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Inching closer to a new state budget, legislative leaders accomplished something on Tuesday that last year took them until mid-July to resolve: How much money they have to spend.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, also said they will try a new approach to settle remaining differences over how the taxpayers' money is to be spent.

After years of criticism about the closed-door nature of budget deliberations, Bruno and Silver said they are turning to an open, conference committee approach to enact a new budget.

"We are charting new waters," Silver said.

The sides, however, do not rule out that some things will still be settled in private. Moreover, while conference committees, by definition, mean all differences will be resolved in public by rank-and-file members of the Legislature, few at the Capitol doubt Bruno and Silver will so readily give up their control over the shaping of a $71 billion-plus budget.

In fact, the first conference budget committee meeting, scheduled for today, will include Bruno and Silver as participants.

All sides say privately that Albany could be on track to adopt a new budget within the next two to three weeks. The state's fiscal year starts April 1, a deadline sure to be missed again. Moreover, veteran Albany observers all say there are countless items -- big and minor -- that could still derail the process for weeks and months to come.

For starters, Pataki insisted Tuesday that the Legislature control any election year spending binges. "I will not approve a budget that spends one penny more than the one I proposed," Pataki said of his $71.6 billion spending plan.

Without being specific, however, Silver did not immediately embrace the governor's firm number.

Earlier, Bruno and Silver said they agreed there is an additional $1.2 billion that can be spent in the coming year's budget. Some of that is taken by re-estimating revenues Pataki proposed in his plan in January, or cutting some of the governor's spending ideas so the Legislature will have more to spend. It is the $1.2 billion number in so-called "avails" that took until July 17 last year to be resolved; the budget wasn't enacted until Aug. 4, the latest ever.

Individual conference committees, which rank-and-file lawmakers were jockeying to be named to Tuesday evening, could begin meeting by next week to resolve differences over everything from health-care spending to educational issues.

Theoretically, the conference committee approach should be cutting Pataki, the head of the executive branch, out of the process. But Pataki insisted Tuesday his views will be considered as the legislative panels get together. "We intend to be active participants," he said.

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