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State lawmakers pass budget before deadline

The New York state Assembly voted to approve the state's budget last night, along with the Senate.

Lawmakers hurried to complete work on the state budget before the midnight deadline, but the spending plan is not without some controversy.

Legislators held a marathon voting session on several budget bills, in an attempt to beat the April 1 deadline. Some of the legislation was not technically printed until the wee hours of Saturday morning, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent an emergency message to waive the three day waiting period required by law.

The election year budget contains extra money for schools, more than $1 billion, as well as $340 million for pre-kindergarten programs, with $300 million of that going to New York City. Charter schools also get a boost and the effects of the Common Core tests on students will be delayed for another two years.

The New York State School Boards Association’s Tim Kremer says schools are pleased with the additional money and are likely now to be able to keep their budgets within the mandatory two percent tax cap.

“It’s an increase in state aid for public education and we’re happy about that,” said Kremer.

But he says a multi-step plan to provide homeowners with a property tax credit will cause schools some difficulties and it would have been better to just fund schools directly.

The tax credit plan will result in homeowners receiving rebate checks in October, shortly before Election Day. Voters in key swing suburban districts will be getting the largest checks, because their homes are worth more money than in upstate regions.

Cuomo has called the property tax credit program transformative, and says it will force local governments to consolidate costly services, but EJ McMahon, with the fiscally conservative think tank The Empire Center, characterizes it differently.

“It’s a political year gimmick, and a wasteful one,” said McMahon.

McMahon says reductions in business taxes will actually do more in the long run to improve the state’s economy and business climate. The tax cuts include the corporate tax, the elimination of an energy tax and a significant tax break for manufacturers, as well as an increase in the estate tax threshold to $5.25 million in three years.

“There are some actual pro growth tax cuts in the budget,” McMahon said.

Others are less enthusiastic about the budget's business tax breaks. A coalition of union and progressive groups chanting “Hey Governor One Percent, who do you represent?” protested outside Cuomo’s offices.

“The governor had a lot of proposals that are not helping working people and are not helping people aspiring to work,” said Susan Kent, president of the Public Employees Federation, a state worker union.

Another controversial portion of the budget is an ethics package, which surfaced late Friday night. In exchange for lawmakers agreeing to stiffer penalties for bribery and corruption, and enhanced enforcement of campaign donation violations, Cuomo has agreed to end a Moreland Commission panel that was actively investigating alleged wrong doing by legislators.

There’s also a pilot public campaign finance system  limited to the Comptroller’s race. Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says the provision is flawed and virtually unworkable.

“It’s designed to fail,” said Horner. “It’s cynical.”

Horner says the plan comes too late in the election cycle and relies on the State Board of Elections, which is viewed as dysfunctional, to set up the program.

The major government reform groups are urging the state Comptroller and any potential challengers to opt out.

The state’s Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, says it’s telling that even reformers recommend avoiding the pilot program. DiNapoli, a long time supporter of public campaign financing, says he also has some doubts.

“It seems to have some obvious and serious flaws as to whether it’s even workable,” DiNapoli said.

The Comptroller says he will look at the plan thoroughly though, first, before making any decisions.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.