ALBANY – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday he has a deal with legislative leaders on a budget for the state's new fiscal year, which comes as the state faces an unprecedented coronavirus crisis that threatens to dry up its tax revenue.
The state budget deadline came and went Tuesday without a spending plan in place, which helped cause a payroll mishap that left 120,000 state workers uncertain of when this week's paycheck will come.
The stalemate, however, seemed to end Wednesday afternoon, when Cuomo said he had a tentative agreement with top lawmakers on a budget plan likely headed for passage later in the day.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, began briefing their members on the tentative deal late Wednesday morning.
Voting resumed Wednesday afternoon and was expected to continue well into the night. The votes reflected the coronavirus era: Few lawmakers were actually present in their respective chamber, with most voting remotely to conform with social distancing guidelines.
"We have a conceptual agreement with the leaders," Cuomo said. "They are going to go to their members today and talk to them about the agreement, and if the leaders are successful in their conferences, then we will pass the budget."
Highlights of the budget deal
Cuomo in January first proposed a $178 billion budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The final size of the budget agreement had not yet been released as of Wednesday afternoon.
Details remained scarce for some of the budget's major components, including a potential rollback of the state's bail-reform laws, which Cuomo had pushed to include in the budget.
Of the measures known Wednesday evening, the budget:
– Authorizes Cuomo's office to withhold certain state aid payments to local governments if the coronavirus hurts tax revenue worse than expected
– Holds education aid for school districts flat from the previous year
– Legalizes e-bikes and e-scooters, with certain restrictions
– Proposes a $3 billion environmental bond act, which will require voter approval
– Bans food containers made of polystyrene foam -- known by most as styrofoam -- beginning in 2022.
– Adds "e pluribus unum" to the bottom of the state seal and flag, a pet project of Cuomo's.
Budget talks in recent weeks had been complicated by New York's ongoing response to the coronavirus outbreak, which has hit the state harder than any other in the country and will cause it to lose a still-uncertain amount of revenue totaling at least several billion dollars.
But Cuomo and top lawmakers had remained hopeful they could approve a timely spending plan, which will grant the governor power to withhold certain payments if the state's financial picture worsens unless the Legislature steps in to stop him.
Unlike the federal government, New York state government does not immediately shut down once its budget deadline passes. In general, most state functions have a grace period of several days before finances run dry.
The stalemate did contribute, however, to a payroll snafu that delayed paychecks that were supposed to go out to about half of the state's workforce Wednesday, angering workers who were expecting their pay.
The pay delay applied to about 120,000 state workers classified as "administration," which includes workers at most state agencies, legislative staffers and the court system.
For some of those employees, the final day of the pay period was Wednesday -- the first day of the fiscal year -- which meant state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's office didn't have authorization to pay employees for that day. As a result, the entire administration payroll was delayed.
Once the Legislature gives final passage to the budget, which is expected Wednesday, DiNapoli's office will be required to send the payroll information to banks for direct deposit.
"It is unfair for PEF members to be stuck in the middle as elected officials spar over whose fault it is that paychecks were not issued on payday," said Wayne Spence, president of the Public Employees Federation.
"PEF members were not a day late showing up for the COVID-19 emergency. Their paychecks shouldn't be late either."
Hospitals watching closely
This year, Cuomo had originally proposed a plan to cut at least $2.5 billion in Medicaid spending as the state grappled with a $6 billion budget gap that existed prior to the coronavirus crisis.
But lawmakers had been urging him to hold off on those cuts, particularly as hospitals grapple with the coronavirus. Changes to the Medicaid system could also jeopardize at least $3 billion in federal funding included in a coronavirus aid package approved by Congress last month.
Cuomo declined to get into specifics about the budget Wednesday afternoon until legislative leaders finished briefing their members.
"I don’t want to get into specifics on the budget," he said. "We have an agreement with the leaders. The leaders are briefing their members."
Cuomo's original budget proposal would have legalized recreational marijuana and made a wide array of more minor changes, including one measure that would have allowed movie theaters to serve alcohol in the theater itself.
With the coronavirus complicating negotiations, many — but not all — of those proposals appear to have fallen out.
Cuomo on Tuesday acknowledged marijuana legalization was not likely to be included in the final budget, noting that it was "too much" to make happen when time was running short. It wasn't included in the final deal.
His movie theater proposal, meanwhile, was also stripped from a budget bill printed Tuesday, as it has been in previous years.
So too was a plan to fold the Bridge Authority, which oversees Hudson Valley crossings, into the state Thruway Authority.
Domestic terrorism proposal makes it through
But other policy proposals seemed to make it through.
Cuomo and lawmakers were poised to put the state's ban on large-scale hydraulic fracturing into law.
The Cuomo administration first enacted the ban on the technique used to spur natural-gas development in late 2014. Once it's in law, it would require the Legislature's approval to overturn.
The Legislature began passing a portion of the bills required for the budget late Tuesday night, including a bill with a measure enacting the "Josef Neumann Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act."
The measure, which Cuomo first proposed late last year, would create a new felony charge for someone who tries to kill or seriously injure at least five people in an attack based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, gender identity or expression, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation.
Anyone convicted of the crime would face up to a life sentence without parole; That sentence would be mandatory if the attack results in a death.
Cuomo renamed the proposal this week after Neumann, who died Sunday after he was a victim of a Dec. 28 machete attack at a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi's Rockland County home.
Votes happening in empty chambers
Voting continued throughout much of Wednesday despite five state lawmakers testing positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks.
The legislative chambers were almost entirely devoid of lawmakers, the result of measures approved Sunday and Monday that allow them to vote remotely for as long as a state emergency remains in effect.
Lawmakers have eschewed a number of joint budget conferences usually held each March amid concerns over the coronavirus spread, and the state Capitol remains closed to the general public.
The Legislature's votes late Tuesday and early Wednesday came with far less debate than usual, a product of fewer lawmakers being present in the chambers. As of Wednesday evening, each chamber still had at least a few budget bills to pass.
The votes on prior budget bills were largely along party lines, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans voting against.