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Albany again slices the budget pie behind closed doors

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo arrives at

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo arrives at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 30, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. Photo Credit: AP / Mike Groll

Once again, the process was deplorable.

Crafting a state budget begins in a spirit of openness, with the governor and both legislative bodies publicly presenting proposals. Then comes the Albany darkness, an inevitable descent into opacity, secrecy and closed-door meetings, followed by a scramble among those outside the process for shards of information about the negotiations. This year, as Friday’s deadline for reaching a deal approached, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo even suggested tying the prospect of a salary hike for legislators to their ability to deliver an on-time budget. Some lawmakers weighed in on some budget bills without knowing exactly what was in the stew. They likely still didn’t Friday — and we didn’t, either. That can take days. And they were still cooking away into the night on Thursday.

The budget is too important to be done like this.

But the outlines of the spending plan that emerged late Thursday showed that Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) got a lot of things right, including a middle class tax cut. Another key item was a raise in the minimum wage, the controversial issue most responsible for the latest budget agreement in Cuomo’s six-year tenure. Different phase-in periods were inevitable in the face of GOP opposition; signs were that $15 would be reached many workers in New York City in 2019; then on Long Island and in Westchester by Dec. 31, 2021; and upstate would get to $12.50 by Dec. 31, 2020, with its future increases done by formula. A study after three years to see whether the measure is having a negative impact on the economy was a necessary addition to pass Cuomo’s proposal.

Paid family leave also was poised to move forward, with workers eventually getting up to two-thirds of their pay for 12 weeks, said to be funded by a roughly $1-per-week payroll deduction.

School aid was hiked $1.5 billion, a whopping increase of more than 6 percent that eliminated the recession-era cuts known as the gap elimination adjustment. That was a $117 million hole on Long Island. It’s great news for the region. But huge state hikes must lead to less reliance on property taxes, not automatic increases in spending, to force districts to continue to pursue efficiencies and savings and reduce the burden on homeowners.

A deal to move Nassau County’s video lottery terminals to Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, quelling controversy while guaranteeing Nassau an eventual $25-plus million annual payoff, was a shrewd move.

There appeared to be good news on the environmental front as well, most notably a big boost in the Environmental Protection Fund to $300 million and an additional $200 million for wastewater and sewer infrastructure.

Ethics reform, as expected, was absent. And while principle suggests it doesn’t really belong in a budget discussion, now Cuomo has lost his best leverage to make it happen. So it’s incumbent on him to do whatever is necessary to get a serious package of reforms through the Senate and Assembly by the end of the session in June. And this time, let’s get it done in the open. — The editorial board