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PATAKI PLAN CUTS AID TO SOCIAL PROGRAMS

Setting the stage for a bitter battle with the Legislature, Gov. Pataki on Wednesday offered a slow-growth budget plan for the coming year that will reduce money for health-care programs for the poor, cut tuition help for college students and give public schools one of the smallest aid increases in years.

The plan was immediately assailed by educators, welfare groups, hospital officials, students and, most importantly, legislators who will now consider the governor's $72.66 billion budget submission over the coming months.

"Today we declare without hesitation -- and with greater clarity than ever before -- that New Yorkers' hard-fought earnings belong to them and not the government," Pataki said in unveiling his 1999-2000 budget plan.

For Western New York, the proposal means a sharply lower aid increase for most public schools than they received last year.

The governor, as promised earlier, committed $5 million to create a new biotechnology research facility to be run by the University at Buffalo and Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Spending will continue, also, for Roswell Park's modernization project, which the budget says will be finished in October.

The Darwin D. Martin House, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building in the Parkside neighborhood, will get $2.5 million to help with restoration.

And UB will also take over from a state agency the responsibilities, and the $805,000 budget, for running the state's Research Center on Addictions.

Funding for other specific programs, from the arts to community groups, won't be known until a budget is finalized.

While some cities were complaining of the governor failing to include in his budget package an increase in state revenue sharing aid, Buffalo was given an extra $7.5 million in funding. The extra money comes after Mayor Masiello's endorsement of the GOP governor last fall.

The mood at the Capitol between last year, when a big spending hike was proposed, and Wednesday was stunning. Within minutes after the governor unveiled his plan, vast portions of it were already being declared dead-on-arrival, even by some of his closest allies.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, Pataki's chief booster in the Legislature, praised the overall goal of the austere budget, but called it "idealist."

Bruno said he was "not satisfied" with Pataki's education aid proposals, which would raise education spending by $154 million, or 1.3 percent from this year, following $1.5 billion in aid hikes the past two years combined.

He also suggested there would be changes to Pataki's plan to cut tuition assistance, as well as sharp reductions for health-care facilities that treat Medicaid patients.

The Legislature's top Democrat, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan, said the budget, which holds overall spending to 1.8 percent, "is unacceptable." Silver mocked Pataki's portrayal of the spending plan as "family-friendly."

"It's family friendly if you don't have 4-year-olds, if you don't have health care, if you don't have children in college," he said.

As already leaked in the past week, the budget will cut personal income and business taxes by nearly $1 billion. However, little of that will happen in the coming fiscal year and most don't kick in until 2002 or 2003.

The governor also proposed using 75 percent of the first five years' worth of tobacco settlement funds -- worth about $1.5 billion -- to reduce state debt.

Health groups derided the plan, and said it should be spent on reducing smoking rates and helping provide coverage for 3.2 million New Yorkers without health insurance.

But it was the sharp turn in spending from the past couple years that drove the heated reactions on Wednesday.

"It's not enough," State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills said of Pataki's $154 million aid increase for public schools.

The Board of Regents says a hike of at least $885 million is needed to help students prepare -- with things like hiring extra teachers and creating special math or science labs -- for the state's program of toughening high school graduation requirements.

Mills and others also were concerned the governor was cutting last year's commitment to have Albany fund a program to make prekindergarten an option for all schools.

They worry Pataki's new block grant program to fund various school programs will not be enough to cover the already-promised pre-K expansion.

Mills said the Regents also would fight to block Pataki's plan to remove the policy-setting group from some of the higher education oversight powers it has now.

The governor also proposed cutting the Tuition Assistance Program by $114 million -- more than 20 percent -- by penalizing college students who take too long to graduate.

"It shouldn't take you six years to go through college," Pataki said.

His proposal would also require students to pay for 25 percent of their college costs on their own in order to get a TAP award, up from the current 10 percent.

But critics, including Bruno, said the plan could hit hard those who work and go to college on the side, as well as poorer students.

"These cuts are substantial. The SUNY system was intended to be a system where students received the highest quality education at an affordable price -- a price working families could afford, without sacrificing their dreams or the dreams of their children. This governor's agenda destroys that possibility," said Assemblyman Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga.

The governor's plan also calls for the construction of a new, 1,500-bed prison; last year, the town of Friendship in Allegany County was among the list of possible sites before a Finger Lakes area was chosen.

It also proposes expanding the number of residential beds for developmentally disabled individuals, along with increased funding for environmental programs, day care slots and creation of new charter schools.

But the plan reduces state aid for highway and road construction and rehabilitation. It cuts family planning money. And the budget for the new, Democratic Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, was reduced by $450,000 from last year's amount, when the office was run by Republican Dennis C. Vacco. Spitzer aides said they weren't upset and were hopeful the money would be restored.

And, in what will be a major battle at the Capitol, the Pataki plan would cut $233 million in state aid for Medicaid programs for poor people. When federal and local dollars are factored in under the Medicaid funding formula, the real cut will approach $1 billion from present levels.

Assembly Democrats said that would increase by another $800 million because Pataki included other Medicaid cuts already slated to end this year.

Daniel Sisto, president of the Healthcare Association of New York, which represents 220 hospitals, said it's likely some hospitals will be forced to close if Pataki's Medicaid plan is adopted. He said because of the relatively high Medicaid population in Western New York, its health care facilities would be particularly hard hit.

Even Bruno, who said he wouldn't mind if more hospitals are forced to merge, said he had a "concern as to the severity" of the Medicaid cuts.

While the governor touts his tax-cutting ways, a number of lobbyists were grumbling that the budget contains a number of increased fees on businesses.

Public hearings will begin next week on a budget that, by law, must be adopted by April 1 -- a deadline not met in the past 14 years.

And while Pataki was pushing his fiscally conservative demands, he backed off from a budget demand he set-And lived up to- last year by vowing to veto any extra money the Legislature slapped onto his final spending tally.

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