Legislature agrees to tentative budget

Set to be approved Wednesday
April 8, 2008 6:17:08 PM PDT
Although they missed the goal of an on-time budget to help put an unprecedented month of scandal and turmoil behind them, the Senate and Assembly struck a tentative agreement Tuesday on spending bills in a $124 billion state budget scheduled to be approved Wednesday.The budget was due April 1.

The tentative agreement negotiated behind closed doors would increase spending 4.5 percent and includes $1.1 billion in capital projects statewide. A record $1.8 billion increase in school aid - to a total of about $20 billion, is also included.

And despite the nearly $5 billion deficit and declining revenues, the budget deal also includes $170 million in pork-barrel spending for lawmakers to direct to organizations and programs back in their home districts this election year. The state operating budget for this fiscal year is $80.5 billion, a 4.5 percent increase from the 2007-2008 fiscal year, said Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget.

Holding up a vote on the spending bills was a late agreement Tuesday on a legislative proposal pushed by one of Albany's most powerful lobbyists: The New York State United Teachers union. The measure prohibits school districts from denying tenure to a teacher based on the performance of his or her students on standardized tests. The measure would have a sunset clause, ending the policy after two years. During that time a study group will be put in place to recommend further standards.

The state School Board Association, which accused the union of trying to sneak the measure past the public, agreed to the compromise, according to a letter from its lobbyist.

David Albert, a spokesman for the board association said they haven't seen the final legislation yet, but "the most recent version of the language we saw of the agreement would call for the regents to establish minimum standards."

If that's the case, local school districts could determine their own standards for tenure - and the board association supports that, Albert said.

NYSUT has contributed more than $700,000 in campaign contributions to New York state legislators and political parties in 2007, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group. In the same year NYSUT spent more than $1.8 million on lobbying.

"It's Albany at its worst: Secret, late and special interest deals," Blair Horner of NYPIRG said.

Gov. David Paterson had hoped passing a timely budget would help put a tumultuous four weeks behind state lawmakers. Paterson has been on the job since March 17, when Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned after he was implicated in a prostitution investigation.

"I think we are far enough along that I'm going to have a conference with the members tomorrow morning," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said Tuesday. "The Senate will have the same conference and I think we'll be in a position to pass the budget in daylight tomorrow."

"It's concluded except for some mechanics and printing issues," said John McArdle, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.

In the $1.1 billion capital projects plan, the Senate and Assembly would each direct $350 million of the spending and Paterson would direct $400 million. Lawmakers have defended this spending as funding construction that will spur economic growth in communities suffering from a stagnant upstate economy.

In the pork-barrel spending lawmakers prefer to call "member items," the deal calls for the Senate and Assembly to each direct $85 million in spending. The governor will decide how $30 million is spent. The deal calls for most of the pork-barrel spending to be funded by unused money from the 2007-08 budget, rather than from new spending.

The pork-barrel projects will be outlined in legislation that could be released publicly and voted on Wednesday. In 2007, lawmakers agreed to no longer pass members items in a lump sum, but to detail the projects.

The tentative budget agreement was reached on Bruno's birthday. He's 79.


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