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Groups make pitch as budget deadline fast approaches

Karen DeWitt
Rev. Emily McNeill of the Labor Religion Coalition and other religious leaders lobbied at the state Capitol Monday for extension and expansion of the state's millionaires tax in the budget.

The next two weeks at the New York State Capitol are going to be very busy as lawmakers face the deadline for a new budget. Several issues remain unresolved.

Religious leaders lobbied for inclusion of the millionaire’s tax in the state budget. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has asked for an extension of a temporary income tax surcharge on New Yorkers making more than $1 million. Republicans, who lead the Senate with the help of some breakaway Democrats, want to end the tax. Democrats, who control the Assembly want to add even more, higher tax brackets for the state’s top income earners.

Angela Warner runs a food pantry at St. Vincent DePaul Catholic Church in Albany, which served 18,000 people last year, a 12 percent increase over the prior year.

“I think of it as the anti-trickle down economics,” said Warner, referring to an economic theory popularized in the administration of former President Ronald Reagan. “Instead of leaving it in the hands of the rich to make donations, we’re giving it directly to the people who need it.”

The state budget often deals with non-spending-related items. This year, there’s a push to allow ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft to operate outside of New York City. Rules governing insurance for drivers remain unresolved.

Several of Cuomo’s former associates have been charged with corruption in connection with economic development contracts. The governor has once again proposed some ethics reforms. The measures would create a new inspector general to investigate alleged wrongdoing involved with the awarding of contracts to developers.

But government reform groups say they are not optimistic that ethics changes will end up being part of the budget. Dick Dadey, with Citizens Union, says unlike in past years, Cuomo has held no meetings with reformers.

“Even though he made a big splash about it in the State of the State,” Dadey said. “We take away from that that they’re not that serious.”

Citizens Union is currently suing the governor over a 2016 law to make not-for-profits disclose their donors’ names and addresses on an open website. Citizens Union, as well as other groups, say that could have a chilling effect on free speech and their ability to fund raise.

Dadey says he hopes the two matters are not related. But he does believe that the additional disclosure requirements, tucked into a bill passed last June, was payback for past critiques by government reform groups on lack of ethics reforms in Albany. He says the groups believe the governor and lawmakers are trying to silence them for what he sais is constructive criticism.

Citizens Union released a report on $4.3 billion in the budget that they say are spent at the discretion of Cuomo and lawmakers with almost no details released to taxpayers. They also believe that the more than $9 million in economic development project grant awards needs to be more transparent to the public.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is now facing a jail term, drew on one of those funds to make illegal payments to a cancer researcher who also recommended clients to Silver’s law firm.

The governor’s spokesman, Rich Azzopardi, in a response, got personal.

“Dick Dadey’s fragile ego aside, rest assured that work on the governor’s budget continues,” said Azzopardi. “Each one of the governor's reforms has been discussed for months, if not years, with these stakeholders.”

And Azzopardi called Citizens Union, a group that began in 1897 to fight Tammany Hall corruption, “hypocrites for preaching transparency while suing to keep their own donors secret.”

With the deadline drawing nearer, legislators are starting the public conference committee meetings to discuss aspects of the spending plan.

But the conference committees seldom make major decisions in their public meetings. The key decisions are made behind closed doors at private meetings between Cuomo and majority party legislative leaders.

With the deadline drawing nearer, legislators are starting the public conference committee meetings to discuss aspects of the spending plan.

Senate GOP Leader John Flanagan, Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, and Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie spoke after their first General Conference Committee meeting of the budget season.

The legislative leaders say they are still working out the details to provide more funds for college tuition for New York’s students, and they want to resolve differences over extending ride hailing services to places outside New York City.

Republicans remain opposed to Cuomo’s plan to extend a tax on millionaires, but Flanagan says he and Heastie agree to reject a proposal by Cuomo that would have allowed the governor unilateral powers to alter the budget after it’s been approved on April 1.

“We have fundamental disagreements with the executive on his broad authority, discretion, allowing too much authority to go to the Division of the Budget,” Flanagan said.

Both houses also agree to increase money to direct care workers at nonprofits that care for the disabled, to help meet the state’s new higher minimum wage requirements.

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.