Facing an April 1 deadline, the New York state budget is starting to take shape, as lawmakers plan to return to the Capitol for a rare Sunday session to begin voting.
There are still a few moving parts to the budget, but Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says the some of the remaining items – increasing school aid funding, criminal justice reform and public financing of campaigns – are “within striking distance of being resolved.”
“I think we’re at the finish line,” Stewart-Cousins said Friday. “We are working hard to get an on-time budget.”
Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie agrees.
“I think we have a lot of agreements or are close to agreements,” Heastie said. “We just have to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.”
A congestion pricing plan for Manhattan is taking shape, and lawmakers are still considering whether to impose a pied-a-terre tax for non-primary residential luxury apartments in New York City worth over $5 million, or instead substitute a real estate transfer tax on the sale of homes worth more than $5 million.
Part of the criminal justice reform includes changes to the state’s cash bail system. Senator Stewart-Cousins says there will likely be a partial end to cash bail.
“Bail had always been about flight risk,” said Stewart-Cousins. “We want to make sure we’re not changing definitions of what bail is for, while we are trying to reduce the incidents of asking people for bail.”
Senator Stewart-Cousins says her goal is to prevent another case like the death of Kalief Browder, who at age 16 spent three years in Rikers Island because his family could afford bail. The charges against him were later dropped, but he committed suicide.
“There’s no reason that that child should have been in jail,” she said. “And certainly not held because he could not afford the bail.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says the legislature and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo are committed fully ending cash bail in New York, even if they cannot complete the goal in the budget.
“About 85 percent of the population will now be looking at a cashless bail system,” Heastie said. "The Assembly, the governor and the Senate have all agreed that we want to continue to find a path to get to a totally cashless bail system."
Speaker Heastie differed a bit with the Senate Leader’s assessment on the chances of public campaign finance being in the final budget. Heastie says objections still exist to implementing a matching small donor program for statewide elections. The Speaker says the program could cost $60 million in public funds a year.
“We just finished putting together a budget where we were crimping and saving, trying to find pennies in the couch to pay for programs that matter to people,” Heastie said. “So these are valid things that people have to give us a chance to talk about.”
Governor Cuomo, who said repeatedly that he will not accept a budget without at least a commitment to public campaign finance, said on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom that he realizes there are obstacles.
“It costs taxpayers to fund public finance, and that’s why it’s controversial,” Cuomo said. “I support it, but many people don’t."
The budget will also include a new tax on prescription opioids. That’s even though some lawmakers including the legislature’s only pharmacist, Democratic Assemblyman John McDonald objected, saying the costs will be passed on the consumers who need the medicine.
New York will also be one of the first states to impose a ban on single use plastic bags in grocery stores and other retail outlets, start next March. But the bags will still be permitted for takeout food, dry cleaning, and doggy clean-up bags.
Liz Moran, the environmental lobbyist for the New York Public Interest Research Group, says that’s good news.
But she says she wishes that lawmakers had also agreed to a statewide fee on paper bags. She believes that would have helped encourage people to bring their own bags to shops. Under the plan, localities can opt-in to charging the fee. Moran says the plan could result in “trading one environmental issue for another."
“Production of the bags means cutting down trees and there’s a carbon impact,” said Moran, who said the transport of the “bulky” bags use fuel, and paper itself requires lots of water to manufacture.
“This is a climate issue,” she said.
Moran says she’s also pleased that the budget attempts to curb excessive food waste, at a time when she says 2.5 million New Yorkers go hungry.
“It would require producers of a lot of food to donate any excess food,” Moran said. “Or what they can’t donate, recycle into animal feed or compost.”
Some items appear to be definitely out of the budget, including legalizing recreational marijuana for adults. Leaders say they will tackle that and other remaining issues in the rest of the session.