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State budget nearing completion

Gov. Andrew Cuomo met with reporters Friday to give an update on the status of state budget negotiations. The final budget is due April 1.

Two days before the due date, the New York state budget is starting to take shape, as lawmakers planned to return to the Capitol for a rare Sunday session to begin voting to meet the April 1 deadline.

Meanwhile Gov. Andrew Cuomo is still threatening to hold up the budget over a couple of issues

There are still a few moving parts to the budget, but Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said some of the remaining items —criminal justice reform, public financing of campaigns and increasing school aid funding — are "within striking distance of being resolved."

"I think we’re at the finish line," Stewart-Cousins said. "We are working hard to get an on-time budget."

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie agreed.

"I think we have a lot of agreements or are close to agreement," Heastie said. "We just have to dot the I’s and cross the T's."

A congestion-pricing plan for Manhattan is taking shape, and lawmakers are still considering whether to impose a pied-à-terre tax for non-primary residential luxury apartments in New York City worth over $5 million, or instead substitute a real estate transfer tax on sale of homes worth more than $5 million.

Part of the criminal justice reform includes changes to the state’s cash bail system. Stewart-Cousins said there would likely be a partial end to cash bail.

"Bail has always been about flight risk," Stewart-Cousins said. "We want to make sure we’re not changing definition of what bail is for, while we are trying to reduce the incidents of asking people for bail."

Stewart-Cousins said her goal is to prevent another case like the death of Kalief Browder, who at age 16 spent three years in Rikers Island because his family could afford bail. He later killed himself.

"There’s no reason that that child should have been in jail," she said. "And certainly not held because he could not afford the bail." 

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the Legislature and governor are committed to ending cash bail in New York, even if they can’t complete the goal in the budget.

"About 85% of the population will now be looking at a cashless bail system," Heastie said.

Heastie differed a bit with the Senate leader’s assessment on the chances of public campaign finance being in the final budget. Heastie said objections still exist to implementing a matching small-donor program for statewide elections. He said the program could cost $60 million in public funds a year. 

"We just finished putting together a budget where we were crimping and saving, trying to find pennies in the couch to pay for programs that matter to people," Heastie said. "So these are valid things that people have to give us a chance to talk about."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has said repeatedly that he will not accept a budget without at least a commitment to public campaign finance, said on WCNY’s "The Capitol Pressroom" that he realizes there are obstacles.

"It costs taxpayers to fund public finance, and that’s why it’s controversial," Cuomo said. "I support it, but many people don’t."

The budget also will include a new tax on prescription opioids. That’s even though some lawmakers — including the Legislature’s only pharmacist, Assemblyman John McDonald — objected, saying the costs will be passed on the consumers who need the medicine.

New York also will be one of the first states to impose a ban on single-use plastic bags in grocery stores and other retail outlets, starting next March. But the bags will be permitted for takeout food, dry cleaning and doggy cleanup bags.

Liz Moran, the environmental lobbyist for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said that’s good news.

But she said she wishes that lawmakers also had agreed to a statewide fee on paper bags. She believes that would have helped encourage people to bring their own bags to shops. Under the plan, localities can choose to charge the fee. Moran said the plan could result in "trading one environmental issue for another."

"Production of the bags means cutting down trees, and there’s a carbon impact," said Moran, who also noted that the transport of the "bulky" bags uses fuel, and paper itself requires lots of water to manufacture.

"This is a climate issue," she said.

Moran said she’s also pleased that the budget attempts to curb excessive food waste at a time when she said 2.5 million New Yorkers go hungry.

"It would require producers of a lot of food to donate any excess food," Moran said. "Or what they can’t donate, recycle into animal feed or compost." 

Some items appear to be definitely out of the budget, including legalizing recreational marijuana for adults. Leaders say they will tackle that and other remaining issues in the rest of the session.

Late in the day Friday, Cuomo held a press briefing, and said he would make the budget late if lawmakers did not come to final agreement on public campaign finance reform.

"Doing the right budget is more important than doing on time," said Cuomo. "And I believe public financing has to be in the budget."

Cuomo also says the state spending, plan when finished, will codify the health care protections in the federal Affordable Health Act into state law.

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.