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After Weeks of Wrangling, Senate Approves New York State Budget

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New York state lawmakers finally completed the over-four-months-late state budget on Tuesday evening.

The State Senate approved the revenue portion of the budget, making it one of the latest budgets in New York State history.

After weeks of wrangling, the State Senate finally approved the last budget bill, with little debate.  

Passage of the final bill means the state Comptroller will certify the budget, and lawmakers will be paid for the first time since April 1st.  Senators and Assembly members, under state law, have their pay docked when the budget is late.

The budget has been held up for weeks because Democrats who control the Senate have been unable to muster the 32 votes needed to pass the final budget bill. The revenue measure includes new taxes, including reinstatement of the sales tax on clothing, expansion of state sponsored gambling and other fees to help close an over $9 billion dollar deficit.

The 29 GOP Senators had already made clear they would not vote for any budget bills that include new taxes. Only one senator, John DeFrancisco, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, rose to voice his displeasure.

“To the tune of about $1.8 to $2 billion dollars are in this bill,” said DeFrancisco, who complained that tax credits for business had also been eliminated.

“In this time of austerity, we should be cutting our spending,” DeFransico said.

Some Senate Democrats had held up the budget over a measure to give public colleges and universities in New York more financial autonomy, known as the SUNY-CUNY empowerment bill, including the right for individual campuses to set their own tuitions. The Senate twice tried to approve the bill, and twice pulled the legislation off of the floor, when it became clear that there were not enough votes for it to pass.

Later, Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson, issued a statement, along with Senator William Stachowski of Buffalo and Senator Brian Foley of Long Island. The two senators, who have public universities in their districts, had been the last hold outs for the SUNY-CUNY empowerment bill. The statement said they had reached a “framework” for an agreement with the Assembly and Governor, and would return later in the year to pass legislation.

It may take some convincing to get Assembly Democrats to agree to the measure. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says his house did not vote on the SUNY empowerment bill because the current version does not provide enough student aid for poor and middle class students, should tuition increase.

“It’s a tax on the middle class,” Silver said.

Both houses also approved a so-called FMAP contingency plan, requested by Governor Paterson, in case $1 billion dollars in anticipated federal Medicaid monies do not materialize. Senate Democrats had long backed the idea, but Assembly Democrats were reluctant. The plan will skim money from state agencies, as well as aid to localities and school districts, and keep it in reserve to pay for health care, if it’s needed later on in the year.

Republicans in both houses objected to the plan, saying it’s poor financial planning. Assemblyman Jim Hayes, from the Buffalo area, is the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee.  

“The logical person on the street would say ‘why are you spending money that you don’t have’?” asked Hayes, who advocated for the “old fashioned principle” of waiting until the funds are actually approved before allotting them for specific purposes.

The New York State School Board is also not pleased with the FMAP contingency plan, saying it could lead to another $300 million dollars in reductions to schools. The budget has already cut $1.4 billion dollars from aid to districts.   

Paterson’s agenda for the August sessions included a property tax cap. While the Senate approved the 4% a year tax cap, the Assembly did not act on the bill. Speaker Silver says there were not enough votes in his Democratic conference for the measure to pass.

Silver says schools and local governments have already been squeezed by the reduction in state aid, and don’t need additional financial pressures imposed by state government.

Governor Paterson, speaking on WCBS Radio, threatened to call another special session to try to force the Assembly to take up the property tax cap bill.

“There will be a vote in a special session in October, called by me,” said Paterson, who says 80 percent of voters support the cap, and “deserve” to know where their representatives stand on the issue.

An October session would come less than a month before elections.