than 20 prisons and juvenile detention centers in the last nine years.

Neither the Assembly nor Senate called for closing more prisons.

Opioid tax

Cuomo is reviving the idea of a tax on opioid prescriptions after a court last year ruled a similar tax was an unconstitutional intrusion on interstate commerce. The governor restructured the idea — making it a fee and allowing companies to pass the cost on to consumers. 

The Senate backs the idea but the Assembly omitted it from its budget proposal.

Marijuana

Cuomo has proposed legalizing cannabis, taxing it and using some of the proceeds to help fund mass transit. The two houses support legalization but differ from the governor on how to use the money and whether to include the legislation in the budget.

In particular, the Assembly is calling for some of the proceeds to be directed to communities, Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said, that have been “disproportionately impacted by past criminalization of marijuana.”

Criminal Justice

Like marijuana, the chief issue is whether to handle this issue as stand-alone legislation rather than through the budget. The governor and the houses conceptually agree on ending cash bail for some criminal charges (though disagreeing on the specifics), enacting new “speedy trial” deadlines and forcing prosecutors to allow defense attorneys access to evidence earlier in proceedings.

Congestion pricing

Cuomo has proposed imposing a charge on drivers who enter Manhattan south of 60th Street as one way of generating revenue for the crumbling subway system. Cuomo said that without congestion pricing, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would have to impose up to a 30 percent mass transit fare hike to help keep the agency going.

But opposition in the Assembly comes from Queens and Brooklyn representatives who worry about residents who don't live close to mass transit options. In the Senate, the Long Island and Hudson Valley delegations have complained the proposal doesn't funnel money into commuter rail.

Property-tax cap

The 2 percent cap typically has been renewed every few years by popular support. Cuomo wants to make the cap permanent. The Senate has voted to do so in a bill not connected to the budget. The Assembly hasn’t and has questioned whether it’s necessary to tie the issue to the budget.

Further, some Assembly members note the tax cap has been tied politically to the renewal of New York City rent-control laws, which Cuomo has omitted from his budget.

One upstate lawmaker said in a radio interview what numerous legislators have said privately: It’s not that they don’t support the tax cap. It’s that Cuomo wants them to give up one of the few leverage points they have in negotiations.

“He always zeros out our programs … It’s part of the budget dance,” Assemb. Al Stirpe (D-Syracuse) said. He said it’s doubtful legislators would allow the tax cap to expire.

“I think we will always renew it,” Stirpe said. “Whether it’s made permanent, I don’t know.”

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