By Joseph Spector and Jon Campbell
ALBANY Legislative leaders said Tuesday that a deal on a $136 billion state spending plan is within reach, while issues like decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and restoring New York City school aid are still being discussed.
Top lawmakers emerged Tuesday morning with no final budget deal after meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo for about an hour, the latest in a series of lengthy negotiating sessions over the past several days.
"We're working on narrowing more issues and I'm optimistic -- as you know, I'm always optimistic -- we'll have a final agreement at some point today," Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, told reporters.
Lawmakers have been nearing a final agreement that would include increasing the minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016 and -- according to Skelos -- about $700 million in tax cuts for businesses and families.
The legislative leaders and Cuomo have also been discussing issues surrounding New York City school funding and possession of marijuana, Silver said. Since the city school district didn't come to an agreement on a teacher evaluation system this year, it was hit with a $240 million cut in aid from the state -- which Silver has been pushing to restore with resistance from Cuomo.
"I'm still trying to make sure of two things: One, they get it restored; and two, even if they don't get it restored then it stays in the base of operations so increases are based on as if the $240 million were still there," Silver said.
A proposal from Cuomo to reduce the penalty for public possession of small amounts of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation has entered the budget negotiations as well, Silver said. Cuomo's plan is meant as a means to deal with New York City's "stop and frisk" policy, which critics say unfairly targets young minority residents who are forced by police to empty their pockets.
When asked whether a change to the marijuana law would apply to just the city or the entire state, Silver said it's still being negotiated.
"Marijuana is something that's being discussed. It's on the table right now. There's no definite conclusion, but the stop-and-frisk issue is clearly a New York City issue."
Cuomo has not commented on the budget negotiations this week.
The goal is to begin printing budget bills late Tuesday to allow for a three-day waiting period for bills to be approved, but Skelos said a more realistic path may be to introduce the legislation Wednesday. That would clear the way for a Friday vote.
The sides appear set to agree to increase the minimum wage over three years. It is currently $7.25 an hour, and Democrats want to increase it to $9 an hour in January.
Under a tentative plan, the wage would be increased gradually -- to $8 an hour in 2014, $8.75 in 2015 and $9 in 2016 -- and higher income-tax rates on millionaires would be extended past 2014, when they are set to expire.
The higher income tax rate would bring in about $2 billion in annual tax revenue for the state, and lawmakers indicated they plan to provide $700 million in tax breaks for businesses and families.
Lawmakers are also discussing with Cuomo how to divvy up about $550 million in revenue for the budget year, which starts April 1. Lawmakers said they want to add $290 million in school aid to the roughly $21 billion education budget, but they haven't outlined how they would spend the money.
Cuomo has also proposed to keep an energy tax on companies and customers, but business groups are seeking to beat back the measure and Skelos said it would likely be scaled down. Also, businesses are trying to thwart Cuomo's plan to limit the power of the state's Industrial Development Agencies.
The Legislature is set to start its spring recess on Friday and is looking to pass the budget this week. The state's fiscal year begins April 1.