The state budget finalized just after midnight on April 1st is notable for many reasons, but perhaps more so for the Bronx because of the rise of the new assembly speaker.
Representing a district in the northern reaches of the borough, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie completed his first budget negotiations with Senate leaders and the governor as the leader of the conference.
“This is a very good budget for the Bronx,” said the speaker, who in an interview highlighted increased state aid to education with about a half-billion dollars more coming to city public schools.
Heastie adding that this increase includes almost $3 million for a handful of schools that have been struggling for more than ten years. As part of this funding, there should be tutoring, longer school days, mental hygiene and social services, as well as Saturday programming at the schools.
As part of a widely reported $5.4 billion settlement fund from large financial institutions that will go to fund infrastructure projects around New York State, appropriations were made specifically for new Metropolitan Transportation Authority Metro-North stations in the Bronx, a fact that Heastie highlighted.
Senator Jeff Klein said that the $250 million in the budget, earmarked for the four new Metro-North stations in Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point, was part of an effort he help spearhead, along with Heastie and Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., the project into the MTA Capital Plan.
It is very rare, he added, that MTA appropriations for capital projects like the stations be included in the budget before they are listed in the capital plan, but that is what happened with the new commuter train stops.
“Now it is going to happen and it is going to happen a lot quicker,” said the senator adding “I think this is going to be a game-changer for those communities. While in the past it takes probably about an hour for people go to Manhattan to work, they are going to be able to get to Penn Station in 18 to 20 minutes.”
The new stations will also afford people the opportunity to commute to jobs in Westchester and Connecticut, he said.
The budget also includes roughly $200,000 in funding for the Bronx Help Identify Real Employment program, said Klein. That program links those seeking jobs with real opportunities and education.
Even though, according to published reports, the Assembly finished working on the budget several hours after midnight, Speaker Heastie said it was an on-time budget “because all of the bills that dealt with the appropriation of government services were done before midnight.”
Both Klein and Speaker Heastie indicated that they believe that raising the minimum wage is also doable as they look towards the upcoming legislative session following the budget. It was not taken up in the budget.
“We are not giving up and that remains one of the top priorities for the assembly,” said Heastie of a possible minimum wage hike.
Klein also listed property tax relief as one of his priorities.
Even though he is not a state official, in a statement Councilman James Vacca praised the budget passed by the legislature and Governor Cuomo, lauding their efforts in funding the Metro-North stations and a plan to increase broadband Internet access.