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Pataki, back from surgery, takes on budget conflicts

Gov. George E. Pataki made his first visit to the State Capitol since undergoing emergency surgery more than a month ago, using the occasion to warn the Legislature to control its spending appetite as the sides enter what could be the final week of negotiations over a new state budget.

"It's great to be back," a thinner but otherwise healthy-looking Pataki said Tuesday in a ceremonial room at the Capitol packed with aides, lawmakers and lobbyists.

The governor, still on a restricted diet following two surgeries last month after his appendix burst, found himself spending part of his first day back turning aside a sharp rebuke of his administration by a fellow Republican.

Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, said that those in the governor's budget office "ought to go back to kindergarten and learn how to count."

The budget office has predicted big deficits in the next couple of years if the Legislature's current spending plans go forth.

"His comments are clearly wrong," Pataki said of Bruno's criticism.

The governor, who said he believes he can put in a full day's work to help get an on-time budget in place by the March 31 deadline, even found time to joke with the Capitol press corps, a group he has found little enjoyment with over the years.

"I never thought I'd be so happy to see all of you reporters," he said. He talked of working out, eating a bland diet and taking only "minor pills" in his recovery from the Feb. 16 appendix operation and follow-up surgery to correct complications that led to an infection and other conditions.

The governor's return came as a slew of major budget issues remain unresolved, including how much aid to provide public schools and the size and scope of an election-year tax cut package that will end up totaling more than $1 billion.

A dust-up between the Assembly and State Senate was revealed Tuesday during one public conference committee ironing out some details of the budget. The governor, in the face of mounting criticism over his administration's State Liquor Authority, including a Buffalo News series, in January proposed adding 28 new investigators around the state. Pataki also called for raising fines against violators of the liquor laws from a maximum $10,000 now to $50,000.

While Democrats in the Assembly have backed the Republican governor's additional investigative staff plans, Republicans who control the Senate are trying to halt it.

Sen. Hugh Farley, a Schenectady County Republican, told his colleagues that the SLA's problems have been its internal management.

Of adding new staff to the agency, he said, "We felt this was perpetuating a bad situation." He talked of bars being "in desperate shape financially" and worried about bars in his district being hit by heavy new fines by investigators "going around fining" to justify their positions.

"I have a philosophy against . . . the sheriff paying his salary by going out and fining people," said Farley, the co-chairman of a panel ironing out the SLA dispute.

The Assembly, meanwhile, has proposed a plan in which the SLA would be required to investigate complaints against bars that are reported to the agency by local government officials. It would mandate that an investigation be completed within 45 days of the complaint; now, it can take a year or more. But Democrats say their initiative would require the additional investigators Pataki proposed.


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