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Legislators rush to finish state budget

State legislators continued rushing to wrap up a state budget deal Sunday night but fell short of cutting agreements on two of their top issues: funding for public schools and which taxes to cut in this election year.

The State Senate and Assembly agreed Sunday evening on how to restore $830 million in health care programs from cuts proposed by Gov. George E. Pataki, including sending more money to nursing homes and hospitals, a major issue for ailing health care facilities in Western New York.

The sides, though, were stuck on a measure to create an independent inspector general to root out fraud in the sharply growing Medicaid health insurance program.

State Senate Republicans say their anti-fraud plan would save the state at least $325 million in the coming year, but Assembly Democrats were concerned about giving Pataki the power to select the head of the inspector general's office for a five-year term.

On local government issues, legislative leaders accepted a proposal approving a sharp increase in aid to city, town and village governments. For Buffalo, it will mean an increase of $26.4 million over last year's level, or a 22.8 percent hike under a deal first unveiled Friday evening.

"We're sending the money back to localities," State Sen. Hugh Farley, a Schenectady County Republican, told a meeting of legislative leaders in Albany Sunday night.

The sides also agreed with a recent request by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra to provide $10 million apiece to the city and county from the state.

Pataki had proposed $18 million of the new $20 million pot of state money -- intended to help speed up ways to find new cost savings through consolidation -- be given to the county. The city countered, claiming it was due almost all the money, before a sharing deal was worked out between Brown and Giambra.

The clock is ticking for a new state budget. Legislators are trying to introduce bills by midnight Tuesday so they can "age" the necessary three days before they can be voted on by lawmakers on Friday, the deadline for an on-time budget before the new fiscal year starts April 1.

Major tax cuts, always popular in an election year, are already guaranteed. Uncertain, though, is where the cuts will be directed, such as how much for cutting property taxes, income taxes or sales taxes, among others.

Also still unclear is how many of the deals being worked out by the Legislature will be embraced by Pataki, who has shown a willingness to veto new spending plans in the past.

Among other deals announced Sunday night was a plan to increase the number of investigators at the embattled State Liquor Authority. Pataki and the Assembly backed increasing the number by 28. The Senate balked, however, citing concerns about small bars being shut down by over-zealous investigators focused on what lawmakers called relatively benign violations, such as patrons smoking in violation to the state's clean indoor air act.

The final deal Sunday night calls for nine new investigators. The deal does, however, call for the creation of a "bad bar" task force within the SLA that must investigate complaints from local government officials within 45 days.

Lawmakers also backed deals to set aside $1 million to help fund the operating costs for transportation services for seniors, a program that has been sharply cut back in Erie County because of budget problems.

Lawmakers also agreed with a Pataki plan to spend nearly $100 million on anti-tobacco programs, including one at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, as well as to increase reimbursements for hospital emergency room visits.

Officials Sunday night said the sides hope to be able to announce deals this afternoon on a tax cut package and how education aid will be divvied up.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com