- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - This week in New York state government, lawmakers will put Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s free college tuition plan under the microscope and local officials from around the state launch another effort to make Albany pay for the public defender system.

The Assembly and Senate are set to begin hearings on Cuomo’s $152 billion budget proposal Tuesday. The first hearing is dedicated to higher education, and talk is likely to focus on the Democratic governor’s plan to make state university tuition free for students from families making less than $125,000.

Meanwhile, county officials, prosecutors and legal advocates will gather in Albany this week to kick off what they’re calling the Justice Equality Campaign, which aims to put the state in charge of paying for public defenders.

A guide to what’s coming up in the Capitol:

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TUITION PLAN IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Cuomo’s plan would make tuition to state colleges and universities free for students from families earning less than $125,000. Cuomo argues the benefits of reducing higher education costs would help the middle class and boost the economy and that the price tag - $163 million, a figure Cuomo has likened to a “rounding error” - is too good to pass up.

Republicans are promising tough questions. Senate Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, suspects the real cost of Cuomo’s program will be far higher. He’s also questioned whether free state university tuition could hurt private universities.

“We need to be taking a hard look at that,” he told reporters. “To me $163 million is a lot of money.”

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PAYING FOR PUBLIC DEFENDERS

In most of the state, the cost of the public defender system falls to counties, a policy that critics say leads to significant and unconstitutional inequalities because not all areas of the state have the same resources.

A bill to gradually shift the cost to the state passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Cuomo. The governor said that while he supported the goal of putting the state in charge of funding indigent defense, he said the bill went too far because it would have made the state pay for non-criminal cases too, such as legal services in family court.

Public defenders, civil liberties groups and many local officials say it’s imperative that the state fund the system to ensure poor people get the legal defense they are guaranteed.

Advocates say they’ll push to pass similar legislation this year - or get funding for public defenders in the state budget. They’ll meet Tuesday in Albany to kick off what they’re calling the Justice Equality Campaign.

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OBAMACARE REPEAL

Looming over this year’s budget is the impact of the likely repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

State figures estimate that more than 2.7 million New Yorkers would lose insurance coverage if the act is repealed. Counties around the state would lose $600 million in federal funding and the state budget would tak$3.7 billion hit if the law is dismantled.

Groups including the American Cancer Society, Citizen Action of New York and the Children’s Defense Fund will gather in Albany Monday to outline what a repeal will mean for New York, and how the state can prepare.

Cuomo said he discussed the potential impact with Republican President-elect Donald Trump during a meeting at Trump Tower on Wednesday.

“I wanted to make sure he had the New York state perspective from a budget point of view as he’s considering those federal issues,” Cuomo said. “I thought it was a good conversation.”

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LEGISLATURE EASES IN

The legislative session began Jan. 4 but lawmakers have so far been in Albany only five working days this year. They’ll return this week on Tuesday and Wednesday, their third-straight two-day week.

The pace won’t pick up until budget deliberations heat up in March. In February lawmakers are scheduled to be in Albany for only five days of the entire month.

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