ALBANY - With just more than two weeks to go before New York's budget is due, the state Senate and Assembly laid out their separate wish lists in recent days as they hurdle toward the March 31 deadline.
Now, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo said late Thursday, the "real discussions can begin."
New York's budget-crafting process requires Cuomo to put together a spending plan for the state in January each year, as he did this year when he proposed a $137.2 billion budget. In mid-March, the majority conferences in both houses of the Legislature separately make changes to Cuomo's proposal, identifying their priorities in the weeks before the deadline.
Over the next two weeks, Cuomo and legislative leaders will huddle largely in private to come to a compromise before the next fiscal year begins April 1.
On Thursday, Cuomo said his main priority will be his plan to force local governments and school districts into consolidating services. His proposal calls for the state to issue rebates to homeowners who make less than $500,000 annually if their local municipalities and schools stay within the property-tax cap and agree to cut costs, essentially amounting to a two-year property-tax freeze.
"The main budget issue will be whether we have the will to do what is politically difficult and attack the waste and duplication of local governments that drive up property taxes," Cuomo said in a lengthy statement. "Property taxes are the single largest and most devastating tax in our state."
But neither the Assembly nor the Senate accepted Cuomo's plan outright in their budget resolutions, which were passed on Wednesday and Friday, respectively.
Assembly Democrats are pushing a plan that would tie property taxes to income levels, while extending a renter's credit in New York City and Yonkers. Cuomo has proposed something similar, but it wouldn't kick in until the 2016-17 fiscal year.
The Senate's majority coalition, made up of Republicans and five breakaway Democrats, tweaked Cuomo's property-tax proposal to make it a true freeze. The state would reimburse local governments directly, allowing taxpayers to pay less on their bill rather than waiting for a refund check from the state.
The Senate plan would require local governments to stay within the property-tax cap and put together a report identifying "efficiencies." Unlike Cuomo's proposal, it would give municipalities credit for previous consolidations and could be extended for three years or beyond.
"It's a true freeze, insofar as it goes on beyond the two years," Senate Finance Chairman John DeFrancisco, D-Syracuse, said early Friday before the resolution was passed after 2 a.m. "Basically, if the municipalities meet the requirements, what ends up happening is the property tax is frozen and any additional taxes that would have had to have been paid by the taxpayer up to 2 percent would be paid by the state."
But Cuomo was critical of the Senate's property-tax proposal because it wouldn't apply to renters in New York City. Cuomo has pushed for a renter's credit, which would allow those making less than $100,000 to receive a break on their income taxes.
Speaking Friday to reporters in Manhattan, Cuomo said the Senate plan is a "non-starter" if it excludes New York City.
"I believe that's the most serious issue that we have on the table," Cuomo said. "I am not going to pass a budget that shorts the people of New York City. I'm not going to pass a budget that gives a tax break to people on Long Island and people on upstate New York and leaves out New York City."
But while there is no consensus on the property-tax proposals, lawmakers and Cuomo appear to be nearing an agreement on pre-kindergarten funding, which has been one of the major topics of budget negotiations thus far.
While Democrats in the Legislature largely had supported New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to raise taxes on the city's wealthy in order to fund full-day, universal pre-k, the Senate's budget resolution included $540 million a year over the next five years for New York City pre-k and afterschool.
The Senate budget also flagged $145 million for pre-k programs in other portions of the state, though it would be provided in state aid to schools that could be used on kindergarten or other education spending.
Cuomo and Senate Republicans had been opposed to de Blasio's tax proposal, which was a major part of his campaign for mayor last year.
"I'm very happy with $540 million for pre-k. I don't need a tax," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, told reporters Thursday. "If they put in $540 million and there are no conditions to it, if it's not conditioned on anything else, I would be delighted to support it."
Cuomo said Friday that he doesn't want to put a dollar amount on pre-k funding. He said it wold be available a first come, first serve basis.
"I want to do it a different way. Nobody gets a predetermined amount," Cuomo said. "It's in essence a first come, first serve. And I want to use that competition to get them to bring the units online quickly."
There are other outstanding issues. The Assembly supported the legalization of medical marijuana in its budget, but the Senate didn't -- despite growing support among Senate Republicans.
The Senate also included language that would prevent prisoners from receiving a state-funded college education, something Cuomo recently proposed. The Assembly didn't take a stand on the issue.
Assembly Democrats want to fund tuition assistance programs for immigrants, but the Senate hasn't backed it. The Assembly and Cuomo also want to enact a public-campaign-financing system, yet the proposal got limited support in the Senate's plan.
"The Senate's budget resolution leaves the door open for comprehensive campaign finance reform," good-government groups said in a statement. "The consequence of this language is unclear, but it acknowledges the need to no longer ignore but address New York's broken electoral system."
Here are some highlights among the budgets proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo
- Issues rebates for two years to homeowners who live in areas where local governments and school districts remain within the property-tax cap and agree to consolidate services. Establishes a tax credit for renters.
- Includes $1.5 billion over five years for universal pre-kindergarten, though Cuomo has promised to fund programs as districts open them.
- Includes $2 billion in tax cuts over five years, including the property-tax freeze, a reduction in the estate tax and the elimination of corporate taxes for upstate manufacturers.
- Prevents state funds from being used on providing free college courses to state prisoners, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed.
- Directly freezes property taxes if local governments stay within the tax cap and report on efforts to find "efficiencies."
- Includes $540 million annually over five years for pre-kindergaten and after-school programs in New York City, as well as $145 million elsewhere in the state.
- Ties property tax rates to income levels. Enacts a tax credit for renters.
- Legalizes medical marijuana while taxing it at 10 percent of the sale price.
- Enacts a system for matching small political campaign donations with state funds at a 6-to-1 rate, similar to a proposal in Cuomo's budget.