Budget deal comes together quietly

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Silver, Cuomo and Skelos. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY—The state Legislature began printing budget bills late Friday night as part of what appears to be agreement on a $137.9 billion state budget, though parts of the deal remain uncertain. 

In an unusual move, leaders did not formally announce the framework of the agreement, which traditionally happens before the legislature begins the printing of budget bills, until Saturday afternoon, when Governor Andrew Cuomo hosted a conference call with reporters to discuss the deal.

"It's a very broad budget that does a lot of work," said Cuomo, who was in the New York City area, per his public schedule.

With no press conference and no fanfare, the budget bills arrived on member desks around midnight Friday, with the printer still going on the last sections as late as 12:15 a.m.

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Both the controversial education bill and a health and mental hygiene bill were finalized after the midnight deadline that would allow legislators to vote on the bills on Monday. 

The budget bills include a very limited public campaign finance program that would apply only to the state comptroller's race, a limited system that progressive groups have preemptively criticized.

But in a statement on Saturday, Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference in the Senate, said negotiations on the campaign finance system were ongoing.

"[O]ur work on campaign finance reform is not yet done and as part of this budget process we must continue to negotiate towards a comprehensive system of public financing," Klein said in the statement.

Other parts of the deal appeared to be more solid.

State aid to schools was increased by $1.1 billion, to a total of about $22 billion, which makes for a 5.3 percent increase, and breaks Cuomo's self-imposed cap on growth in education spending.

In his call with reporters, Cuomo called the increase "dramatic," arguing that it "outpaces inflation, or the growth in income, or the growth in real estate values, so it really shows the state's priorities."

In addition, the budget includes $340 million for statewide full-day pre-kindergarten, with $300 million of that earmarked for New York City, but does not include a tax on high-earners that had been proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The language provides that districts can get more money if they can add more seats, consistent with Cuomo's plan to fund pre-K for districts as fast as they can launch programs.

Charter schools would be able to offer pre-K, according to the budget, and would also receive a $500 per-pupil increase over the next three years, which benefits New York City, but hurts some schools upstate that would have received more without the changes. The budget also guarantees space in district schools for charters that are approved for co-locations.

Cuomo said the budget provides "significant protections" for charters, adding, "We want to protect and grow the charter school movement in this state."

The budget agreement also outlines a slate of new tax measures, including a property tax "circuit breaker" for New York City renters and homeowners, and a property-tax freeze that grants state money to localities if they stay within an existing 2 percent property tax cap this year.

In future years, localities would be required to submit plans showing how they've moved toward achieving cost savings or consolidating their services with other governments in order to receive that state money. 

The budget would merge a bank tax with the corporate tax, and also raises the exemption threshold for the estate tax from about $2 million this year to $5.25 million over the next five years, while keeping the rate steady.

In a statement, Kathy Wylde, who chairs the business group Partnership for New York City, said her organization was "thrilled" to see the corporate tax changes.

The agreement disappointed some transit advocates, who criticized the budget for diverting $30 million in M.T.A. funding to the general fund, though that was a modest reduction from the $40 million diversion that had initially been proposed in Cuomo's budget.

The bills do not authorize any new speed cameras in New York City, ignoring a request from de Blasio to grant permission for 160 new cameras as part of his Vision Zero traffic safety plan. The bills also omit cameras Cuomo had proposed for Long Island. A source told Capital the legislature was likely to revisit the cameras in separate legislation after the budget.

The deal also paves the way for dissolution of the Moreland Commission, the ethics panel Cuomo created last year to investigate corruption in the legislature. Cuomo said Saturday that ethics reforms included in the deal, which would amend the state bribery statute and add investigators to the Board of Elections, would allow him to dissolve the commission. 

"If this package is adopted, I would end the Moreland Commission," Cuomo said.

Lawmakers are expected to return to the Capitol by Sunday afternoon to conference bills in advance of voting, set to begin on Monday, though Cuomo cautioned some components could still change.

"This is just an agreement," he said. "Again, it has to be passed and we dont want to get ahead of ourselves."

--additional reporting by Jessica Alaimo, Jessica Bakeman and Dana Rubinstein