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Silver weighs in on state deficit

The State Legislature's top Democrat believes far fewer dollars have to be cut from the 2008 budget than the $2 billion Gov. David A. Paterson is seeking from lawmakers when they return next month for an emergency session.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said he believes the Legislature has to address about $1.2 billion in spending. Whether that comes from cuts or some combination of other actions is uncertain at this point, he said Tuesday.

"I believe at this point we're probably looking at about a $1.2 billion hole," Silver said.

"The governor is saying two [billion dollars]. I obviously respect the governor," Silver said, noting that there is still nearly six months left in the fiscal year.

The governor's budget office last week said the state budget is facing a $1.2 billion deficit in the current year's budget that began in April.

Shortly after, however, Paterson said he believes the nation's economic problems will add another $800 million in red ink to the $1.2 billion estimate from his own budget aides. New York is particularly sensitive to the economic downturn because of its heavy reliance on revenues from Wall Street activity.

In a meeting with Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on Friday, Paterson said he wanted lawmakers back on Nov. 18 to cut $2 billion. He sought to make a case that it would be far less painful to make the cuts now than later in the fiscal year, which ends March 31.

But Silver's words Tuesday suggest Paterson has much convincing to do with his former colleagues in the Legislature. The one thing the sides have ruled out is a tax increase to cover the deficit. That leaves spending cuts, but it also could push lawmakers to consider less politically painful alternatives, such as "re-estimating" spending, borrowing or some other means.

Asked if he thought the $1.2 billion the Assembly is willing to consider at the special session should be all spending cuts, Silver said, "I think we'll put our collective heads together on Nov. 18 and see how we do."

One area the Legislature is trying to avoid cutting is public education. State budget officials say the state so far has sent $3.6 billion to New York's 700 school districts out of an aid package this year that will total $21.4 billion. On its face, that would suggest school spending could be a target for cutbacks.

But Silver said cutting public school aid would be "difficult to do" since teachers already have been hired and cutting aid during the middle of the school year could hurt instructional programs already under way. Still, he said, "I'm not ruling anything out. I'm not ruling anything in."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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