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The new state budget: some progress, some compromise 

New York State’s new budget, passed during a marathon session in Albany on Sunday, includes a raft of progressive reforms. But like many budgets, it’s the result of a compromise where not everyone is completely happy.

The $175.5 billion dollar spending plan includes more money for schools, though not quite as much as the legislature had hoped for. There will be a $620 million dollar increase in what’s known as foundation aid, with a larger percentage directed to poorer schools. It brings the total school aid budget to nearly $28 billion dollars.

The budget increase could help the Rochester City School District fund programs that are facing cuts in the budget proposed by Interim Superintendent Daniel Lowengard. Among them are the district’s “community schools” and its school climate programs. In a press release this morning, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the new budget includes funding for New York State schools with those programs. Rochester school district officials haven’t said yet what the local impact will be.

The budget will also include criminal justice reforms, with a partial end to cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.

“This new policy will allow an estimated 90 percent of individuals who have been charged, but not yet convicted of a crime, to await trial outside of a jail cell,” Assembly member Harry Bronson said. That will lower the costs of incarceration and improve equality in the state’s criminal justice system, he said.

But the advocacy group JustLeadership said that the reform doesn’t go far enough. Some defendants will still have to post money bail in order to be released while they await trial, continuing the discrimination against the poor, a JustLeadership statement said. The new legislation “is a far cry from the transformative bail reform New Yorkers demand and deserve,” the advocacy group said.

The budget also changes the discovery rules so that defendants can find out earlier what evidence a prosecutor has against them. And the law will now guarantee a speedy trial for defendants, with misdemeanors to be resolved in 90 days and felonies within 180 days.

The budget restores $550 million dollars to Medicaid programs, initially cut by Governor Andrew Cuomo in his original budget, but restored in his 30-day amendments to the spending plan.

To help pay for those items, new taxes will be imposed on Internet sales and prescription opioid drugs. Two to three upstate prisons will be closed, the locations to be determined later.

The temporary 2 percent per year property tax cap will be made permanent.

“Sadly, the new state budget is a reflection of Albany’s brokenness," County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo said in a statement this morning. "It spends too much, taxes too much, does nothing to grow jobs, and is woefully out of touch with Upstate communities like ours.”

The budget includes a 5 percent increase to the reimbursement rate for some child Early Intervention services, but the increase is inadequate, Dinolfo said.

The budget also includes a ban on many single-use plastic bags, making New York one of the first to do that.  It exempts plastic bags used by grocers to wrap meat, for instance, for restaurant takeout, and those sold in bulk, such as freezer bags and leaf bags.

Counties will have the option of charging a 5 cents per bag fee on paper bags. If counties opt in, they can keep some of the money, but they would have to provide bags for free to low-income residents. In her statement, Dinlfo said “the state’s new ‘bag tax’ is an insult to every New York family, which is why I will be opting Monroe County out.”

Wegmans, which opposed a ban on plastic bags, offered tempered criticism.

“Our thinking on this issue has always been the same: reusable bags are the best way to solve the challenges of single-use checkout bags, and a growing number of our customers are opting to use them,” Wegmans spokesperson Jo Natale said in a statement. “A plastic bag ban that doesn’t also address the use of paper bags is not a sustainable solution. Just one implication, and there are others: It takes seven tractor trailers to transport the same number of paper bags as plastic bags carried by one tractor trailer.”

The budget provides money to help the state and local election boards implement reforms that the legislature approved earlier this year. Those include early voting and online registration.

The budget also creates a commission to study whether New York should adopt a public finance system for statewide elections. Governor Cuomo had pushed for the issue, and Democrats who lead the Senate were receptive. But Assembly Democrats had reservations.

Government reform advocates, including Lawrence Norden of NYU’s Brennan Center, says that falls short.

“I don’t see the need for a study commission,” said Norden, who said it would be a “missed opportunity and a failure.”

Some items did not, in the end, make it into the state budget, including a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana for adults. Cuomo said there are still a lot of unresolved questions, including who receives the licenses to produce and distribute the product , what level of revenues to set, and whether the taxes would go to a reparation fund for communities adversely affected by the decades-long prohibition.

“In concept we have agreement,” said Cuomo. “But that is all about the devil is in the details.”

Cuomo says he hopes to finalize a plan on that and many other items, in the second half of the legislative session.

Roc NORML officers said the Legislature and Governor’s office have repeatedly heard from New Yorkers that cannabis legalization must address social justice concerns and avoid a cannabis economy where large businesses “thrive to the detriment of small business.”

“Focusing on social justice and small business will allow those communities that have been devastated by the failed war on drugs to participate in the cannabis economy and attempt to right the wrongs of the past,” the Roc NORML statement said. “The longer New York waits, the less likely those goals will come to fruition. In the meantime, communities will continue to see their members arrested, prosecuted and jailed for cannabis related offenses.”

Jeremy Moule and Mary Anna Towler contributed to the reporting for this article.

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