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Voting begins as state budget talks come down to the wire

New York State Senate

State lawmakers started passing budget bills late Thursday night into Friday morning, even though some major issues related to the spending plan are still not resolved. They need to finish by mid-day Friday so legislators and staff can get home for the Passover and Easter holidays.

Senators emerged from a party conference Thursday afternoon after discussing what’s in and what’s out of the budget.

Sen. John Bonacic, who represents portions of the Hudson Valley, said education spending will likely be increased by more than $1 billion, a higher amount than recommended by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It’s still not known whether the governor would get his wish to have greater control over the exact school aid distributions for New York City schools and large upstate school districts, including Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse. 

Sen. Jim Tedisco from Schenectady said all of the new taxes proposed by Cuomo are out of the budget, including a new tax on Internet sales.

“All the taxes are off,” Tedisco said. “We’re going to save the constituents a lot of money.”

Tedisco said the proposed 2 cents per milligram tax on prescription opioids might be included, but will technically no longer be called a “tax.”

“They are not calling it a tax, but a stewardship,” Tedisco said with a laugh. 

Cuomo also has created two “fixes” to try to mitigate the partial loss of state and local tax deductions in the new federal tax overhaul. One would offer an optional employer payroll tax as an alternative to employees paying their state income taxes. Business owners would then pay the equivalent amount in tax to the state, but they would still be allowed to deduct it from their taxes.

The governor also wants to set up charitable trusts that property taxpayers could contribute to in lieu of paying their property taxes. They would then receive a deduction for the donations.

Democrats in the Assembly have accepted Cuomo’s plans largely intact. Some Republican senators are not on board but concede the plans might end up in the budget anyway.

Senate Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco called the payroll tax option an “administrative nightmare.” He said the proposed charitable entities are “foolish” and “misleading” because he does not believe the IRS will accept them as true charitable deductions. 

“They don’t work,” said DeFrancisco, who also is a candidate for governor.

Several items that Cuomo had tied to the budget are not currently in the spending plan, including bail reform, the Child Victims Act for survivors of childhood sexual abuse and the Dream Act to provide college aid for children of undocumented immigrants. A uniform policy for dealing with sexual harassment in state and local governments is still in the budget. The details are being finalized.

DeFrancisco and other senators say there’s still a chance, though, that even what’s been agreed to so far could fall apart, and budget extenders could be needed. 

“There’s still some serious things that have to be decided,” DeFrancisco said.

Bonacic said there’s talk of approving a one-month-long temporary spending bill, to last until early May. But he said the threat of extenders also can provide impetus for warring sides to compromise before time runs out on Friday.

“It’s the final ‘chicken move,’ ” Bonacic said. “Where it’s an extender, or we get it done.” 

School districts immediately objected to a month-long budget extender. The New York State Council of School Superintendents said that school districts need to know how much they are receiving in state aid by mid-April. They need to meet a state deadline of April 23 for school boards to finalize the budget proposals that go before voters on May 15.

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.