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Legislators add funding to avert SUNY tuition hike

State legislators agreed Monday to add $270 million to the state's higher education programs, enough to turn back plans by Gov. George E. Pataki to raise tuition at public colleges by $500 and restrict tuition assistance for students.

The deals on higher education were reached as legislative leaders struggled for another day with the budget's two most elusive components: how to steer extra money to public schools and what taxes should be cut.

The new budget will include more than $1 billion in tax cuts this year, earmarked mostly for property tax relief and eliminating state sales taxes on clothing purchases of less than $110.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said Monday night the package will also include some sort of tax credit for people with children, but he criticized a plan by Pataki and officials of religious and private schools to provide a credit only for education costs.

Teacher unions have labeled the tax plan advanced by Catholic groups and others as a thinly disguised voucher system to benefit private schools. The issue recently has intensified, with private school groups sending more than 1 million mailings to legislators.

The Legislature is rushing to introduce budget bills by midnight tonight so it can pass an on-time budget by Friday's deadline. If bills are introduced later than tonight, legislators would not be able to vote until Saturday. That would end the one-year streak of on-time budgets, which followed 20 consecutive years of late action.

The tax cut and education package will provide the cornerstone for many campaigns in next fall's races for the 212-member Legislature. Deals on local government financing, health care and other parts of the budget already been have been hammered out.

A joint conference committee of the Assembly and Senate agreed Monday to put aside Pataki's call for annual, inflation-based increases in tuition at State University of New York campuses. The Legislature also backed a $17.5 million program that includes requiring SUNY to hire more full-time faculty and reverse the trend of increasingly relying on part-time adjunct professors. Lawmakers said the money would be enough to hire about 300 full-time professors.

"This is the best budget for higher education that New York has seen in a generation," said Miriam Kramer, a lobbyist with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The deal also includes additional operating aid for SUNY and for community colleges, as well as restoration of aid for low-income students. Students whose family incomes change because of catastrophic illness or the call-up of a family member to active military duty would be eligible for financial aid increases during the school year.

Lawmakers also backed adding $700 million for various SUNY construction projects. But they could not agree on a specific list of projects, which puts a plan issued by the Democrat-controlled Assembly on hold. That plan includes $25 million -- on top of $25 million last year -- for a new engineering building at the University at Buffalo, $40 million for a new technology and computing facility at Buffalo State College and $4 million for Buffalo State for initial planning and other work for a $30 million stadium for football, soccer and field hockey teams, as well as game space for sports teams from Buffalo Public Schools.

Lawmakers insist they will to meet Friday's deadline for adopting a budget. But they acknowledge the fiscal fights are far from over. Most expect Pataki to exercise his veto powers.

"Obviously, the process doesn't conclude with our vote this week," said Assemblyman Ronald Canestrari, an Albany County Democrat and co-chairman of the higher education budget panel.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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