$142B New York state budget raced clock

Used with permission by the Times Union

ALBANY–Slightly bruised and under the eye of the clock, state lawmakers rushed Tuesday to meet the midnight deadline for passage of the state budget. The Senate wrapped up its work with a half-hour to spare and decamped for a party at the Executive Mansion, while Republicans in the Assembly pushed final passage of the last bills into the start of the new fiscal year–technically breaking a four-year record.

The day began with several large pieces of the $142 billion puzzle missing, including final language detailing the ethics fixes and educational reforms that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had insisted on seeing passed.

In the end, both of the hot-button measures ended up being folded into the Education, Labor & Family Assistance bill, which rolled out at midday just behind the long-delayed release of school aid “runs.” Mr. Cuomo had initially withheld the breakdowns as part of his attempt to condition added money on the adoption of reforms.

The late arrival of the bills — less than 12 hours before the deadline — raised the hackles of many lawmakers and required numerous “messages of necessity” from Cuomo to bypass the usual three-day aging process for legislation.

“I’m sure there isn’t a soul in Albany that’s read all of these,” said North Country Republican Assemblyman Dan Stec, holding up an 8-inch-thick stack of legislation as he spoke on the chamber floor.

The final votes came after Mr. Cuomo linked his proposals to a $1.33 billion increase in base aid with additional funds directed to the state’s most troubled schools.

The Democrat-dominated Assembly, which has been closely aligned with state teachers unions, groaned but ended up agreeing to a budget that also requires new teachers to maintain good evaluations for four years before they can achieve tenure, up from the current three-year novice period.

Lawmakers pressured by the state’s major education union, New York State United Teachers, to oppose the new evaluation plan ultimately said they couldn’t justify opposing it due to the funding that would potentially be lost to local school districts.

The vote followed a weekend of furious lobbying by NYSUT. The union’s president, Karen Magee, initially suggested the governor had backed off the testing proposal, the most controversial part of the plan.

But administration officials made clear that the funding bill would include the testing component, and by late Tuesday the union, after terming the plan a “disgrace,” made a last-ditch effort to launch an email petition against the bill.

The controversy centers on the four categories — ineffective, developing, effective and highly effective — that teachers will earn based on tests plus classroom observation. The tests for lower grades can include the annual English and math tests given in grades 3 to 8, with Regents high school exams serving as the metric for the higher grades.

If students do poorly on the exams for two years in a row, a district can seek to fire the teacher. If the poor scores persist for three years in a row, districts must start dismissal procedures, although teachers can fight them.

Some unknowns remain: The state Board of Regents and the Education Department, which the Regents oversee, have been tasked with developing a new evaluation system by the end of June.

The ethics fixes laid out in the ELFA bill largely hewed to what had been described previously by Cuomo administration officials, with a few captivating details — such as the fact that documents identifying certain legal clients of elected officials will need to be kept in a “locked box” by the state Office of Court Administration. OCA and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics are the two state entities that will be tasked with judging whether specific clients should be exempted from disclosure; lawmakers will get to choose which one should hear their appeals.

The potential for conflicting standards and the wide range of allowable client exemptions were among the reasons why good-government groups, after finally seeing the fixes in black and white, leveled fresh concerns that they were not sufficient to clean up Albany’s ethical swamp.

“These reactive improvements put nothing more than a dent in the problem of public corruption and obfuscate the reason our state is experiencing a crime wave of corruption,” said a joint statement from five reform groups, including Common Cause and the New York Public Interest Research Group.

A new pay commission that will periodically set salary increases for lawmakers, statewide elected officials and top agency officials was revealed to be essentially an expansion of the current panel that sets salaries for judges. Its decisions, released every four years, will have the force of law unless overruled by the Legislature.

New York’s lawmakers, who earn a base salary of $79,500, haven’t had a pay raise in 15 years, although they remain among the top-paid legislators in the nation.

Passage of the budget provided the climax for the first half of the 2015 legislative session. It suggests the second half could be dominated by what was left out of the fiscal plan. The list includes criminal justice reforms to changes in the way colleges and universities handle rape and sexual assault, plus a possible boost in the minimum wage and an increase in the number of charter schools statewide. The Cuomo proposals fell off the negotiating table as the budget deadline loomed.

Matthew Hamilton contributed.

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