The $105.4 billion deal, reached last Thursday, averts Medicaid cuts and adds some money for education, but does not fully address rising health care costs borne by local governments or make any headway toward addressing a court ruling that the city school system has been financially shortchanged for years."There were several issues, large and small, that had to be set aside in order to complete this budget in a timely manner," state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) said.Still, the accord marked a turnaround from last year's struggle, when the budget was not passed until Aug. 11, the latest date for its approval in state history. Last Thursday's agreement also followed a report issued in 2004 by New York University's Law School that called the state Legislature the most dysfunctional in the country, making an on-time budget an important issue to voters."Like the budget process itself, this spending plan isn't perfect," said state Sen. George Onorato (D-Long Island City), referring to criticism that decisions in the past have been made behind closed doors by Gov. George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Rensselaer). "But for now, I'm just glad that I was able to cast my first vote for an on-time state budget since 1984."In health care, the Legislature agreed to restore cuts Pataki had proposed that would have affected Medicaid recipients and those enrolled in programs for low-income workers. But while the growth rate of Medicaid costs for counties was curbed, it was not capped, and the exact details of forming a state commission to examine possible hospital closings was not worked out."The reality is that New York is merely putting off some hard decisions that are going to have to be made in order to keep Medicaid's safety net in place for the neediest New Yorkers," Stavisky said.In education, the Legislature added an additional $322 million to the governor's proposals for city schools and changed the way building projects are funded, leaving the state responsible for half the costs. But a successful lawsuit asserting that city schools have been shortchanged and are owed billions of dollars, a sticking point in last year's delay, was largely set aside this go-around.Mayor Michael Bloomberg congratulated the Legislature on passing an on-time budget, but said "one particular disappointment is Albany's continued failure to address their court-mandated responsibility to fund the settlement of the CFE lawsuit." For higher education, there will be no tuition increases in the state's and city's university systems and financial aid programs will continue.In transportation, the budget provides $17.9 billion for system improvements for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. And from the revenue side, an extended sales tax on apparel under $110 will bring in more money to city coffers, but will affect those "who can least afford it," Stavisky said.Pataki has until Tuesday, April 12, to issue any budget vetoes, and he has said the agreement still needs work. Legislators must still discuss another proposed $1.5 billion for welfare, construction projects for colleges, safeguards for the environment and a reform of the election system that was left out of the initial deal."Now is the time to take up these issues and build on the spirit of bipartisanship and good will that was forged during budget negotiations," Stavisky said of the $1.5 billion and other unresolved concerns.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@times
©2005 Community News Group
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