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NO FUNDING COMES FROM LEGISLATIVE SESSION
COURT DEADLINE LOOMS; NO ACTION IS PLANNED

In the end, Thursday's extraordinary legislative session, ordered by Gov. George E. Pataki to resolve a stalemate over public school funding, ended up being rather ordinary.

Both legislative houses rejected the governor's proposed solution and quickly left town again.

The Assembly went so far as to bottle up Pataki's measure -- derided as a "farce" by at least four legislators during an Education Committee debate -- by keeping the legislation from even reaching the floor for a full house vote.

The Senate voted on Pataki's plan, but not before amending it to include $10 billion more for schools over five years. Pataki said his plan would give schools an extra $8 billion over the same period.

By early afternoon, after the speeches were done and lawmakers were back on the Thruway heading home or back to their vacations, the education debate is where it has been for months: stalled.

Though there are some signs of movement on education -- an issue that has blocked deals on adopting a 2004 state budget -- the state is looking at a July 30 court-imposed deadline to come up with a plan to deal with last year's landmark Court of Appeals ruling that orders the state to increase education funding beyond the $14 billion a year currently spent. Plaintiffs in the case said Thursday that the state has until Aug. 3 -- the date a Manhattan judge has set for a hearing on the issue.

Pataki mandated the "extraordinary session" -- as the State Constitution calls it -- to force legislators to consider his school funding plan, which is funded in a large part by a dramatic new expansion of gambling. The special session was scheduled when lawmakers were already in Albany. The governor has promised not to call legislators back into session before next week's court deadline, in deference to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, which many lawmakers will attend.

Republicans criticized Assembly Democrats for not bringing the measure to the floor for a vote. The Democrats, said Assemblyman James Conte, a Long Island Republican on the education committee, "did not let the legislative process play itself out."

It became apparent quickly that some in the Legislature were not taking the special session too seriously.

When the Assembly commenced its session Thursday morning, 61 of the house's 150 members were in their chairs. Within four minutes, the governor's plan was shipped off to an education committee debate, where lawmakers -- in a party line vote of 21-8 -- decided to keep the measure in committee. The vote to adjourn the session was 83-41.

In the Senate, only about half the chairs were filled during the debate. The final vote in the Senate to adopt the Senate's amended school bill was 33-22.

Assemblyman Scott Stringer, D-Manhattan, branded the special meeting "the ultimate farce (that) has fooled nobody."

Pataki said he was disappointed his plan was rejected, but said that during the week, the prospect of a special session did serve to prod negotiations.

Democrats say the Pataki plan undercuts schools and would not pass the court test.

So far, they have rejected his plan to get $2 billion for more education aid by building eight new casinos throughout the state.

Until Thursday, the governor did not say how many video lottery terminals the casinos would accommodate but his budget office put the number at 22,000.

That is in addition to the 16,000 already authorized at eight racetracks around the state -- raising the statewide total to 40,000.

When adding current and planned slot machines at Indian casinos from Western New York to the Catskills, that total approaches the 61,000 slots that Pennsylvania lawmakers recently approved.

The Senate backs the casino expansion.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said lawmakers "could hold their nose" and vote against the casino expansion but that, in the end, the money is needed for education and people are going to gamble anyway. He said the solution would be to keep the casinos out of areas "where the lowest-income people walk in and spend their bread money."

Michael Rebell, whose group, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, won last year's school funding lawsuit, said the court would reject Pataki's plan "out of hand."

He said the governor has to "move off the dime" in tying extra education aid to more casino gambling.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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