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THE BUDGET CRISIS DECIDING ON CUTS IS NO-WIN SITUATION FOR STATE LAWMAKERS

State lawmakers return to Albany this week with a billion-dollar headache. They have to balance the state budget without new taxes, borrowing or financial gimmicks they've relied upon in the past.

The biggest question is who gets hurt the most as they deal with Gov. Cuomo's plan to cut $1 billion.

Will it be school districts across the state, which stand to lose $200 million under the Cuomo plan -- including $1.87 million in Buffalo?

And will the wealthier, suburban and mostly Republican districts targeted by Cuomo lose the most?

Will it be the state work force, which would be hit with 2,000 layoffs by March, another 8,000 next year and a mandatory five-day furlough under the Cuomo plan?

Or will it be local governments that could lose $45 million in revenue sharing?

The poor who would lose dental coverage and other Medicaid benefits?

Hospital patients, prisoners, or rural residents whose roads might not be plowed or highway lights turned on at night?

Politicians elected by making voters happy have only no-win decisions facing them.

"It's a lose-lose situation," said Assemblyman Francis Pordum, D-Hamburg.

About the only ones who may not lose anything in this budget crunch are the lawmakers themselves.

While the state's 240,000 workers might have to take an unpaid Cuomo furlough, legislative leaders are slow to embrace a furlough for themselves or their employees.

And while state workers providing essential services here and elsewhere around the state face layoffs, there is no such worry for the legislative staff in Albany.

"No layoffs are anticipated," John McArdle, a spokesman for state Senate Majority Leader Ralph Marino, said of the legislative staff.

How did the lawmakers find themselves in another budget mess?

For state legislators and the governor, good politics has meant spending money and cutting taxes.

Those politics helped re-elect the governor and all but a handful of the Legislature's 210 members this year. But a massive tax decrease in 1987, accelerated spending since and a genreral economic slowdown in the Northeast have led to the third budget gap in as many years.

A fourth deficit -- estimated at $3 billion by State Comptroller Edward V. Regan -- is expected next year. It's partly because of the financial gimmicks used to avoid the decisions that most politicians consider bad politics: raising taxes and cutting spending.

This year, there's been plenty of "bad" politics.

Taxes and fees were raised by $1.8 million in May, and the Legislature returns Monday to consider Cuomo's plan to cut $1 billion in state spending.

"When you're talking about a deficit, you're talking about people who have to be laid off," Pordum said, referring to the governor's plan to lay off 2,000 workers by April. "I think it's very difficult to think there's anything politically expedient that you can gain out of this."

Instead, legislators appear intent on minimizing the political damage to themselves and to such important constituents as schools and hospitals.

In fact, some sources in the Republican-controlled Senate declared that most of the governor's plan should be approved intact. Then, those Republicans argued, the governor would be blamed for the bad politics of cutting spending and jobs.

"I think that was an automatic reaction," said Sen. John Daly, R-Lewiston. "Legislators were saying, 'This is what he wants? Give it to him.' Then you step back and you realize you're torn right in half with these (cuts),'" Daly said.

"Personally, I lean to passing what the governor wants and going. But that ain't going to happen," Daly said.

Cuomo has warned that his plan cannot save the full $1 billion unless it is enacted this week. In fact, all sides agree that the state's options are limited, since taxes and borrowing have been ruled out.

So, many of Cuomo's cuts are likely to be approved. For instance, legislators do not seem as interested in stopping the proposed 10 percent cut in state aid to municipalities, including a $4.6 million cut to Buffalo.

And while lawmakers argue how to make the school-aid cuts, there seems to be little disagreement about the amount Cuomo suggests -- $200 million.

But a few battles are probable, especially over state aid to schools and hospitals.

For the schools, Cuomo's cuts range from $400 per pupil in the wealthiest district to $20 a pupil in the poorest. Senate Republicans would like to even out the disparity, but rural lobbyists, including the New York Farm Bureau, argue that across-the-board cuts would hurt New Yorkers in rural districts the hardest.

Cuomo's plans to cut Medicaid spending has run into trouble with already fiscally sick hospitals and their powerful representatives. The first hint of a new tax -- on patient revenues brought in by hospitals and nursing homes -- already is being discussed in Albany.

So battle lines are being drawn: poor school districts versus wealthier ones; state workers versus state management; programs sponsored by the governor versus programs supported by legislators; and the list goes on.

Most legislators say they don't expect an agreement to be reached immediately.

"Based on my years in Albany, nothing happens that simply," said Assemblyman William Hoyt, D-Buffalo. "And there are certain things I want to react to and I'm going to fight against some of the cuts," he said, mentioning parts of the hospital reductions, and the freeze on state contracts to local groups.

The Albany bureaucracy is the target of Sen. John R. Sheffer, the Williamsville Republican. Sheffer said he wants to cut as much spending as the governor, but the cuts -- particularly to state employees -- must be distributed fairly.

"In searching for cutbacks, bureaucracy should go before vital services," Sheffer wrote in a letter. "State employees actually providing a face-to-face service to residents should be the last to go, not the first."

The impact on Western New York from Cuomo's cuts will be as direct as fewer state roads plowed at night and as indirect as possible local tax hikes next year because state aid is cut for local schools and governments.

Specifically, the Buffalo and Gowanda psychiatric centers are being told to lay off 101 people -- 32 at Buffalo and 69 at Gowanda -- the hardest hit of any state agency in the region. Another 20 jobs will be lost through attrition.

If the layoffs come about, the Buffalo center will employ 1,097 people, down from 1,282 two years ago. During that same period, the number of residents has dropped by only 12, to 543.

Gowanda will lose even more staff. The state wants to reduce the number of workers to 649 from 724.

"We're trying to avoid any impact on patient care, but clearly the higher the numbers, the more adverse effect they will have," said C. Richard Orndoff, regional director of the state Office of Mental Health.

Virtually every state agency is targeted for layoffs or funding cuts.

In Buffalo, it could mean an end to the Crisis Prevention Unit at the state Division of Human Rights and the layoff of 11 workers. The cuts also could mean a shutdown of the state's Civil Service office in Buffalo, the only upstate branch outside of Albany. Local officials said nothing is official.

"Buffalo is going to feel this cut very severely," said state Sen. Anthony Masiello, D-Buffalo, "It's going to hurt in terms of both lost jobs and services."

Statewide, the prison system is expected to have about 700 layoffs but officials say the impact on individual prisons is not known at this time.

Cuomo's proposed belt-tightening will make it harder to have a good time in Western New York's winter weather this year.

At state parks in Erie and Niagara counties, access to some areas could be reduced and recreation programs will be cut, park officials said.

"It's going to have an impact," said Henry Bradowski, assistant regional parks director. "We will be cutting back on our recreational programs. We're reducing plowing and salting, and we're closing roads we normally would keep open during the winter months."

Cultural institutions in the Buffalo area are waiting to see what the impacts will be, as Cuomo moves to cut $45 million in "member items" that state legislatures use to pay for projects and programs within their districts.

Budget cutbacks could affect funding in other ways, as well -- cuts in revenue sharing and program reimbursements to local governments.

"Whether it comes from Albany or through reduction of support to the city or county, we'll still have to see how it works out," said Minot Ortolani, executive director of the Buffalo Zoo.

Also scheduled for a county funding reduction is the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. Executive Director William Siener testified in budget hearings this week that any cutbacks would mean scaling back plans.

"No one's happy with what we have to do here, and we have very little room to maneuver," said McArdle, spokesman for Senate Republicans.

Two-thirds of the state's fiscal year has passed and it has spent all but $8 billion of the state's $32 billion general fund.

"You're talking about $1 billion in cuts in the final three months of the fiscal year," McArdle said. "It's easier said than done."

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