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Politics and Government

Lawmakers come closer to budget agreement

Legislative leaders say they are working together and are close to a budget agreement, after last week's blow up that left the Senate and Assembly leaders negotiating separately with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The legislative leaders, following a two-hour, closed-door meeting with the governor, seemed in high spirits. Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos gave his oftentimes rival Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver a hug.

“Look how much I love Shelly,” Skelos said with a laugh.

The mood was in contrast to the last meeting when Skelos stormed out, claiming he was annoyed and frustrated by what he called “another branch of government."

Silver jokingly explained away that argument.

“He was talking about the judiciary the other day as the other branch of government,” Silver quipped.

As often happens when the top lawmakers are close to forging a deal, they offered few details, other than to say they are working on coming up with additional money to fund pre-kindergarten and other school aid, as well as helping charter schools.

Silver and Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein were asked if they were still advocating for different amounts of money to finance universal access to pre-K. The Senate added $540 million to the governor’s plan of spending $100 million for the first year of a five-year phase in plan.

“We’re looking forward to having a fully funded universal pre-K program in the state of New York,” Klein said.  

Cuomo, speaking briefly to reporters after a visit to Syracuse later in the day, says while the exact figure has not yet been decided, he predicts there will be enough money to fund pre-K for any school district that wants it and has a program ready.

“Then we’ll find out how quickly the local governments can actually move,” said Cuomo, who predicts New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will get the $300 million dollars he has requested, if it can be demonstrated that the pre-K program is ready by next September.   

Even items that were said to be previously off the table are apparently back on, including the Dream Act, which would offer state funded tuition aid for the children of undocumented immigrants.

Skelos has been an opponent of a state funded Dream Act. Nearly all of the Senate Republicans voted against the measure when it came up for a vote in the chamber earlier this month. Silver says there’s been no determination yet on whether the Dream Act will be part of the budget.

Another issue the Senate GOP has not been in favor of in the past - publicly financed political campaigns - has also come up, Skelos and Silver say.

“Everything is being discussed,” Skelos said.

“We’re all drawing no lines in the sand,” Silver said.

The news that public campaign financing is still alive in budget talks heartened members of the Fair Elections for New York coalition, who have been pushing for the state to adopt a matching donor system already in place in New York City.

“That’s a complete turn around for the Senate Republicans,” said Jessica Wisneski with Citizen Action.

She says now it’s up to Cuomo to make sure public financing ends up in the final budget.

“Can he clean up Albany?” Wisneski asked. “Everything is lined up for him to do so.”

The legislative leaders also talked about the governor's multi-step plan to freeze property taxes. But in a sign that an agreement has not been reached, Cuomo was in Syracuse to promote his plan, saying he needs average New Yorkers to lobby their lawmakers to sign on to his proposal.

“I need the people to make their voice heard,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo says he’s cautiously optimistic that his property tax freeze plan will become a part of the final budget.

The budget deadline is March 31.