Cuomo budget plan includes legal pot, fiscal belt-tightening

Associated Press Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center on Jan. 8 in Albany.

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a $178 billion proposed budget Tuesday that would authorize the sale and taxation of marijuana, give public schools a modest boost in state aid, close an undisclosed number of prisons and seeks to slow Medicaid spending growth.

Cuomo also acknowledged the state's controversial bail law that took effect this year needs revisions, provided no specific suggestions on how it should be amended. The statute has drawn strong criticism from prosecutors, police leaders and even some judges. Cuomo championed the bail legislation last year and even suggested he should get the blame for any problems with it.

The spending blueprint, which is latched to projections of a $5 billion surge in state revenues, calls for an $826 million increase for schools. It also urges lawmakers to revise the education aid formula by directing more money to the classrooms with the greatest needs. He argued the current method of dividing up school aid has resulted in some schools getting as much as $36,000 per students, while others get just $13,000 per child.

Insisting on funding "equity" for schools, Cuomo said, "Education is the civil rights issues of our day."

Cuomo's education proposals are likely to set the stage for skirmishing with both Democrats and Republicans in the affluent suburbs of New York City. Typically, both houses of the Legislature seek to drive more money to schools than what is proposed by the governor.

The director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, Charles Dedrick, said it was "worrisome" that Cuomo wants to consolidate 10 categories of school aid into a funding spigot known as Foundation Aid, saying the latter method makes it challenging for school district officials to estimate how much money their schools will receive.

The budget would ban the sale of flavored vaping products and place new restrictions on how e-cigarettes are marketed. Dedrick said the superintendents endorse those proposals, pointing to a "vaping epidemic" among students.

With New York facing a $6.2 billion budget deficit, Cuomo called for a re-examination of Medicaid spending. He proposed a new Medicaid "redesign" team that would be assigned to come up with $2.5 billion in savings, though how that would be accomplished remains murky.

The budget points out that state spending on in-home care for Medicaid patients has soared in recent years.

Cuomo's plan would financially penalize county governments whose Medicaid costs increase by 3 percent in a year. But it would also benefit counties whose spending comes in below the 3-percent benchmark.

"We're going to have to make structural changes to this program," the governor said.

He also offered assurances there would be "zero impacts" on Medicaid beneficiaries — some 6 million New Yorkers are covered by the public health care program — while local governments would also face no impacts.

The proposal drew a cool reception from Assemblyman John Salka, R-Madison County. He contended counties could be facing a "double whammy" because of the possibility of new penalties, coupled with negative repercussions if they exceed the state's tax cap.

Salka said the state's "directives and mandates" are major factors in driving up the costs of administering Medicaid.

The Cuomo plan would also shave the small business corporate tax rate, now set at 6.5 percent, to 4 percent.

Republicans criticized the lack of details on Cuomo's suggestion to revisit the bail legislation.

"This is the No. 1 issue we are talking about," said Senate GOP Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County. "The public is less safe as a result of this."

Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, a former city court judge, said the experience with the bail law embraced by Cuomo last year points up the need to restore the ability of judges to have discretion in cases where defendants could be deemed dangerous.

"Domestic violence victims are not being protected," Morinello said. "An order of protection is a piece of paper. It doesn't stop a fist."

Cuomo and Democratic lawmakers are also getting heat from progressive advocates to keep the bail law in place. The law has reduced county jail populations by limiting the ability of judges to remand defendants for misdemeanors and some felonies.

Alluding to the uproar over the legislation, Cuomo said, "We need to respond to the facts, not the politics."

On the prison-closure proposal, Cuomo did not specify which facilities may be targeted. Under the plan, he would give the Legislature a 90-day notice before shutting any specific prison. Last year, he used the budget to push for the closure of three prisons.

Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, an ally of the corrections officers union, said he opposes shuttering prisons, arguing the state should scrap a practice known as double-bunking, which results in two prisoners sharing a cell.

Cuomo cited an ongoing decrease in the prison population as a reason for closing more this year.

The budget continues the state's $420 million program of incentives to encourage the film industry to locate projects in New York as well as regional economic development grants Cuomo suggested have helped drive the upstate unemployment rate to 3.7 percent which he called a record low in joblessness.

Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, now in his last legislative session after announcing he will retire at year's end, said the budget should do more to address New York's out-migration of residents.

Seward also said Cuomo's transportation program favors New York City, sending $51 billion to the metropolitan region while upstate roads and bridges would see only $11.9 billion from the state.

"That's a slap in the face," he said.

As for the bail law, Seward countered Cuomo's call for revision by arguing the new statute should be repealed.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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