State lawmakers approve budget
State lawmakers worked through the night on March 30, making last-minute changes to the budget ahead of the April 1 deadline. Just before 4 a.m., members of the Assembly approved the $168 billion spending plan ahead of the holiday weekend.
In a press conference that evening, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo told reporters that education ($26 billion) and Medicaid ($18 billion) are the two “big items” in the budget. “This budget was the most difficult budget that I think we have done,” Cuomo said. “[SALT deductions] was an arrow in the economic heart of New York,” he said, adding that it was a “Herculean” task to pass the budget on time.
The budget closes a $4.4 billion deficit and includes a $1 billion increase in state education aid while approving measures meant to flout the new federal cap on state and local tax deductions by giving employers the option to shift to a payroll tax.
Assemb. Dean Murray (R,C,I-East Patchogue) praised increases to state aid and libraries. “But it was the same old, same old — four men in a room,” Murray said. “But the budget itself is not terrible. We were able to again increase state aid, close to a billion dollars, which is good.”
Murray added that he hoped non-budgetary issues, like sexual harassment, would be taken up separately. “They should be taken up on their own merit, so we can have a deeper discussion and come up with even better legislation,” he said.
The Child Victims Act, which Murray supported, was eventually omitted. “I’m not upset it wasn’t in the budget, but I will be if it’s not addressed before the end of the session,” Murray said.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called the budget a “major victory” for the county, with more than a half-million-dollar increase in in transportation operating aid.
Here’s a look at key items outlined in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan:
The 2019 budget calls for an additional $1 billion in spending in K-12 education, bringing the total to $26.7 billion. $7.6 billion is set aside for higher education.
The increase also includes a mandated expansion for school breakfast programs statewide.
As school districts also work to finalize their budgets, several local districts received more funds than anticipated. “The adopted state budget provided the William Floyd School District with an additional $1 million in foundation aid, which will help us continue to restore academic programs and opportunities for our students, as well as put forth another responsible budget for our community. We are grateful to our local elected officials for working on behalf of our students and community,” said David Beggins, William Floyd assistant superintendent for business, in a statement.
Lawmakers also opted to invest an additional $118 million to continue the Excelsior Scholarship, a move that will support an estimated $27,000 more students. The scholarship allows students from families making up to $110,000 to attend SUNY schools tuition-free. “$110,000 is a lot of money, but it’s really not if you are putting one or two children through college,” Cuomo said.
The budget sets the state’s environmental protection fund at an all-time high of $300 million. Cuomo plans to continue his $2.5 billion clean water initiative statewide and pledged $65 million to fight algal blooms in upstate lakes.
New sexual harassment measures are included in the budget, in light of the #MeToo movement unfolding nationwide. “The silence has been deafening on this issue,” Cuomo said, noting that sexual harassment is “rampant” in every industry.
Now, companies bidding for state contracts will be required to have written harassment policies that all employees are trained on. It would also ban nondisclosure agreements, unless requested by a victim.
Rape kits, typically stored for 30 days, will now be kept on file for 20 years. “We haven’t been keeping rape kits long enough to really have a database that we can then go back to,” Cuomo said.
The legislation closes a loophole and bans sexual contact between police and those in custody, Cuomo said, citing concerns over consent.
Cuomo referred to the measures as the nation’s most “aggressive” anti-sexual-harassment agenda.
Cuomo said one of the main goals of his 2019 budget was to defend New York against the proposed federal tax plan, which would eliminate SALT deductions above $10,000. His plan restructures the tax code, meant to preserve residents’ state and local tax deductibility, including the optional payroll tax model for employers and the creation of new charitable funds for tax payments. “It’s optional,” Cuomo said. “Some employers will do it, some local governments will do it. It’s our best attempt to avoid the federal assault,” he said.
Acknowledging that the highest taxes in New York are property taxes, Cuomo said the federal plan would “exacerbate” the situation.
Citing an uptick in gang violence, especially on Long Island, Cuomo set aside $16 million for anti-gang initiatives in communities aimed at at-risk youth. The funds would also help expand access to state intelligence resources and provide additional investigators and state troopers to assist local municipalities handle gang-related investigations.
District attorney Tim Sini is glad to see the funding come through. “Gang life is not just a law enforcement issue, it’s a social issue that demands a coordinated effort to reach kids before they become trapped by violent groups like MS-13,” Sini said in a statement.
Manufacturers and distributors would be charged a tax, expected to raise around $100 million to offset the state’s costs for drug treatment programs and a massive anti-opioid effort.
Suffolk County will receive $26,966,300, a $522,600 increase in transportation operating aid over last year’s state funding. Bellone says the increased funding will help the county enhance transportation improvements.
Changes to the state’s building code will require all public restrooms — both men’s and women’s — to include diaper-changing stations.
Public schools will now be required to provide feminine hygiene products in restrooms for students in grades 6 through 12.
Elections and social media
Cuomo announced that in light of Russian meddling in U.S. elections, groups paying for advertisements on Facebook and other social platforms must disclose their identities, the same way they must do so for radio and TV election ads.
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