NY lawmakers OK budget: more school money, ethics rules

(AP) -- New York state lawmakers approved a $142 billion state budget early Wednesday that increases funding for schools, revises teacher evaluations and enacts new legislative disclosure rules intended to address Albany corruption.



Details of the complicated spending blueprint were given to rank-and-file lawmakers -- and the public -- only hours before the votes began, continuing a recent tradition in which lawmakers rush to pass a budget that many admit they haven't fully reviewed to meet an April 1 deadline.



Though Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders praised the budget, rank-and-file lawmakers were less impressed, with even several supporters of the budget calling it a rushed compromise crafted behind closed-doors.



"It's not an ideal world," Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters as the final bills were being printed. "It's not an ideal situation. But the people in the state want an on-time budget."



The Senate finished its work on the budget just before midnight, the start of a new fiscal year. The Assembly wrapped up at 3 a.m. Wednesday -- three hours past the deadline that Cuomo proudly beat with his first four budgets. If the tardiness of this budget annoyed the Democratic governor he did not let on.



"This is a plan that keeps spending under 2 percent, reforms New York's education bureaucracy, implements the nation's strongest and most comprehensive disclosure laws for public officials and makes the largest investment in the upstate economy in a generation," he said in a statement.



The budget calls for $23.5 billion in school aid, a $1.4 billion increase. The spending plan directs the State Education Department to devise new teacher evaluations, revises teacher tenure and makes it easier for schools to dismiss ineffective teachers. It also creates a new process by which the state can take over struggling schools.



Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos of Long Island said that together, the additional money and reforms would ensure that "our children will be better prepared to achieve brighter futures."



Cuomo wanted even more aggressive reforms to improve what he calls the "entrenched" bureaucracy of public education.



Few supporters in the Legislature expressed much enthusiasm for the proposals, but noted that they came with a big increase in funding.



"I will hold my nose and vote yes," said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-Bronx.



Others disagreed with an approach that they said blamed teachers for the social and economic challenges facing their students.



"We don't have a broken education system. We have a broken economic system," said Sen. Marc Panepinto, D-Buffalo. "Income inequality is the problem."



The ethics proposals require lawmakers to disclose their outside income and make lawyers in the Legislature identify clients. There would be exceptions, however, and exemptions allowing lawmakers to redact the names of clients without ties to government. Lawyers paid by a firm for their political influence could also list no clients.



The rules would also prohibit the use of campaign funds for personal expenses.



Supporters say the changes are a step forward.



"We have made substantial and good-faith efforts to make the New York state Legislature a more ethical place," said Assemblyman Charles Lavine, D-Long Island. "As always, we cannot provide for every instance of human frailty ... it's not a panacea."



Government watchdog groups had suggested more ambitious reforms including new campaign finance restrictions or limits on outside income.



"These steps are simply insufficient to fully address the parade of scandals that have engulfed Albany and will do little to restore the public's growing cynicism about its own government," according to a joint statement from Common Cause-New York, New York Public Interest Research Group and three other good-government groups.



The ethics measure was prompted by the arrest of ex-Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who is fighting charges that he took nearly $4 million in payoffs and kickbacks disguised as legal fees.



The budget also includes Cuomo's upstate economic development contest, in which seven regions will compete for three $500 million prizes.



Many budget details only emerged this week when bill language was released.



One provision that received little fanfare will create a legislative compensation commission to recommend possible salary increases for lawmakers. The legislative salary of $79,500 hasn't been increased in 15 years. The commission's recommendations would be binding -- unless lawmakers blocked them.



On Monday, lawmakers approved a tax break on the sale of boats costing $230,000 and more -- a move criticized by some lawmakers and supporters of a property tax relief measure and a minimum wage increase -- two ideas which were dropped from the budget.



The secrecy surrounding the budget process frustrated many observers. Karen Scharff, co-chairwoman of the Working Families Party, said big education changes should get more consideration.



"Having a budget on time is not more important than having a good budget," she said.


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