Budget deal comes together in Albany, after delay and frustration

The deal is more than six days late
Outside the Senate at the State Capitol in Albany, N.Y., March 13, 2017.
Outside the Senate at the State Capitol in Albany, N.Y., March 13, 2017.

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ALBANY, N.Y. — After a week of impasse and the worst budget crisis of his administration, Gov. Andrew Cuomo emerged from his Capitol office late Friday to announce a deal on a $153 billion state budget that includes a plan for tuition-free education at state colleges.

Sitting in the ceremonial Red Room of the Capitol, Cuomo said he and lawmakers had come to an agreement on an array of big-ticket items, including changes to the state’s system of workers’ compensation, a priority for Republicans, and to its juvenile justice system, a priority for his fellow Democrats; popular issues like expanding ride hailing to upstate New York; and an extension of the “millionaire’s tax,” on which Cuomo had hinged much of his 2017 agenda.

And while the budget was undeniably late, Cuomo said he was proud of it, calling it the “best work we’ve done” as a government.

The deal came more than six days after the deadline and after the Legislature had been forced Monday to pass emergency legislation to keep the state government operating. Days of negotiation had offered hints of a deal, but frustrations on both sides of the aisle had grown, with the Senate leaving Albany entirely Wednesday evening. (Assembly members remained.)

The agreement, which still requires the approval of the Assembly and the Senate, enables the governor to claim credit for brokering a deal out of a fractious legislative environment. But the agreement announced Friday — long after many in the state had tuned out the frustration in Albany — also marked the inglorious end of Cuomo’s streak of on-time or close to on-time budgets, something that dated to his inauguration in 2011.

Faced with what Cuomo called the threat of deep federal cuts from the Trump administration, officials built in a mechanism that would allow the state to respond to cuts from Washington, financial flexibility that would allow the state’s Division of the Budget to “correct the state budget for that shortfall,” he said.

For all of that uncertainty, Cuomo seemed satisfied with the “hardest budget” he had overseen, including a priority for liberal groups: raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18, a deal that had snagged negotiations on several occasions. Under the deal announced by the governor, beginning in October 2018, many 16- and 17-year-old offenders would be processed through family court rather than criminal court.

But Cuomo had also seemingly paid a political price for the practice of putting high-profile and often politically valuable policies into the budget process, a long-standing if contentious practice in Albany. Such issues were consistently cited as stumbling blocks for a deal, particularly by Republicans, and led to several moments of stalled talks.

The governor’s relationship with the Legislature as a whole was also put in sharp relief during the negotiations: Cuomo had effectively denied a raise to lawmakers last fall, and hard feelings may have carried over to this spring’s talks. The Legislature was not to be paid during the emergency extender budgets passed Monday, although the governor was — something that became another sticking point during talks.

Still, the deal had more than enough to fill a news release, which was issued before the governor even finished speaking Friday night. The college affordability plan, for instance, was a major piece of Cuomo’s social agenda, announced in January alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The plan’s estimated price tag — some $163 million by 2019 — had been questioned, as was the number of students who might be able to use it. Initial estimates from Cuomo’s office put the number in the hundreds of thousands, but another legislative analysis suggested that number could be as few as 32,000 students.

Cuomo said that statewide school aid would increase by $1.1 billion, or 4.4 percent, a larger boost than the governor had proposed but less than the Assembly had hoped for.

The deal also includes a renewal of a lapsed tax-abatement program that spurs affordable housing.

The one glaring omission from the budget bills was ethics reform, an issue that has dogged Albany for decades and shows no sign of abating. Just last month, a Republican state senator, Robert G. Ortt, became the latest Albany lawmaker to be accused of corruption, alongside his predecessor, former Sen. George Maziarz.

But there was a victory for some upstate residents as ride-hailing — a common convenience in New York City — seemed poised to be expanded to cities like Utica, Syracuse and Buffalo.

Cuomo called the delayed budget an “exhausting process,” including for lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate leaders, who had spent nearly two weeks straight trying to broker a deal.

“I am going home now,” Cuomo said to a crowd of weary reporters gathered in the Capitol. “I will miss you all very much.”

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