NY Senate Democrats Offer $136B Budget

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Senate Democrats have approved their version of the state budget. It includes deep spending cuts first proposed by Gov. David Paterson, but refrains from imposing taxes proposed by the governor, including those on soda pop and cigarettes.

The Senate Democrats’ proposal accepts many of the deep spending cuts proposed by Paterson, including cutbacks to state agencies as well as a $1.4 billion dollar reduction in school aid and cuts to college students seeking tuition aid.

Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson says Senators have little choice, facing a budget deficit of more than $9 billion.

“The bottom line is New York is in trouble,” said Sampson.

Senate Finance Committee Vice Chair Liz Krueger says education programs suffered the most because education aid makes up a large chunk of the budget.

“Because that’s where the money is,” said Krueger.

Senate Democrats would keep open 57 parks and historic sites that Paterson had slated for closure, and would restore STAR property tax rebate checks to low income seniors, though not to middle class property tax payers.

Senators have also rejected Paterson’s call to raise taxes on sugared soft drinks, cigarettes, and to sell wine in grocery stores, says Sampson. They would instead rely on $2 billion in one-shot revenue raisers. A large chunk, around $700 million, would come from refinancing the state’s tobacco bonds, from the 2003 tobacco company settlement with the states. They would also raid some funds, and have put higher estimates on the revenue that could be generated from some existing programs, like a tax amnesty program and cracking down on Medicaid fraud.

Overall, the Senate budget increases spending from the current year by $3 billion dollars, to a total of $136 billion, though Senator Sampson says that’s below the rate of inflation.

The negative reaction came swiftly. The State School Boards Association and the Council of School Superintendents predicted that up to 14,800 teachers would be laid off if the school aid cuts were to be accepted.

New York State United Teachers President Richard Iannuzzi called the cuts “completely unacceptable.”

The school boards say they’d like some freedom from what they say are costly state mandates, so that administrators can reduce costs on their own.

Perhaps in preparation for expected public anger over their budget proposals, the Senate took the unusual step of cordoning off the hallway surrounding Senate Leader John Sampson’s offices, and the conference room where the Democrats meet. Spokesman Austin Shafran says lobbyists and members of the public will still be allowed to come into the Senate hallway, as long as they have a specific appointment.

“It’s for everybody’s benefit,” Shafran said.

On the Senate floor, Republican Senators rejected the Democrats’ plan, saying it doesn’t add up, and complaining that they were left out of the decision-making process. Sen. John DeFrancisco is the ranking GOP member on the Finance Committee.

“I am going to recommend to my conference that we vote no on this,” DeFrancisco said.

The final vote was 32 Democratic Senators in favor of the budget resolution. All 29 GOP Senators present voted no.

Senate Democrats did not include in their resolution a plan proposed by Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch to borrow up to $6 billion over the next three years, but say they have not ruled out adopting it in some version in the future.

The state Assembly has not yet put out its budget resolution, but is expected to do so later in the week. A spokesman says Assemblymembers are still holding meetings and talking about how to structure the proposal. The next step is to then hold conference committees and try to negotiate a final spending plan with the governor by the April 1 deadline.

Sampson did not answer questions about whether the budget would be finished by then.