Queens Pols Give Budget Post Mortem

UGLY-FEATURE

BY JAMES FARRELL

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and leaders from the state Senate and Assembly announced the passing of a state budget agreement on April 10, more than a week after the deadline, marking the end to the longest bout of budget negotiations in the governor’s tenure.

The $153.1 billion budget boasts several progressive initiatives that have been on state liberals’ agendas, such as the Raise the Age campaign to make 18 years— as opposed to 16 years— the age of criminal responsibility; tuition-free SUNY and CUNY education for students whose families earn up to $125,000 a year; and new environmental protections.

The budget extends a tax on millionaires and begins a middle-class tax cut. There is also a $2.5 billion investment in affordable housing, a middle-class childcare tax credit and $25.8 billion in education investments—labeled by the governor’s office as the largest education investment in state history.

After the weeklong delay, Queens leaders were generally pleased with the final product, with many citing a major accomplishment in the inclusion of Raise the Age—which, along with education, was the center of divisive negotiations.

“Those were the two things that, I wouldn’t say, stalled the budget—but certainly held negotiations open,” said Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Flushing).

She explained that Assembly Democrats and the Senate, led by Republicans, differed on which courts would handle certain juvenile crimes.

“We wanted nonviolent crimes to go to family court,” Rozic said. “And then they proposed setting up this youth court within the criminal court system that would be presided over by a family court judge and we sort of came to an agreement on that.”

Under the new Raise the Age legislation, which was officially signed into law by Cuomo earlier this week, misdemeanor charges against 16- and 17-year-old defendants would be handled in family court, but all felonies would begin in the newly established youth part of the criminal court that provides access to additional intervention services and is presided over by a family court judge. Nonviolent felonies would then be transferred to family court, unless the district attorney makes a motion to retain the case in the youth part. New York was previously one of two states, including North Carolina, that prosecuted 16 and 17-yearolds as adults.

“The whole idea is not to have 16-and 17-year-olds go to Rikers Island, where they’re not getting rehabilitated,” said state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), whose Independent Democratic Conference (IDC)—a group of Democrats who lead the state Senate in a majority coalition with Republicans—took credit for the success of Raise the Age.

“It was only through the pressure that the Independent Democratic Conference brought on the Senate majority that we even had a discussion on this to begin with,” Avella argued.

The IDC also took credit for a $10 million commitment to immigrant legal services, describing it as a “historic” accomplishment. IDC member Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Elmhurst) explained the importance of that investment, given uncertainty over how President Donald Trump’s immigration policies might affect immigrant communities.

“While this budget is not perfect— and no budget is—this is a plan that we can be proud of,” he said. “I am pleased to announce that my colleagues and I in the Independent Democratic Conference were able to secure $10 million in funding for immigration legal-defense services in a groundbreaking and coordinated effort to fight President Trump’s attacks on our vibrant communities.”

In terms of immigration, many Democrats were unhappy that the New York State DREAM Act, which would have given financial aid to undocumented college students, was not funded this year.

But there were developments for education, according to State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing), who sits on the Senate’s education and higher education committees and is a former educator. She highlighted the $800 million in pre-k funding and $150 million to community schools.

“The final budget included almost $26 billion in education,” she told the Queens Tribune. “That’s up 4.5 percent, where the entire state budget came in under a 2 percent increase. Education increased more than double, so I think that’s a good sign.”

While she was disappointed that the DREAM Act was not included in the budget, she also praised the passage of the Excelsior Scholarship—the budget’s free-tuition program—citing it as an issue for which she has advocated.

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D-Long Island City) also praised the education investments.

“There’s truly no better investment than one in our students,” she said. “By giving our schools the funding and resources they need, we can make sure that every student continues to receive a sound basic education they deserve.”

In the City Council, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) argued in a statement that the budget was a “bold agenda to empower the middle class.” She highlighted some considerations for the labor force.

“The provision to allow union members to deduct their dues from their taxes, both private and public, furthers Gov. Cuomo’s work to strengthen our labor community,” she said.

Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), the borough’s only Republican lawmaker, was unavailable for comment on the budget and the Queens County GOP did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Queens’ state legislators were also able to stave off a plan in Cuomo’s original budget proposal that elderly advocates argued could have led to the closing of 65 senior centers citywide. The proposal would have restricted Title XX funds—a block grant that historically funds social services in both child and elderly care— to childcare. This struck a nerve in Queens. In February, Avella and Assemblyman Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside) had held separate rallies protesting the proposed cuts.

“I am relieved that the state budget rejected Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to redirect Title XX funding that is used to support senior centers,” Braunstein said following the final budget’s passing. “Restoring this funding prevented 65 senior centers in New York City from closing, which would have had a devastating impact on thousands of seniors.”

Rozic, who attended Braunstein’s rally, listed the senior centers as one of the victories in her post-budget analysis.

“We had a lot of great successes; there was some good, there was some bad, there was some ugly,” Rozic said about the overall budget. “We fought back on the senior center cuts and got more money for affordable housing. We got a minimum wage increase for direct-care workers and a lot more money for transportation and infrastructure.”

But Queens lawmakers also felt that the budget fell short in other areas. Rozic said that she would have liked to see ethics reform included in the final agreement. And Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing) praised the overall budget, but lamented the exclusion of a small-business support fund proposed in the Assembly’s one-house budget.

“If it were up to me, I would have included a support fund for groups like the dry cleaners and beauty salons,” he told the Queens Tribune. “They’re asked to upgrade a lot of their infrastructure and equipment, and many of them can’t afford to do so.”

And since 2014, mayoral control of schools has been a contentious issue, with Senate Republicans wary about giving Mayor Bill de Blasio too much power. It has been renewed in one-year intervals since that time and it was not included in the budget—which was a disappointment to Stavisky. It will expire in June unless the legislature steps in.

“That is the number one-issue that I would have preferred to see in the budget,” she said. “The Senate Republicans and the rogue Democrats [of the IDC] did not put that into their budget resolutions and they apparently fought and they won.”

The budget touted fiscal responsibility, with the governor promoting a seventh consecutive year of holding spending growth to 2 percent. The state would provide tax credits to more than 200,000 middle-class families earning between $60,000 and $150,000 to make childcare more affordable, as well as a middle-class tax cut.

State Sen. Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) praised the final package as a “rather careful spending plan for the 2018 Fiscal Year.” He highlighted the budget’s inclusion of the Cross Bay Bridge tax reimbursement for residents in his district who use the bridge.

“The budget also extends the Cross Bay Bridge reimbursement for Rockaway and Broad Channel residents and improves tax-relief programs, such as STAR, helping thousands of New Yorkers save money around tax time,” Addabbo said.

However, Thomas Grech, of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said that he wanted to look more closely at the budget in coming days, adding that the “devil’s in the details.” He said that he was concerned about costly proposals, such as the $163 million for tuition-free education.

“I’m somewhat concerned about who’s going to pay for this down the road,” he said.

The budget also featured the release of $2.5 billion in funding to build or preserve 100,000 units of affordable housing. A coalition of 11 affordable housing groups, including AARP and the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, issued a statement praising the budget’s passing and the release of the funding.

“New York’s landmark commitment shows individuals and families throughout the state that leaders in Albany are serious about tackling the housing challenges that threaten our communities,” the statement read.

Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, jfarrell@queenstribune.com or @farrellj329.

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