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Legislature To Add School Funding, But Advocates Say Not Enough

Karen DeWitt

New York State Assembly Democrats say there should be more money for schools and the environment, and major changes to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to freeze property taxes. It’s all part of a one-house budget resolution, the first step in reaching agreement on a final spending plan by the end of March.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says Democrats have rejected Governor Cuomo’s plan to freeze property taxes that would involve giving rebate checks to voters shortly before Election Day. Instead, he says, they favor so-called circuit breakers that would provide proportionately more relief to New Yorkers who can least afford to pay their tax bills.

“We believe that it provides relief to the people who most need it throughout the state,” said Silver. “So it’s fair regionally.”

Cuomo’s plan would result in homeowners in the New York City suburbs getting a larger rebate check than many upstate communities, because property values, and property taxes are higher there.  The governor’s proposal also includes a circuit breaker, but not until the third year of the plan.

Silver says Cuomo’s proposal, which relies on the cooperation of local governments and schools to keep spending under 2 percent in the first year, and to consolidate services in the second year, might not give a tax break to everyone. The Speaker says the Assembly Democrats’ plan reduces the “uncertainty."

The Assembly accepts some of the Governor’s business tax cuts, and would allow the threshold for the estate tax to be raised from $1 million to over $5 million, though Democrats do not back lowering the top tax rate on estates from 16 percent down to 10 percent.

Senate Republicans, who have been long-time advocates of lowering property taxes, also think that the governor’s plan needs to be revised. The GOP and their co-rulers, the Independent Democratic Conference, are still working out details of their budget resolution. Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos says there will be changes.

“There will be a number of modifications,” Skelos said.

The Assembly budget also increases funding for schools by an additional $402 million.

Education advocates, who held a brief demonstration outside Governor Cuomo’s offices, say that amount is still not enough for the state’s poorest schools, who are struggling.

“It will slow down the bleeding, but it won’t stop it,” said Emily Karol, with the Alliance for Quality Education.

The protesters attempted to deliver petitions to Governor Cuomo asking for more state aid, but were told the governor was busy. This irritated the demonstrators, who pointed out that Cuomo had found the time on March 4 to speak at an outdoor rally for charter schools.

“For the 97 percent of children represented here today, he won’t even come out of his office to accept petitions,” said organizer Zakiyah Ansari, while the children and adults chanted “shame."

The Assembly also includes funding for universal pre-kindergarten programs, and adopts New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to tax the wealthy to pay for the plan in New York City.

The tax increase is opposed by Governor Cuomo and Senate Republicans. GOP Leader Skelos says the proposal is not going anywhere.

“That was dead about two months ago,” Skelos said.

The Assembly one-house budget also increases the environmental protection fund by $10 million, bringing the total up to $167 million, and offers a more expansive plan to permit medical marijuana in New York.

UPDATE:  A response from the governor's Chief of Staff, Larry Schwartz:

"We’re glad the Assembly agrees with the Governor that property taxes need to be lowered. However local governments need find ways to cut costs, share services and lower the tax burden in order to make this relief lasting. The Governor’s tax freeze, which is supported by 73 percent of all New Yorkers, would hold these governments accountable to making these reforms and helping deliver the relief that taxpayers deserve."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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