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Politics and Government

Final lobbying push at the Capitol Monday as state budget takes shape

Karen DeWitt

With less than a week to go to the budget deadline, interest groups converged on the state Capitol, lobbying to get their measures included in the budget plan, and in some cases, to keep items out.

Assemblyman Harry Bronson a Democrat from Rochester, is the sponsor of a bill to extend prevailing wage rules to projects that draw from private and public government funds. He was joined Monday by around 200 construction workers who stood on the Capitol’s ornate million dollar staircase between the Senate and Assembly chambers. The workers say the change would add significantly to their pay.

"We’re going to fight like hell, between now and the end of next weekend, to make sure this is in the budget," Bronson said.

On the other side of the Senate chambers were proponents of public campaign financing, additional taxes on the richest New Yorkers and more spending on the state’s poorest schools.

Janine Harper is the head of the PTA at PS 770 in Brooklyn. She said her school is owed half a million dollars in funding under a 12 year old court order known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity that she said remains unfilled to this day. 

"The funding for the schools is in the [legislature’s] budget, and we’re just counting on Governor Cuomo to make sure it gets passed," Harper said. "Our kids deserve the money that his kids get when they go to private schools." 

Gov. Cuomo, who has proposed spending an additional $1 billion more on schools in the new budget, has said its time to move on from the court case. The legislature wants to fulfill the court order in a three-year phase in, and recommends spending $600 million more on schools above the governor’s number. 

Others are pressing to keep some measures out of the budget, including a tax proposed by Cuomo on opioid prescriptions. Opponents include the chair of the Assembly Health Committee, and the legislature’s only pharmacist, John McDonald, of Cohoes. He said it’s "terrible" public policy.

"There are plenty of fingers to point," McDonald said. "But at the end of the day, pharmacies are not the villain, and patients certainly are not the villain in this situation."

McDonald and the others say the latest version of the bill, which was first proposed by Cuomo last year, is badly flawed. The 2018 bill would have prohibited drug companies from passing the costs on to patients. But that provision was struck down in federal court as unconstitutional. The new version does not prevent manufacturers from raising prices to patients.

Julie Farrar, who has chronic pain from a spinal condition, worries that her medical bills might go up if the tax is approved.

"It is going to trickle down in a way to hurt the people that use opioids effectively to manage, for myself, chronic severe pain," Farrar said.

The tax would bring in $100 million to the state’s general fund. Assemblyman McDonald said the money could instead be gained from savings in the state’s vast Medicaid program.

The biggest group of the day included several hundred developmentally disabled New Yorkers, and their health aides, asking for a cost of living pay increase for the direct care workers.

Cuomo took the funding out of his budget this year. Senate Mental Health Committee Chair David Carlucci, who addressed the crowd, said the Senate proposes restoring it.

"It’s about priorities," Carlucci, a Democrat from the Hudson Valley, said. "And what can be a better priority than taking care and providing a living wage to those who provide care to our most vulnerable   populations?"

Later, the governor’s counsel, Alphonso David, said the funding of $75 million will be restored.

"The governor has made a decision that he will not pass a budget without increasing the wages to direct care workers," David said, to cheers.

Perhaps the biggest voice, though when it comes to the budget is Gov. Cuomo. And Cuomo has said repeatedly that he won’t agree to a budget without a provision to make the state’s temporary two percent per year property tax cap permanent. The governor held a rally on Long Island over the weekend, where property taxes are among the highest in the nation.

"I have said that this hand will not sign a budget that does not have a permanent tax cap, period," Cuomo said on March 24.

The governor is also calling for criminal justice reforms , including an end to cash bail, to be part of the state budget, and a congestion pricing plan for parts of Manhattan to help fund public transit.