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HOPES FADE ON PASSAGE OF STATE BUDGET TALKS APPARENTLY STALLED; 7,000 AT CAPITOL PROTEST PATAKI CUTBACKS

As nearly 7,000 people rallied Monday at the State Capitol in a three-hour protest against Gov. Pataki's proposed budget, progress toward adopting a budget seemed to have ground to a halt.

The budget may still be many weeks, and possibly months, away from passage by the Legislature. Senate and Assembly leaders Monday conceded they have no hope of passing a budget by Saturday, the constitutional deadline for budget adoption.

Leaders of both chambers added they would be approving different versions of the budget this week -- something that hasn't happened since 1981.

Also Monday, Pataki and legislative Republicans said they had reached agreement on a new state budget. But the announcement was viewed as a tactic to pressure Democrats who control the Assembly.

Pataki offered few details of a deal that would add $335 million in spending to the budget he proposed last month. At the same time, he conceded it is unlikely the Legislature would adopt a budget by the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.

Their announcement seemed to mean that substantive budget negotiations by all sides have all but broken down.

Monday's rally by state employees, State University of New York students, AIDS activists and others was the largest this year to condemn Pataki's proposed budget cuts.

But State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno was unimpressed.

"The people who yell and holler don't represent the great majority of the people of this state," said Bruno, R-Brunswick.

Most New Yorkers "support the governor, and they support his budget, and they're going to support what we're going to do with the governor," he said.

Senate Republicans are planning to vote on their version of the state budget, one that will be endorsed by Pataki, by the end of the week, Bruno said. Assembly Democrats are planning to act on at least one budget bill -- legislation to carry out large capital projects.

The Senate and Assembly had been making progress in producing a single capital-projects bill, but those talks broke off Saturday. Democrats claim Republican leaders forced Bruno to back away from any plan that raised state spending too high, while Republicans blamed the Democrats for refusing to budge on any other part of the budget.

Bruno said the constitutional deadline of having a budget in place will be missed because Assembly Democrats want to spend too much money. Bruno conceded that Republicans also want to spend more money than Pataki originally proposed, but he rejected claims the GOP wants to increase spending nearly as much as the Democrats.

How the Assembly would spend money has not been revealed publicly. However, that likely would change if Assembly Democrats produce their own version of the state budget. So far, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, has said he plans only to approve the capital-projects bill.

Budget strategies on both sides of the political fence were not affected by the Monday rally, Democrats and Republicans agreed. While small groups of protesters met with legislators, the crowd was kept away from both the Senate and Assembly chambers.

About 200 state police, Albany police and other police officers were posted throughout the Capitol area. The rally was peaceful.

"I recognize that a rally a day doesn't really affect" the budget process, said Danny Donohue, president of the state Civil Service Employees Association. "But there are a lot of people hiding in bathrooms up there right now, and when we leave they'll say, 'Well they're gone,' " he said, pointing at the Capitol.

"We are going to go home to every town, village, school district, to their churches, to their civic associations, to their diners to tell people this budget's wrong," Donohue said.

Pataki was not in Albany during the rally.

But, Donohue said, "(Pataki) can't go far enough not to hear the sounds."

Craig Walek, an engineer in the Western New York region of the state Department of Transportation, took note of the governor's absence.

"I'm a little angry because you can't exactly stand (here) and not want him to hear our point" of view, he said.

Walek was among about 200 Western New Yorkers at the rally.

Another was Richard Gresch, 51, a social worker at West Seneca Developmental Center, who could be laid off despite 27 years of service to the state. Because of a quirk in the state Civil Service law, Gresch won't be able to move to another job despite his seniority.

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