FISCAL PLAN NOWHERE IN SIGHT - The Buffalo News

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FISCAL PLAN NOWHERE IN SIGHT

Already seven weeks late, the fiscal plan to guide New York State's government is no closer to enactment than it was when Gov. Pataki first proposed his $66 billion spending plan in January.

Monday, the public scrambling appeared focused on adjusting legislative schedules to accommodate a Capitol visit by the New York Yankees.

"I got Dwight Gooden's autograph," said one top lobbyist as a handful of the ballplayers headed into the Senate chamber after a bipartisan photo session.Down the hall, the Assembly was busy passing a series of bills, most of which faced certain legislative death.

Meanwhile, for the 13th straight year, school districts around the state are again being forced to ask residents to vote on spending plans without knowing how much state aid is coming their way.

Property-tax relief is on hold, as are a number of education-reform plans. And what to do about moving welfare recipients to work is still bogged down.

Over the weekend, a new plan of sorts began to emerge to deal with the tardy budget: Approval of a series of so-called continuing resolutions to keep the government running for the next several months.

The government has been operating on an emergency basis since the April 1 fiscal year began so that funding for everyone from state
workers to Medicaid recipients continues uninterrupted.

But this new plan could delay final implementation of the budget, possibly into the fall, with some speculating the government could run on a contingency basis for the rest of the year.

Pataki would not rule out embracing a long-term contingency budget, but insisted his goal was to forge an agreement by June 20, when the current emergency budget bill expires.

"When and if we are faced with the question of doing that, we will look at it," Pataki said.

"I can't imagine a worse signal to the young people of New York than if this governor and legislators decided to just refuse to do their jobs," said Louis Grumet, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. "We'd be the only state in the nation to decide not to do a budget."

Observers note the sides appear to be more deadlocked than in past years, in part because there is more money than anticipated.

The governor has said there is about $1.4 billion more to spend than he estimated in January; Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, puts the number closer to $2 billion.

"It is appalling to me that a state awash in dollars is either embarrassed or afraid or lacking in vision to know how to spend them," Grumet said.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, said there haven't been any formal discussions on letting the government continue to run on an emergency basis. Asked if he thought it was a bad idea, Bruno would only say: "We want to govern. That's what's important."

Privately, Democrats say they would cherish Pataki letting the government run by continuing resolution, noting it would become an issue of leadership in next year's elections. But some also worried that Pataki could use the route as a way to build a surplus for next year during his bid for a second term.

"I would rather do a budget," Silver insisted.

He said a year without a budget would likely prevent the passage of a clothing sales tax exemption, which he is pushing, or several reform ideas floating about to reform prekindergarten education.

Assembly Minority Leader Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Springville, said nothing has happened on the budget because the sides can't agree on available revenues and there has been no resolution to the rent-control issue, which affects more than 2 million tenants, mostly in New York City.

That law expires June 15, which has become sort of an unofficial deadline for the budget talks, since the two issues have been molded together by the sides.

Reynolds said that since the the sides are so deeply split over the budget and rent control, "neither the speaker nor governor are showing an anxiousness to put together a full-court press on the budget."

One thing legislators are pushing, however, is fund-raisers.

A government-reform coalition reported Monday that 180 fund-raisers have been held or scheduled this year by state office holders, mostly legislators. That's up from 172 during 1996.

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