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GOP ploy claimed in battle for State Senate Union's role linked to school funding

The State Senate's top Democrat is accusing Senate Republicans of offering to block any cuts to education in an upcoming emergency special budget session in return for campaign help from a powerful teachers union.

"It's very low," Senate Minority Leader Malcolm A. Smith of Queens said of what he termed Republican maneuvering for the support of the New York State United Teachers.

The union has remained neutral in the increasingly nasty battle for control of the State Senate.

In an interview, Smith called the maneuver "pure politics" and said it crossed the line by trying to use the state's budget crisis to affect the outcome of the November elections.

Senate Republican leaders denied making any offer to the teachers union.

But Richard C. Iannuzzi, the union's president, said the union's board of directors is being polled this week to determine if it wants to break its neutrality and endorse candidates in Senate races where it had planned to stay neutral.

John McArdle, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, chalked up Smith's comments to "more ranting and railing, more sour grapes."

The two parties are battling feverishly in more than a half-dozen districts, including three in the Buffalo area, to determine control the Senate. The victor gets a seat at the table with the governor and Assembly majority leader in running state government.

In August, the teachers union, which has one of the strongest political operations in the state, took the rare step of withholding endorsements of 36 senators seeking re-election. All had incurred its wrath by voting in August to limit annual increases in local property taxes, which the union says would lead to cuts in education spending. The Assembly has not taken up the issue.

The move affected every incumbent Republican senator and has kept the union's influence out of hotly contested races this fall, even though it has a campaign bankroll of $7.2 million, according to the most recent filing with the state Elections Board.

It also has one of the most sophisticated computerized phone-calling operations in the state, which can speed dial voters on behalf of candidates. On Election Day, it can provide crucial foot soldiers to help candidates get voters to the polls.

Since August, Iannuzzi said, the union has made no donations in any Senate district where it withheld its endorsement or to the chief fundraising committees for the Senate Republicans and Democrats.

Tuesday in Buffalo, Skelos made what union officials apparently interpret as his strongest statement yet against cutting school funding when lawmakers meet next month in an emergency session.The union, joined by school officials, has warned that cutting state aid during the school year would devastate classroom programs. The union made Skelos' statement in Buffalo the lead item on its Web site.

Sometime Tuesday after Skelos' Buffalo visit, Smith said he received a call -- he did not say from whom -- informing him that the union was considering reversing its no-endorsement decision.

"I got a call saying they were willing to break that [pledge]," Smith said, because Republicans were vowing to keep school funding intact.

Iannuzzi said that Skelos' statement in Buffalo had persuaded him to contact members of the union's board to determine whether it now should endorse Senate candidates.

The union, he said, still strongly opposes plan to limit the property tax increases. But "given the immediacy of potentially devastating midyear school cuts, we have to re-examine" the August decision to stay neutral, he said. Results of the board poll, taken Wednesday and today, could be announced by the weekend.

McArdle, Skelos' spokesman, said Republicans were "hearing very positive things" about the union's dropping its no-endorsement pledge -- a move that would disproportionately benefit Republican candidates.

To help close the deficit, Smith said Wednesday that Senate Democrats were preparing about $1.5 billion in cuts and other steps, including state agency mergers, early-retirement incentives for state workers and shifting money from state authorities to the state's general fund.

Smith, like other legislative leaders and Gov. David A. Paterson, has ruled out any tax increases. But so far Smith has not ruled out school aid cuts. "I think everything is on the table," he said Wednesday.

McArdle said Skelos has been talking for a week or more about holding schools harmless from cuts. "So we haven't gone to anybody," he said of Smith's claims.

But, he quickly added, "If [the teachers union] wants to endorse us, it's probably because for all the reasons they've endorsed us in the past: We're going to represent their interests. We've done more for them than the Senate Democrats ever could."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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