By Joseph Spector and Jon Campbell
ALBANY, NY -- As part of the final 2013-14 budget, state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are working on plans to provide a $350 family tax-relief check for middle-class homeowners with children.
The rebate checks, which were stopped in 2009 amid the state's fiscal woes, would be available to homeowners with incomes between $40,000 and $300,000, legislative officials confirmed Tuesday to Gannett's Albany Bureau.
Senate Republicans have sought the return of the rebate checks as part of a $2 billion tax relief program introduced earlier this month. The rebate checks would be part of a $700 million tax-relief package the sides are discussing. The checks could be send out as early as the first quarter of 2014.
"Middle-class families are losing ground, and it's time to do something about it," Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, said at a news conference March 4.
Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, who heads the Independent Democratic Conference, has also supported the checks and tried to get the measure in the 2010-11 budget, but to no avail.
"Anyway we can put more money back in the pockets of New Yorkers is something I support," Klein said earlier this month.
The rebate checks were among the final measures being discussed as lawmakers and Cuomo seek to reach an agreement on a spending plan this week. The fiscal year starts April 1, but the sides want the budget approved this week because a spring recess starts Friday. Lawmakers may work Friday or through the weekend to pass all the bills.
Legislative leaders said Tuesday that a deal on a $136 billion state spending plan is within reach, while issues like decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and restoring New York City school aid are still being discussed.
The state is dealing with a $1.3 billion deficit for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which starts April 1. But the state will have additional money in the 2014-15 fiscal year when it extends higher income taxes on millionaires -- which is also expected to be part of this week's final deal.
Cuomo has said that he would be open to tax breaks, but the state would need to find a way to pay for them.
Top lawmakers emerged Tuesday with no final budget deal after meeting with Cuomo on several occasions behind closed doors, the latest in a series of lengthy negotiating sessions over the past several days.
"We're working on narrowing more issues and I'm optimistic -- as you know, I'm always optimistic -- we'll have a final agreement at some point today," Skelos said.
Lawmakers have been nearing a final agreement that would include increasing the minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016 and -- according to Skelos -- about $700 million in tax cuts for businesses and families.
The legislative leaders and Cuomo have also been discussing issues surrounding New York City school funding and possession of marijuana, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said.
Since the city school district didn't come to an agreement on a teacher evaluation system this year, it was hit with a $240 million cut in aid from the state -- which Silver has been pushing to restore with resistance from Cuomo.
A final agreement on decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana could apply only to New York City, Silver said, while bath salts and synthetic pot could be outlawed statewide.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Silver laid out one possibility: Passing a law that would allow the New York City Council to change the penalty for public possession of small amounts of weed in the city.
That would allow lawmakers to deal with New York City's "stop and frisk" policy, which critics say unfairly targets young minority residents who are forced to empty their pockets, but wouldn't impact the rest of the state. If police find someone with marijuana in public, it's currently a misdemeanor in New York; If it's within someone's home, it's a violation.
"There is a thought that it can apply only to New York City," Silver said, "by authorizing the local legislative body to enact those changes."
Senate Republicans and the state Conservative Party have opposed Cuomo's initial plan last year to reduce the penalty for public possession on a statewide basis and have pushed for the criminalization of possessing bath salts and synthetic marijuana.
Currently, the substances have been banned by the state Health Department, but aren't in the criminal code. Silver said adding a criminal penalty for bath salts and synthetic pot has been part of the marijuana discussions.
Cuomo has not commented on the budget negotiations this week.
The goal was to begin printing budget bills late Tuesday to allow for a three-day waiting period for bills to be approved, but Skelos said a more realistic path may be to introduce the legislation Wednesday. That would clear the way for a Friday vote.
The sides appear set to agree to increase the minimum wage over three years. It is currently $7.25 an hour, and Democrats want to increase it to $9 an hour in January.
Under a tentative plan, the wage would be increased gradually -- to $8 an hour in 2014, $8.75 in 2015 and $9 in 2016 -- and higher income-tax rates on millionaires would be extended past 2014, when they are set to expire.
The higher income tax rate would bring in about $2 billion in annual revenue for the state. Some groups said they were disappointed by the three-year phase in of the minimum-wage increase, saying it would mean the working poor would lose out on about $1 billion in wages.
"The raise will help working families and small businesses at the time they need it most. Unfortunately, the tentative deal reached by Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders delays implementation substantially," said Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, a Manhattan-based advocacy group.
Lawmakers are also discussing with Cuomo how to divvy up about $550 million in revenue for the budget year, which starts April 1. Lawmakers said they want to add $290 million in school aid to the roughly $21 billion education budget, but they haven't outlined how they would spend the money.
Cuomo has also proposed to keep an energy tax on companies and customers, but business groups are seeking to beat back the measure and Skelos said it would likely be scaled down.
Also, businesses are trying to thwart Cuomo's plan to limit the power of the state's Industrial Development Agencies.