State legislators rush to pass budget by deadline

New York lawmakers worked into the night Tuesday with the goal of approving the final provisions of
Lee Williams, left, and other workers unload budget bills in the Assembly Chamber at the Capitol on Tuesday, March 31, 2015, in Albany.
Lee Williams, left, and other workers unload budget bills in the Assembly Chamber at the Capitol on Tuesday, March 31, 2015, in Albany.

New York lawmakers worked into the night Tuesday with the goal of approving the final provisions of the state budget, including changes to teacher evaluations and an ethics proposal intended to address corruption in Albany.

Details of the complicated $142 billion spending plan were given to rank-and-file lawmakers — and the public — only hours before the votes began, continuing a recent tradition in which lawmakers rush to pass a budget that many admit they haven’t fully reviewed to meet an April 1 deadline.

“It’s not an ideal world,” Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters as the final bills were being printed. “It’s not an ideal situation. But the people in the state want an on-time budget.”

The budget includes $23.5 billion in school aid, a $1.4 billion increase. It comes with provisions requiring the State Education Department to devise new teacher evaluations, revisions to teacher tenure and changes designed to make it easier to dismiss repeatedly ineffective teachers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who had pushed for even more aggressive reforms — argues the changes will improve what he calls the “entrenched” bureaucracy of public education, which he has criticized as a “monopoly.”

Many lawmakers acknowledged they would have liked more time to review the education changes. But supporters pointed to the education funding increase and said they at least had the opportunity to improve Cuomo’s initial proposals.

“I will hold my nose and vote yes,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-Bronx.

The ethics proposals would require lawmakers to disclose their outside income and would make lawyers in the Legislature identify clients. There would be exemptions, however, allowing lawmakers to redact the names of clients without ties to government. Lawyers paid by a firm for their political influence could also list no clients.

The new rules would also prohibit the use of campaign funds on personal expenses like country club memberships and house payments.

Government watchdog groups said there wasn’t enough time to fully review the proposals before lawmakers brought them to a vote. They highlighted what they said were overly broad exemptions and weak enforcement rules and questioned whether the reforms would do much to address Albany’s chronic corruption.

“These steps are simply insufficient to fully address the parade of scandals that have engulfed Albany and will do little to restore the public’s growing cynicism about its own government,” according to a joint statement from Common Cause-New York, New York Public Interest Research Group and three other good-government groups.

The ethics measure was prompted by the arrest of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who is fighting charges that he took nearly $4 million in payoffs. The charges renewed the debate about ways to ensure lawmakers — and in particular, lawyers in the Legislature — can’t cash in on their political influence.

Supporters say the change is a step forward.

“We have made substantial and good-faith efforts to make the New York state Legislature a more ethical place,” said Assemblyman Charles Levine, D-Long Island. “As always, we cannot provide for every instance of human frailty … it’s not a panacea.”

While Cuomo and top lawmakers have touted some of the budget’s provisions, others emerged only this week when bill language was released. Among them: The budget would create a legislative compensation commission to study and recommend possible salary increases for lawmakers. The legislative salary of $79,500 hasn’t been increased in 15 years. The commission’s recommendations would be binding — unless lawmakers vote to block them.

On Monday, lawmakers approved other budget provisions, including a new tax break on the sale of boats costing $230,000 and more — a move that was criticized by some lawmakers and advocates who had hoped to see the budget include broader property tax relief or a minimum wage increase.

The yacht tax break was one of many details that wasn’t revealed to the public until lawmakers released details of the budget. Karen Scharff, co-chairwoman of the Working Families Party, said she was concerned about big education changes being made with little consideration.

“Having a budget on time is not more important than having a good budget,” she said.

The new budget would be Cuomo’s fifth consecutive on-time budget.

Categories: -News-, Schenectady County

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