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New state budget includes free college tuition, Upstate ride-hailing

New York will become the first state to make tuition at public colleges and universities free for middle-class students. The tuition initiative is part of a new state budget approved Sunday by the state Senate, a day after the Assembly approved it.

“All New Yorkers scored a victory with this budget," said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

State Sen. Michael Razenhofer, R-Amherst, said the plan continues fiscal discipline by limiting spending growth at or below 2 percent for the seventh year in a row and rejects Governor Cuomo's new tax-and-fee hikes.

“Numerous efforts are enacted to improve New York's business climate, create more jobs and further strengthen our economy," Ranzenhofer said. "The new budget approves the most comprehensive workers' compensation reform in a decade, reducing hundreds of millions of dollars in costs for businesses, municipalities and not-for-profits. Homeowners will benefit from a total of $3 billion in STAR property tax relief. The budget also protects last year's $4.2 billion in income tax cuts for middle-class families and tens of thousands small businesses.

However, the advocacy group Unshackle Upstate said it was disappointed the state continues to rely on massive tax extensions to support record spending.

"New York’s enormous tax burden is the major force behind our harsh business climate and Upstate’s continued population decline. Until our leaders in Albany must accept this reality, more jobs will leave Upstate New York – forcing our best and brightest to follow suit,” said Executive Director Greg Biryla.

Here's a look at key items in New York's new $153 billion state budget, approved Sunday night, after the NYS Senate approved the spending plan: (the Assembly voted on Saturday)



New York students from families making $125,000 or less will be eligible for free college tuition under Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Excelsior Scholarship Program. The initiative won't cover room and board and students will have to meet residency, grade point and class load rules to participate. The program will be phased in over three years and also sets aside $19 million for tuition aid for students attending private colleges.

D’Youville College President Dr. Lorrie Clemo said funding for free tuition to state colleges forces new challenges on private colleges and universities.

“We vigorously opposed this legislation which we think is bad policy,” Clemo said. “But we believe the increased TAP will serve our students well and allow us to serve more students, which is integral to D’Youville College’s commitment to our community."



Juveniles who are 16 and 17 years old will no longer be prosecuted in adult court or be incarcerated in adult prisons or jails. The agreement will raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 17 in October 2018 and to 18 a year later. The deal directs misdemeanors to family court and creates a special youth court for felonies. Non-violent offenders could apply to have their criminal records sealed after a 10-year waiting period. The only other state to automatically try 16 and 17 year olds in adult court is North Carolina.

"We have won a tremendous victory for communities across the state that have endured senseless tragedies and called on the Legislature to deliver a justice system that recognizes the difference between a child and an adult,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “This is the beginning of a new chapter in New York State where young people are given a chance to grow up and recover from their past wrongdoing without forfeiting their futures."



Beginning 90 days after the budget is enacted ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft will be authorized to operate in upstate cities like Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Albany. Previously the services had been limited to the New York City area, making upstate one of the largest areas in the country without the modern convenience.

"It's embarrassing that we don't have ride-sharing services yet," said Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo. "This bill changes that. This bill brings our community, our entire state, into the 21st century."



More than 200,000 families earning between $60,000 and $150,000 will be eligible for an expanded child care tax credit. The benefit for the average household will increase from $169 to $376.



The budget increases total spending on public education by $1.1 billion - or 4.4 percent - to $25.8 billion overall. State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, called it "a record level of school aid funding."  This "continues the growth of education funding at twice the rate of the rest of the budget. New York State’s total commitment to supporting public education, when combined with the STAR school tax relief program, will be approximately $29 billion this year."



The state will spend more than $200 million for prevention, treatment and recovery programs targeted toward heroin and opioid addiction.



The budget includes a tax credit for farmers who donate fruits, vegetables and other farm products to local food banks. Anti-hunger advocates and agriculture groups say it ensures hungry New Yorkers have access to healthy food while encouraging farmers to harvest crops that otherwise might go to waste.

"The small tax credit for donated food will offset a portion of the costs to pick, package and deliver the fresh produce to regional food banks and pantries," said the New York State Farm Bureau, which was pleased about passage. "In turn, more New Yorkers in need will have access to locally grown food."



New York residents facing deportation can receive legal representation bolstered by a new $10 million fund that would ensure public defense for immigrants regardless of their legal status.



The 750-mile trail will connect two greenway trails crisscrossing the state from Manhattan to Canada and from Albany to Buffalo that Cuomo says could be a national tourist attraction.



$500 million to support a second phase of economic development stimulus spending for Buffalo and Western New York. Examples of projects proposed for the phase two spending include creation of a $10 million workforce development fund for training initiatives, a combined $25 million for strategic advanced manufacturing and health and life sciences projects, relocating Buffalo Manufacturing Works to the Northland Corridor and the extension of the Metro Rail to the DL&W Terminal and redevelopment of the building and surroundings.



State Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, said the budget includes "the most significant worker’s compensation reform in over a decade." He said it will provide businesses, local governments and not-for-profits major savings, including rebates this year, while enhancing protections for injured workers. "Reforming temporary benefit timelines is expected to reduce employer contributions approximately $350 million annually. The budget requires updating the impairment for loss of use awards, the first time these have been updated in decades, to reflect advances in modern medicine which produce better outcomes. It is anticipated that these new guidelines will save employers hundreds of millions of dollars each year."



State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Jamestown, was happy to see a $5 million allocation in the budget for the National Comedy Center in Jamestown.

"The National Comedy Center combines our local history, the broad craft of comedy and internationally recognized talent to create a remarkable attraction," Young said. "The Center is expected to entice over 114,000 visitors each year and provide a $23 million boost to the local economy annually. The project will also be a catalyst for additional economic development projects in Jamestown and will be a focal point as local officials continue downtown revitalization efforts.”



It extends the tax rate on millionaires, impacting 45,000 taxpayers - 50 percent non-residents - preserving as $3.4 billion in revenue next year. Assemblymember Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, applauded the extension.

"In a win for economic fairness, we also extended the Millionaires Tax, bringing in critical revenue and ensuring the wealthiest New Yorkers pay their fair share," said Ryan.



Ethics reform and changes to election laws including easier voter registration and early voting didn't make the cut. The extension of mayoral control of schools in New York City also isn't in the budget; lawmakers expect to take up that issue later this year.

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