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Final lobbying push at the Capitol as budget takes shape

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Karen Dewitt
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WBFO Albany Correspondent

With less than a week to go to the state budget deadline, interest groups have converged on Albany, lobbying to get their measures included in the budget plan - and in some cases, to keep items out.

Assemblymember Harry Bronson, a Democrat from Rochester, is the sponsor of a bill to extend prevailing wage rules to projects that draw from private and public government funds. He was joined by around 200 construction workers who stood on the Capitol’s ornate million-dollar staircase between the Senate and Assembly chambers. The workers say the change would add significantly to their pay.

“We’re going to fight like hell, between now and the end of next weekend, to make sure this is in the budget,"  Bronson said.

On the other side of the Senate chambers were proponents of public campaign financing, additional taxes on the richest New Yorkers and more spending on the state’s poorest schools.

Janine Harper, head of the PTA at PS 770 in Brooklyn, says her school is owed $500,000 in funding under a 12-year-old court order known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. She says it remains unfilled to this day.

“The funding for the schools is in the (legislature’s) budget and we’re just counting on Governor Cuomo to make sure it gets passed,” Harper said. “Our kids deserve the money that his kids get when they go to private schools.”  

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Credit Karen Dewitt / WBFO Albany Correspondent
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WBFO Albany Correspondent
School funding advocates outside the state Senate Monday.

Cuomo, who has proposed spending an additional $1 billion more on schools in the new budget, has said it's time to move on from the court case. The legislature wants to fulfill the court order in a three-year phase-in and recommends spending $600 million more dollars on schools above the governor’s number.  

Others are pressing to keep some measures out of the budget, including a tax proposed by Cuomo on opioid prescriptions. Opponents include the chair of the Assembly Health Committee and the legislature’s only pharmacist, John McDonald of Cohoes. He says it’s “terrible” public policy.

“There are plenty of fingers to point,” McDonald said, “but at the end of the day, pharmacies are not the villain and patients certainly are not the villain in this situation.”

McDonald and the others say the latest version of the bill, which was first proposed by Cuomo last year, is badly flawed. The 2018 bill would have prohibited drug companies from passing the costs on to patients, but that provision was struck down in federal court as unconstitutional. The new version does not prevent manufacturers from raising prices to patients.

Julie Farrar, who has chronic pain from a spinal condition, worries that her medical bills might go up if the tax is approved.

“It is going to trickle down in a way to hurt the people that use opioids effectively to manage, for myself, chronic severe pain,” Farrar said.

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Credit Karen Dewitt / WBFO Albany Correspondent
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WBFO Albany Correspondent
Julie Farrar, who has chronic back pain, speaks against Gov. Andrew Cuomo's opioid tax.

The tax would bring in $100 million to the state’s general fund. Assemblymember McDonald says the money could instead be gained from savings in the state’s vast Medicaid program.

The biggest group of the day included several hundred developmentally disabled New Yorkers and their health aids, asking for a cost-of-living pay increase for the direct care workers. Cuomo took the funding out of his budget this year, but Senate Mental Health Committee Chair David Carlucci, who addressed the crowd, says the Senate proposes restoring it.

“It’s about priorities,” said Carlucci, a Democrat from the Hudson Valley, “and what can be a better priority than taking care and providing a living wage to those who provide care to our most vulnerable populations?”

Later, the governor’s counsel, Alphonso David, said the funding of $75 million will be restored.

“The governor has made a decision that he will not pass a budget without increasing the wages to direct care workers,” David said to cheers.

Perhaps the biggest voice when it comes to the budget, though, is Cuomo.

The governor has said repeatedly that he won’t agree to a budget without a provision to make the state’s temporary 2 percent per-year property tax cap permanent. The governor held a rally on Long Island over the weekend, where property taxes are among the highest in the nation.

“I have said that this hand will not sign a budget that does not have a permanent tax cap, period,” Cuomo said on March 24.

The governor is also calling for criminal justice reforms, including an end to cash bail, to be part of the state budget and a congestion pricing plan for parts of Manhattan to help fund public transit.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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