- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - A long debate over whether New York should enact the highest minimum wage of any state is likely to be settled within days as lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo hammer out a deal on the state budget.

Cuomo’s plan to gradually raise the wage from $9-an-hour to $15 is the pivotal issue of the year in Albany and the focus of the ongoing, closed door budget talks expected to yield a grand political bargain before an April 1 deadline.

Other issues to be decided include funding for roads and bridges and competing tax plans from the Democratic-led Assembly and the GOP-controlled Senate.

“Clearly we have differences that I think at the end of the day will be resolved,” said Senate Leader John Flanagan.

The fate of two other items looks to be already decided. A proposal to allow workers to take paid time off to care for a new child or sick loved one appears headed for passage, while efforts to address state government corruption will once again be left out of the budget.

Here’s a look at where the most important issues stand as lawmakers work toward a compromise:

MINIMUM WAGE

Cuomo’s proposal would phase-in the $15 wage over several incremental increases beginning this year. The $15 wage would be fully implemented at the end of 2018 in New York City and in mid-2021 elsewhere, with the longer timeframe intended to help upstate businesses adjust.

Republicans worry the increase is too sharp and could force businesses, particularly small ones, to raise prices and lay off employees. As a compromise, they’ve suggested an even slower phase-in or exemptions allowing farmers, seasonal employers or small businesses to pay less than the minimum.

The wage is Cuomo’s top priority for the year, and some increase is all but guaranteed. Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, said he believes a compromise can be reached that balances the need to help low-wage workers with the concerns of business owners.

Business groups concerned about the sharp increase, however, say they don’t want a compromise - they want the proposal to fail.

“We know the issue is on the 1-yard line,” said Mike Durant, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “Maybe this deal falls apart.”

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PAID FAMILY LEAVE

The Democratic governor’s other big proposal of the year is a plan to allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid time off to care for a new child or sick loved one. The program would be funded through an employee payroll deduction that starts at less than $1 per week. The size of the benefit would be based on an employee’s wage, and capped at two-thirds of the state’s average wage, or about $800 using current figures.

The Assembly and Senate have both advanced similar proposals in their own budget proposals. While there’s some continuing debate over the details, that’s a significant indication that the proposal will be included in the final budget.

Currently, Rhode Island, California and New Jersey are the only states to offer paid family leave, but similar programs are the norm in other nations.

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TRANSPORTATION FUNDING

Cuomo’s $145 billion budget proposal called for $26 million in investments in roads and bridges. Though Cuomo has promised the state will contribute $8.3 billion toward the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s $29 billion modernization plan, that money isn’t in his proposed budget.

The lack of actual funding for the MTA hasn’t stopped upstate lawmakers from complaining that Cuomo is overly generous to the city when it comes to transportation funding. They want greater investments in aging infrastructure in the upstate, even as downstate transit advocates seek real funding commitments for the MTA.

“Gov. Cuomo is proposing to put real cash into highways and roads and bridges, but the MTA is just getting an IOU,” said John Raskin, director of the Riders Alliance.

Cuomo also wants to use money from legal settlements with financial institutions to help pay for the $4 billion Tappan Zee Bridge replacement and a plan to give toll credits to frequent Thruway users. The credits, however, aren’t in the budget proposals from the Assembly and Senate.

“Will it be a fair transportation program to all? Yes,” Cuomo said Friday.

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EDUCATION SPENDING

Cuomo proposed $1 billion in new school spending. The Senate has called for $1.7 billion and the Assembly wants $2.1.

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TAXES

The Senate plan includes a middle-class income tax cut that would reduce taxes by $3.5 billion when fully implemented in 2025. The Assembly would raise income taxes on millionaires, with the top rate rising 1 percent to 9.82 percent, while giving a modest tax cut to middle- and lower-income residents. Cuomo has offered $300 million in small business tax relief to help owners cope with the higher minimum wage; the Senate is calling for nearly $500 million in tax help for small businesses.

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ETHICS

Despite the convictions of the former Assembly speaker and Senate leader last year, lawmakers have been slow to act on ethics reforms. Cuomo proposed tighter campaign finance rules for limited liability companies and restrictions on how much money lawmakers can take from outside jobs.

The Assembly backs similar proposals, but the Senate has balked. Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said there may be time to consider reforms after the budget.

“There’s always been a discussion of the importance of ethics. It will continue,” Heastie said. “It won’t be in the budget. … We still have three more months while we’ll be up here in Albany to work out something on ethics.”

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