Capitol Watch: Budget, Uber and college tuition

ALBANY — Talks over the state budget are heating up, with decisions on college tuition assistance and Uber’s upstate expansion looming.

The Republican-led Senate and the Democrat-controlled Assembly are in broad agreement with many of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s key proposals this year. Now they’re negotiating the details as they near April 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

Here’s a look at what’s coming up in the week ahead, and the main issues to be decided in the budget:

College tuition

Cuomo made his free college tuition plan a cornerstone of the $152 billion state budget proposal he unveiled in January. It would make state college or university tuition — but not room and board — free for students from families who make up to $125,000.

The Assembly and Senate have endorsed similar plans — though they would also extend additional assistance to students at private colleges too.

The broad consensus indicates the budget is almost certain to include more money to address the rising cost of college. Critics have said Cuomo’s plan doesn’t contain enough help for the poorest students or for graduates struggling with debt. Private colleges, meanwhile, oppose any plan they say could hurt their recruiting.

“This is a critical step forward in our efforts to build up our workforce, remain competitive in the global economy, support the middle class, and create a more prosperous New York for all,” Cuomo said of his plan, which he predicts could prompt similar free-tuition proposals elsewhere in the nation.

Uber and Lyft

The two app-based ride-hailing services are now operating throughout the nation — except in pockets like parts of Alaska and upstate New York, leaving residents and visitors in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse punching their smartphones in dismay.

Uber and Lyft are backing expansion proposals supported by Cuomo and the state Senate but are criticizing the Assembly’s version, saying it would create confusion local regulations and impose expensive insurance requirements.

“If this isn’t an effort to kill ridesharing, I don’t know what is,” said Republican Sen. Chris Jacobs of Buffalo.

The taxi industry has successfully fought off expansion proposals in the past, but even critics of Uber say they expect the expansion to pass sooner or later.

Juvenile justice reform

Democrats want the budget to include language ending the state’s practice of prosecuting and incarcerating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. New York and North Carolina are now the only two states that do so.

The Assembly and Cuomo have long supported the change, which so far has fallen flat in the Senate. Advocates are optimistic this year, however, because Senate Republicans have signaled their willingness to include it in budget negotiations.

Three men in a room

It’s one of Albany’s oldest and most loathed traditions: closed-door budget negotiations between the Senate leader, Assembly speaker and governor. And it will soon be underway again as Senate Leader John Flanagan, R-Long Island, Heastie and Cuomo retreat to hammer out a deal before April 1.

“We’re going to try as best we can over the next two weeks to try to get a budget done,” Heastie said.