Lawmakers Reach Tentative Budget Deal

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers struck a tentative budget agreement today that would create committees to oversee gambling initiatives and infrastructure projects and provide $805 million in new aid to schools.

Lawmakers said Monday night that only a few minor issues remained in adopting the $132.5 billion spending plan. The goal was to pass all the budget bills by Thursday, marking the second straight year a budget was passed on time after decades of late passage.

The state’s new fiscal year starts Sunday, April 1. If passed on time, it would be the first time since 2005 and 2006 that a budget was completed before the April 1 deadline two years in a row — and only the second time since the early 1980s.

“Just as years of late budgets symbolized Albany’s dysfunction, on-time budgets show that state government is working again,” said Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County.

The budget would keep overall spending flat and increase state spending, excluding federal aid, by 1.9 percent. The budget would close a $3.5 billion budget gap, mainly by maintaining higher income taxes on the wealthy and cutting them slightly for the middle class -– a deal approved last December.

Many of the contentious issues were decided earlier this month, when lawmakers agreed to a new pension tier for new public employees and new legislative district lines. They also agreed earlier this month to seek to make casino gambling legal in New York.

Cuomo would gain more budgeting power in the deal, such as allowing the state to bid for purchasing contracts without having to go through a pre-audit by the state Comptroller’s Office.

On Monday, lawmakers agreed to keep open the 11 regional offices for the state Department of Transportation. Some lawmakers protested plans to close some of the facilities. Cuomo had wanted to combine the 11 offices into six.

“We just thought it wasn’t the best thing,” said Assembly Transportation Committee chairman David Gantt, D-Rochester. “People really believe that they have been getting good service from the regional DOT offices.”

Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell, Broome County, praised the decision.

“This is important news not only for local DOT employees and their families, but for the entire Southern Tier,” she said in a statement.

New York would establish a 15-member panel charged with identifying the state’s infrastructure needs. Cuomo also reached a deal with lawmakers late Sunday to close a $13 billion capital budget gap for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the New York City area over the next three years.

There were some outstanding issues. The sides had not detailed how to distribute $805 million in new school aid, part of $20 billion in total spending for schools. The aid for individual schools would likely be released later this week.

The governor wanted to spend $250 million of the new funding on competitive grants for schools, arguing it would improve student performance and achieve management efficiencies.

Lawmakers agreed to spend $125 million over two years on the grants. The money includes $50 million in the coming fiscal year, and $25 million in the following year. Another $50 million would come from grant money not used in the current fiscal year, which ends March 31.

Lawmakers were debating whether to adopt legislation that would prevent teacher evaluations from being made public, but they ultimately agreed to keep out any changes. Evaluations for New York City teachers were recently made public.

The Democratic-led Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have wanted the Legislature to adopt setting up a health-insurance exchange to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act. But the Republican-controlled Senate has taken issue with a health exchange, and lawmakers opted not to include provisions in their final budget.

Cuomo indicated Saturday that he might approve the exchange through an executive order if he can’t get it through the Legislature.

Cuomo is making expedited funding for infrastructure projects a key piece of the budget. In his budget address in January, the Democratic governor pledged to establish a $15 billion fund to repair the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

Cuomo’s budget calls for an initial $1.2 billion in funding for roads and bridges, mostly through $917 million in federal aid. Cuomo has said the initial money could replace 115 bridge decks and fix more than 2,000 lane miles of roads.

The new panel would be charged with identifying the state’s annual infrastructure needs and would be controlled by Cuomo.

A series by Gannett’s Albany Bureau last fall found that 36 percent of the state’s bridges are in need of repair and a similar percentage had been deemed either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

The budget would give Cuomo more power. He would appoint the majority of members on the 15-member transportation task force and the majority of the members to the state Gaming Commission.

The commission would be set up to oversee the state lottery, horse racing and video lottery casinos. The governor would appoint five of the seven members. The majorities in the Legislature would get one appointment each.

The budget would also give the governor the ability to forgo pre-auditing by the comptroller for contracts and purchase orders through the state Office of General Services. Cuomo is seeking to consolidate purchasing orders, such as for paper products, and speed up their approval.

Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli warned about the lack of checks and balances if the proposal is adopted.

“It is a mistake to erode this independent oversight,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “Eliminating review of contracts potentially worth over billions of dollars undermines the accountability and transparency New York taxpayers deserve.”

The MTA deal, meanwhile, includes $770 million from the state over three years and lifts the MTA bond cap by $7 billion, from $34 billion to $41 billion. The MTA is getting $3.2 billion from the federal government, and the authority will apply for a $2.2 billion loan, officials said.

The agreement means improvement projects for the nation’s largest transit system can continue, including for Metro North in Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties, officials said.

“The MTA Capital Program not only provides for continued investment in our network, but also creates tens of thousands of jobs and generates economic activity across the entire state,” the MTA said in a statement.

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