The New York State Senate Chamber
By Joseph Spector and Jessica Bakeman
ALBANY After a marathon voting session, the state Assembly late Thursday night approved the $135 billion budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which starts April 1.
At 11:59 p.m., lawmakers passed the final budget bill, narrowly escaping what seemed sure to be an early-Friday finish.
While the budget was expected to easily pass in the Democratic-led chamber, many lawmakers were not happy with the final product.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers ripped $90 million in cuts to services for people with developmental disabilities. There was bi-partisan disdain for a $350 rebate check to be sent next year to families with children.
And some lawmakers said an increase of the minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016 would provide incentives for employers to hire teenaged students at the expense of older workers.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said he too took issue with the minimum-wage provision and the rebate checks. But he said the measures were part of the final agreement with Senate Republicans and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
"I would have preferred to do it a different way, but again the art of compromise required it be done that way," Silver said of the rebate checks.
Lawmakers began debating bills early afternoon Thursday and took a break around 5:15 p.m. to accommodate Christian members who wished to attend church services for Holy Thursday, a religious holiday leading up to Easter.
The Assembly reconvened around 7:30 p.m. and worked just up until midnight, when the chamber applauded the budget's final passage.
"To all of you: Enjoy the break. Rest up. There is much to do and many challenges ahead of us before we complete our work in this legislative session," Silver said before adjournment. Lawmakers will be back at the Capitol April 15 after a planned spring break.
The budget closes a $1.3 billion budget gap and increases spending for schools by more than $1 billion, to roughly $21 billion. The plan extends higher income taxes on millionaires, and the $350 checks will go to families with children under 17 in 2012 with incomes between $40,000 and $300,000.
The budget also includes tax breaks for businesses and includes a three-year phase of an increase in the minimum wage -- from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour by 2016.
Assembly members spent more than two hours debating the education, labor and family assistance bill, which included some of the more controversial pieces of the budget agreement: the minimum-wage hike and tweaks to the state's new gun-control law. Some lawmakers blasted the bill for what it didn't include -- a "DREAM Act" to allow illegal immigrants access to state tuition assistance.
The minimum-wage increase has been criticized by some lawmakers and advocacy groups because the state will provide tax breaks to employers, including big-box stores like Wal-Mart, that hire student workers aged 16 and 19.
Employers would receive between $1,560 to $2,808 in state tax breaks for every adult worker they replace with a young worker at the minimum wage, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a labor-backed think tank in Albany.
"What was initially billed as something that small business needed has turned out to be a blank check for the Wal-Marts of the world," James Parrott, the group's chief economist, said in a statement.
Lawmakers said the incentives would encourage companies to hire young workers, who have higher unemployment rates than other age groups, particularly in inner cities.
"There is very high unemployment among young people, particularly among young African Americans, and this is an effort to try to create some incentives to hire them," said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, D-Irondequoit, Monroe County.
Some lawmakers said they are concerned it could put older employees out of work.
"I'm very concerned about older workers, who are working minimum wage (jobs), like in our supermarkets in Yonkers -- people who need additional income," said Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers. "They can't be supplanted. That would be manifestly unjust for them to lose out."
Proponents of the rebate check said families with incomes of less than $40,000 were not included in the rebate program because they typically don't pay income taxes.
But Frank Mauro, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, said there may be as many 400,000 dependents in families who make less than $40,000, based on 2009 state income tax data, the most recent available.
"I don't think there is a justification for leaving out people under $40,000 if they meet the other criteria," Mauro said.
Some Democratic lawmakers said the $350 million to fund the rebate checks for each of the next three years should go to other state programs. They pointed to the $90 million in cuts planned for services for people with developmental disabilities.
"I think it's reprehensible that we have this in the budget," said Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, Westchester County. "I understand it's a compromise to get more money for our schools and other important items. But it's political gimmickry at its worst, and I'm embarrassed and ashamed that it's in this year's budget."
Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, D-Mount Pleasant, Westchester County, said he has an autistic child, and the cuts to the developmental disabled is a slap at people who need help. The budget initially cut $120 million in services for the disabled; the Legislature restored $30 million. Lawmakers are hopeful a federal grant can help reduce the service cuts.
Abinanti called the reductions "Cuomo cuts," and he criticized the Democratic governor and the Senate for not restoring more aid and instead providing the rebate checks.
"The other house and the governor sold out people with special needs for that check," Abinanti said.
Assembly Republicans proposed an amendment to restore the funding, though, and it was rejected by the Democratic-led chamber.
Senate Republicans, who pushed for the tax break, defended the measure and knocked Silver for trying to distance himself from it. The budget also extends a small middle-class income-tax cut that was installed in 2009.
"We're happy to take credit for providing meaningful tax relief to middle-class families with children, because it was Senate Republicans who introduced it, advocated for it and insisted that it be part of the enacted budget," said Scott Reif, a Senate GOP spokesman.
The approval of the state budget will be the third year in a row a budget was adopted on time, a first since 1984. The state went 20 years without an on-time budget, but Cuomo has made it a priority to get a deal done by the April 1 deadline since he took office in 2011.
"I think it's refutable proof that government is working. Is it perfect? No, but is it functioning and performing? Yes," Cuomo said Wednesday on a radio show.
Cuomo is expected to tour the state next week to tout the budget agreement.