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Lawmakers begin budget process

The Senate and Assembly on Tuesday began the formal process of negotiating their differences over a new state budget, as advocates for public and private schools squared off at the Capitol over how the state should spend its education dollars.

As they touted their open budget process, legislative leaders announced in public a deal they made in private on how approximately $900 million in spending would be divvied up among nine joint house committees that began meeting Monday evening as part of an overall budget proposal that will spend well in excess of $111 billion when completed.

The $900 million -- most of it earmarked for health care, higher education, human services and general government and local government aid -- will end up paying for things like the Legislature's rejection of Gov. George E. Pataki's plans to cut tuition assistance for college students and drive more money to cities such as Buffalo.

Despite the progress legislators were trying to put on display Tuesday, the sides have not reached agreement overall on how much they have to spend in the budget -- a situation Pataki has likened to shoppers going to the store not knowing how much money is in their bank account. Nor have they figured out how much extra money is available for education or how much can go to tax cuts -- always major sticking points in budget talks.

"We're 17 days away from an on-time budget, and we've got some work to do," Senate Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said as the main budget conference committee began its work Monday. In keeping with the annual jigsaw-puzzle ritual that defines the budget-making process, Bruno said the $900 million of available money to spend will grow once the sides resolve a number of issues, such as how big the surplus is; the range is between $3 billion and $4 billion.

While rank-and-file legislators will have say over how some of the additional money is spent, much of the controversial and sticky negotiations -- especially over tax cuts -- will be handled in private and among legislative leaders and their staffs.

As legislators began number-crunching, leaders of Catholic and other private schools in New York urged lawmakers to set aside several hundred million dollars for an education tax credit that parents of children in public and private schools could use to pay for tutors, books or other education expenses. Pataki proposed a $500 tax credit for parents with children in about 80 districts not meeting certain academic standards, which would include Buffalo. The credit would have to go towards certain educational expenses, which could include tuition at religious schools.

The State Senate had a plan similar to Pataki's, except it would be available to parents in all school districts. After intense opposition from teacher unions, the Senate changed that plan in its version of a state budget bill approved Monday; the new provision would not have to be specifically spent on educational expenses. The credit, worth up to $330 per child, would be available only to parents with children in prekindergarten through high school.

The Assembly rejected an education tax credit in its budget plan Monday, passing, instead, a $620 million child tax credit. A family earning between $24,000 and $110,000 would get a $300 credit for each child up to age 17.

With less than three weeks before lawmakers hope to pass a budget, members of the state's education community descended on the Capitol to press their competing positions. The Catholic Conference, the chief lobby of the church's bishops, spent the day lobbying for a tax credit specifically geared to education expenses. Teacher unions and others pressed for more state aid for schools.

Cardinal Edward Egan, the spiritual leader of Catholics in New York, said a child tax credit should emphasize education costs. With more and more Catholic schools closing each year in Western New York and across the state, the church is looking to the tax credit to help lower costs for parents who send their children to Catholic schools.

"We have a very serious situation in the United States of America about schools -- we'd be very foolish not to focus on education in this country of ours," Egan said when asked if he opposed a tax credit available to all parents -- whether or not they had children in school.

But teacher unions say the state must first add billions of dollars more to public schools to comply with a lawsuit the state lost two years ago -- and still is on appeal.

As Bruno walked into a rally organized by a large teachers union up the street from the Capitol, a speaker was shouting: "We need the money. Do you hear us? We need the money." A few minutes later, Bruno told the crowd, "You need money. You need money." He said when done the budget would "set another record" for education funding in the state.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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