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Talks on sex offenders break down Pataki, Legislature can't agree on issues

Talks broke down between Gov. George E. Pataki and the State Legislature on Wednesday as the sides failed to reach agreements on measures to keep certain sexual offenders confined after their release from prison and to permit more charter schools.

Lawmakers also begrudgingly left town -- likely for the rest of the year -- without voting themselves a pay raise, or a "cost-of-living adjustment," as many of them preferred to call it Wednesday.

Hours later, though, Gov.-elect Eliot L. Spitzer floated the idea that he would be warm to a pay raise bill possibly next year for legislators and other state officials if a series of comprehensive government reforms were approved first.

The Legislature, as expected, also did not reject a recent report by a state commission to restructure portions of the state's hospital and nursing home industry. That means the panel's controversial call to shut down or merge dozens of hospitals across the state, including several popular facilities in Western New York, will kick in Jan. 1.

Lawmakers, though, have said they expect the hospital closing plan could be tinkered with next year, permitting some hospitals now slated for shuttering to be carved out from the restructuring efforts. Senate Republican Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno opened the door to possible changes to the plan "if there's suffering out there" in communities affected by the closings. He did not elaborate.

The special one-day session, called by Pataki to deal with the sexual predator civil confinement issue, fell apart when a slew of ancillary issues became linked in closed-door talks.

"We would have been happy had they done civil confinement and gone home. That is why we called the special session on civil confinement," said David Catalfamo, a Pataki spokesman.

Catalfamo would not rule out the governor calling the Legislature back to Albany one more time before Dec. 31 to try again to pass a bill permitting the state to move the most dangerous of convicted sexual predators from prison after their sentences end to secure mental health facilities. The state has been moving a dozen or so such individuals each month over the past year, but the state's highest court recently knocked down the process used by the state.

Behind closed doors, legislators in the Assembly, the most vocal about the desire for a pay raise, were told Pataki was trying to extract too many concessions in return for a salary hike.

One major dispute involved charter schools. Pataki wanted to raise the cap for the alternative schools from the current 100 to 150.

But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, said his colleagues wanted Pataki to agree to extra funding for school districts that have been losing money to the charter schools created in their communities.

"He was very obstinate on charter schools," Silver said of Pataki.

Silver insisted his members "weren't going to do anything they wouldn't do because the governor was supposedly dangling a salary increase in front of them."

The bitter round of private talks served as a final parting session for Pataki, Bruno and Silver, the so-called "three men in a room." They have been wrangling with each other since 1995.

"I look forward to Gov.-elect Spitzer becoming governor," Silver said after the talks with Pataki.

Spitzer, who along with a top aide was involved in some of the discussions the past few days at the Capitol, said the civil commitment and charter school issues "need to be addressed" either this year or early next year. But he cautioned that other matters, such as a lucrative early-retirement plan for certain state workers, "should not be rushed" before more study.

But in a statement that will be most closely read by lawmakers, Spitzer said he opposes pay raises for legislators "unless and until" there are reforms in the areas of ethics, lobbying, elections, campaign finance and creation of the state budget. If those reforms go through, Spitzer said he would "support a comprehensive pay bill" for legislators, judges and state agency commissioners.

Officials close to the talks said Silver sought to get a pay raise -- lawmakers' first since 1998 -- that would include automatic cost-of-living adjustments. State lawmakers now make $79,500 a year, but about half add an average of $20,000 on top of that for various committee and leadership posts.

Few thought the lawmakers would reject the hospital closing plan, in part because the two major hospital trade groups and a leading health care union did not try to kill the set of proposals that were far less damaging than had been predicted earlier this year.

In Western New York, though, the plan calls for closing two hospitals -- Millard Fillmore Gates Circle and St. Joseph's Hospital in Cheektowaga -- along with the merger of Erie County Medical Center with Kaleida Health and the cutbacks of services at other facilities.

Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, in likely his last session as the No. 2 Democrat in the Assembly, said he was surprised at the level of interest among some colleagues about rejecting the restructuring plan. But at the end of the day, lawmakers did nothing to halt it. By law, both houses of the Legislature needed to reject the plan to stop it.

Bruno said the law required the Legislature to either vote the panel's plan up or down in its entirety. Lawmakers, he said, realize changes have to come to the health care industry.

Payback was quick for the failed talks. In the Senate, Republicans approved 13 people for state judicial positions, including aides to Pataki and Lt. Gov. Mary Donohue. Two individuals nominated for judgeships by Pataki -- at the behest of Silver -- were not moved to the Senate floor after talks broke down.

The Assembly, as promised, did give final passage to a measure requiring health insurance plans to provide certain mental health treatments. Dubbed "Timothy's Law," after Timothy O'Clair, a 12 year-old boy who killed himself in 2001, the measure was pushed by mental health advocates for more than a decade.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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