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State budget passes in early morning hours

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at Farmingdale State

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at Farmingdale State College in Farmingdale Feb. 5, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the legislature passed a $150 billion state budget early Wednesday that sought to transform the future of public education and ethical behavior in Albany.

Along the way, Cuomo and lawmakers snapped their streak of four consecutive on-time budgets. The Senate passed its bills at 11:15 p.m. Tuesday, but the Assembly continued to debate beyond the midnight deadline, passing the last of the budget bills at about 3 a.m. Wednesday.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli Wednesday gave a mixed review to the budget, which resulted from two months of closed-door negotiations on bills. DiNapoli, a Democrat, said Cuomo and the State Legislature "deserve credit for adopting a timely budget. But he called it "unfortunate that this year's budget process was not more transparent."

Cuomo said the budget "keeps spending under 2 percent, reforms New York's education bureaucracy" and "implements the nation's strongest and most comprehensive disclosure laws for public officials."

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said the budget includes Senate priorities including keeping spending growth under 2 percent and returning more school aid to suburban schools. Skelos also noted that the spending plan contains no new tax increases.

The independent Citizens Budget Commission gave the budget high marks for continuing to keep the overall spending increase to about 2 percent for the fifth year.

But the commission's Elizabeth Lynam said too much of the bank windfall was spent on economic development projects, which she described as a "dubious investment at best." Lynam, the commission's vice president and director of state studies, said more of the funding should be spent on "hard-core infrastructure."

Cuomo had threatened to make the budget late if the legislature refused to pass his ethics and school policies. But he didn't need to play out his gambit to force the policies into emergency spending measures.

Under the ethics measures, legislator/lawyers will have to disclose clients who pay them $5,000, or when compensation to the firm and the legislator is $5,000 or more.

Cuomo said lawmakers will have to detail the work they do for the pay, such as writing briefs. That will enable investigators to track the work to specific clients and identify any conflicts of interest, which have been the basis of several corruption cases, Cuomo said.

State law would continue to allow law firms with legislators who are "of counsel" to do business with the state. However, the legislator/lawyer can't work on state business or try to influence state officials to benefit a private law client.

State school aid will rise about 1.4 percent by the most common measure of the highly politicized spending, to over $23.5 billion.

But the state budget's biggest and longest lasting impact will be the policy Cuomo forced on the legislature using his extraordinary powers under the constitution to craft a budget.

The result will be a more rigorous teacher evaluation system that places more weight on students' performance in standardized tests; college scholarships for future teachers; a move to limit the number of standardized tests; $20,000 bonuses for top teachers and the first system to fire veteran teachers who are proven to be "ineffective" for three consecutive years.

Teachers unions and their allies continued to pressure the legislature late into Tuesday to block Cuomo's plan, which in part holds some increase in state aid until new, tougher teacher evaluations are approved.


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