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Mega budget session awaits New York's Assembly

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (C) talks with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver about the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (C) talks with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver about the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement

By Cheryl Clark

ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - It took New York's state Senate two days and a marathon seven-hour "vampire" session that ended two hours before dawn on Wednesday to pass the state's $135 billion budget. Now the Assembly wants to do the same amount of work in a day as it aims to produce New York's third on-time budget in a row.

Starting the state's 2013-2014 fiscal year without a functioning budget on April 1 is not going to bring the trains to a grinding halt but getting it in on time is an important goal for lawmakers who are eager to show that years of dysfunction in the state capital Albany are a thing of the past.

State governor Andrew Cuomo inked a deal with lawmakers a week ago after days of closed door wrangling. His aim was to get the Senate and the Assembly to sign off on it last weekend in what he was touting as the earliest budget since 1976. But delays in printing bills and then religious holidays this week have turned it into another race against the clock.

Still, the Assembly seems confident it can pass the 10 separate bills that make up the budget when it reconvenes on Thursday, although it may turn into another marathon session. The state Assembly recessed before the weekend for Palm Sunday and the Jewish Passover holiday. Lawmakers will be out again for Good Friday at the end of the week.

"Our plan is to pass the budget on Thursday," said Michael Whyland, the spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The Senate ended its session at 4.32 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Senator Terry Gipson referred repeatedly to a bill he is sponsoring that would ban "vampire voting" between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.

As a package, the budget adheres to a self-imposed 2 percent cap on increased spending, raises the minimum wage incrementally to $9 an hour by the end of 2015; extends higher tax rates for millionaires and lower rates for the middle class that were to expire next year.

It also increases state funding for schools by $1 billion and creates a tax rebate program that will deliver $350 checks to a million middle-income families with children right before state elections in 2014.

Elizabeth Lynam, who follows New York's budget process for the Citizens Budget Commission, a budget watchdog, said she expects the Assembly to pass the budget on Thursday, even if it does go down to the wire.

"The late budget had become such a symbol of dysfunction that they got very sensitized to it, so it's important in terms of showing that there's a functional process," said Lynam.

Lynam recalls more than a decade of late budgets that often dragged on well into August. In 2001, the September 11 attacks on New York interrupted the process and meant the state went without a budget for the whole year, she said.

(Writing by Edward Krudy and Cheryl Clark; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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