State Legislature passes historic on-time budget, schools get small boost in aid

ALBANY, N.Y. (WKTV/AP) - New York's Legislature, once determined to be the most dysfunctional in the nation, has passed a historically difficult budget on time amid the heckling of protesters.

Early Thursday, the Assembly passed its final budget bills in the $132.5 billion budget that cuts spending 2 percent. The Republican-led Senate had completed it bills before midnight.

"Yes, there's pain," said Senator Hugh Farley, a Schenectady County Republican, acknowledging the chanting on four floors of the Capitol. "But there's pain for everybody. We are solving a huge problem, and we are bringing back New York state to the Empire State again."

Final negotiations and delays in printing the bills made for a tense night as lawmakers worked through the snags and raced to adopt the budget by midnight Wednesday. It is just the fourth adopted by the annual April 1 deadline since 1983.

The budget would eliminate a $10 billion deficit caused by years of overspending, overtaxing and overdependence on Wall Street. Through negotiations with the Legislature, Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget increased about $250 million but was offset by equal reductions that left record cuts to schools, public universities and health care for the poor.

Late Wednesday night, lawmakers and Cuomo agreed on how to divide $230 million in restorations of base operating aid for school districts. Under that agreement, New York City schools will get $51 million, Long Island schools will get $45 million and upstate schools will get $134 million.

The statewide cut in school aid remains historic at $697 million.

The budget contains no tax increases or significant borrowing.

Public school teachers, college instructors, students, New York City renters and health care advocates were among the protesters. One protester was arrested after state police said he hit a legislative staffer with a cymbal. The staffer wasn't injured. The protester, whose name wasn't available, was charged with misdemeanor possession of a weapon and harassment, a violation, said Maj. William Sprague.

In anticipation of the protests, the Legislature closed some public areas in the Capitol in what may be the first significant effort to limit public access in 30 years.

The Senate lobby and one of two public galleries were closed. The Senate's Republican majority said the gallery was closed because its metal detector broke, apparently within the last few days. The Assembly's Democratic majority closed its upper public gallery, saying it was necessary to consolidate limited security staff.

Instead, protesters roamed the halls of the Capitol.

"Our house! Our money!" protesters chanted. "They say cutback, we say fight back!"

Some carried signs that said, "Eat the rich!" It was one of many attacks on the failure to adopt the Assembly proposal to charge millionaires an income tax surcharge that could ease or eliminate cuts. Cuomo and Senate Republicans said it was a job killer.

Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters said the Senate and Assembly appeared to violate at least the spirit of the state Open Meetings Law, which requires public policy and funding to be decided in meetings open to the public. Later, the conference agreed to telecast the session to an overflow room for 300 demonstrators. She hasn't seen access limited in such a way since the abortion debates of the 1980s.

"You can't anticipate a problem and then use that as an excuse," she said.

Activists had promised a "Wisconsin-type protest," referring to weeks of almost daily gatherings that drew up to 100,000 people to Madison in a fight to protect union workers' collective bargaining rights. In Albany, a sleep-in was planned but looked less likely as lawmakers tried to plow through the last budget bills by midnight.

"Wisconsin showed us that working people don't have to roll over and just take the attacks on their living standards from the two major parties," said Howie Hawkins of the Green Party, a political party based on environmental and social activism.

Earlier this year, protests in Albany resulted in 17 arrests at one demonstration and 33 at another. All faced minor disorderly conduct charges and were released after cooperating with troopers.

Through the tumult, both chambers raced to pass the 2011-12 budget by midnight Wednesday, which would make it the first early budget since 1983. The budget is due by Friday.

Senator Ruben Diaz, a Bronx Democrat, complained that the budget "is killing the black and Hispanic people" so Cuomo and legislative leaders can take credit for an early budget.

"We could have stopped this," he said to the Legislature's black and Hispanic lawmakers. "It's our shame." He said his fellow minority leaders talk as if they "eat lions" back in their districts, "and we come here and the master calls and we say, 'Yes, master."'

The budget is almost identical to Cuomo's February 1 proposal. The
Legislature's biggest restoration was $272 million in school aid, easing Cuomo's proposed $1.5 billion - or 7.3 percent - cut. But the funding to the more than 700 school districts will be only slightly higher than Cuomo's proposal. School officials said thousands of teacher jobs and programs would be lost.

"This is a painful budget," said Sen. Carl Marcellino, a Long Island Republican. "We don't want to make these decisions; we have to make these decisions."

E.J. McMahon of the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute said passing a budget on time after decades of mostly late passages doesn't mean much.

"It's an obsession of people in Albany," he said. "More important is the lack of tax increases. The fact that it's on time is sort of the icing on the cake for Cuomo.

Although the budget is a step in the right direction, it's no permanent fix. McMahon said an overall reduction in the budget was a certainty after the loss of temporary federal stimulus money and Cuomo's campaign promise of no tax increases. The budget is still buoyed by $7 billion in tax and fee increases over the past three years.

"You could argue it should have been more," McMahon said.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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