United States: New York State Lawmakers Pass Final Budget

The weekend of April 9 saw the passage of the New York State budget after the state Assembly and Senate, respectively, closed out Saturday and Sunday legislative sessions at the state Capitol in Albany. The final passage comes nine days after the April 1 state budget deadline, and after weeks of hard-fought negotiations between legislative leaders and Governor Andrew M. Cuomo over a range of policy issues included in the $153.1 billion spending plan.

The most prominent policy items in the final budget include "Raise the Age" legislation, which increases the age of criminal responsibility in New York from 16 to 18 years of age; expansion of ride-sharing services to Upstate New York and Long Island; the restoration of the 421-a tax abatement program; and free State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) tuition for qualifying students.

The "Raise The Age" deal, a priority of the Democratic-dominated Assembly and the GOP-allied Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in the Senate, creates a new tiered system whereby cases involving 16 and 17 year-old defendants will go to specific courts depending on the severity of the charges. While civil violations will continue to be handled in local courts, misdemeanor criminal charges will now be handled in Family Court and all felony-charged 16 and 17 year olds will have their cases referred to a newly established Youth Part of the New York Criminal Court system. In the Youth Part, a Family Court judge will preside over the matters, and offenders will be offered access to additional intervention services and programming. Non-violent and violent felony charges could be transferred from the Youth Part to a criminal court based on the presence of a number of factors.

Expansion of ride-sharing services is the culmination of a multi-year effort by business groups and legislators representing Upstate New York and Long Island, who see these services as a vital to their regions' economic expansion. The final agreement provides for ride-sharing throughout the state (with the exception of New York City, which is expressly carved out) and tasks the state Department of Motor Vehicles with overseeing these services. The new law requires the ride-sharing companies to maintain certain minimum insurance coverage levels, provides a first-of-its-kind workers' compensation program for ride-sharing drivers, requires mandatory background checks on drivers, and permits counties and municipalities with populations exceeding 100,000 to opt-out if the local governments agree to do so.

New York's 421-a developer tax abatement program expired in 2016 and, since that time, reinstatement of the program has been a sticking point in the high-stakes negotiations that traditionally surround the state budget and the close of the legislative session. Under the FY 2018 budget, developers of new residential projects with 300 units or more in certain areas of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens would be eligible for a full property tax abatement for 35 years if the project creates a specific number of affordable rental units and meets newly established minimum construction wage requirements. The units must remain affordable for 40 years. For all other affordable developments in New York City, the period of affordability and abatement eligibility would be tied to the number of affordable units. This new program will create an estimated 2,500 new units of affordable housing per year.

Echoing the calls for free public college during the presidential campaign, Governor Cuomo, in his January budget address, proposed free SUNY and CUNY tuition for qualifying students. The final budget agreement that was reached over the weekend closely mirrors the Governor's original proposal, despite pushback from private colleges. Under the final agreement, the state will provide a maximum award of $5,500. The new initiative will be phased in over three years, beginning in the 2017-18 academic year for New Yorkers making up to $100,000 annually, increasing to $110,000 in 2018-19, and reaching $125,000 in 2019-20. SUNY and CUNY will be required to waive tuition above $5,500 for qualifying students. Critically, the free tuition program requires recipients to work and live in the state after graduation for the same number of years that they receive the financial support.

Other significant agreements reached in the final budget include reforms to the state workers' compensation system, a $2.5 billion investment in water infrastructure, increased funding for transportation infrastructure, a $1.1 billion increase in school aid funding and $160 million in funding over two years to support wage increases for direct care workers. The final budget also includes a controversial provision providing the governor flexibility to make mid-year spending adjustments to compensate for a potential loss of funding from the federal government.

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