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State suffers in Senate stimulus bill

The Senate is scheduled today to consider a massive economic stimulus bill that moderate Democrats reshaped to win the support of a handful of Republicans -- at a huge cost to such states as New York.

Gone entirely is funding for higher education construction, which, under the House-passed version, could have meant up to $242 million for the University at Buffalo.

Similarly, the Senate eliminated funding for school construction. The House bill would have provided $31.9 million for the district of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

Senators also halved a $79 billion fiscal stabilization fund for the states. While much of the aid to local school districts remains intact, the cuts included a $25 billion fund aimed at helping governors balance their budgets.

By a 61-36 majority, the stimulus package advanced Monday on a procedural vote toward final Senate passage today. Battling a brain tumor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., made his first appearance in the Capitol since suffering a seizure on Inauguration Day. He joined all other Democrats in supporting the measure.

Only three Republicans -- Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- broke ranks with their party to vote for advancing the bill, which tilts toward tax cuts.

If the Senate approves its version today, negotiators will have to find a compromise with the House bill, which heavily emphasizes aid to states.

In the meantime, they will hear from lawmakers like Higgins, D-Buffalo, who is none too pleased with what the Senate has done.

"I think it disproportionately hurts areas like Western New York," Higgins said. "I'd like to see those cuts restored."

The Senate measure, like the House bill, includes one gigantic provision that should provide great help to New York and its counties: an adjustment in the Medicaid funding formula that would mean more than $45 million for Erie County and about $9.8 million for Niagara County over the next two years while saving the state government $5 billion.

But otherwise, the Senate bill was a grave disappointment to lawmakers like Higgins and Rep. Eric Massa, D-Corning.

"I'm just concerned that in chasing votes, they affected the quality of the bill," Higgins said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., pushed to get the Medicaid change in the Senate bill and resisted the cuts forced by a group of moderate Democrats and Republicans to ensure that the measure wins the GOP votes it needs to pass.

"I would like to see some of the cuts that were made restored" when a House-Senate conference committee negotiates a final version of the bill later this week, Schumer said.

GOP senators insisted on cutting the education construction funds, Schumer said. That move, if it stands, could hugely reduce the bill's impact in the Buffalo area.

The state's lists of 1,900 projects that could be eligible for stimulus funds included $242 million in work at UB, such as a new building on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and a student housing complex. Both are part of the university's UB 2020 plan.

"We're hopeful that the funding will be restored," said John DellaContrada, a UB spokesman. "And the reason is that Western New York would benefit."

The Senate negotiators also did away with school construction money.

In addition to the $31.9 million for Higgins' district the House bill would have provided $61.9 million for the district of Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, and another $15.6 million for the district of Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, according to the National Education Association. Massa's Southern Tier district would have received $20.9 million.

Educators, however, seem more concerned that the Senate bill cuts a state stabilization fund for schools to $31.3 billion. The House bill would have made $38.8 billion available to offset reductions in state aid.

In addition, the Senate halved a $14.35 billion fund for school incentive grants and eliminated $25 billion that governors could have used for schools or other purposes.

Those cuts in the Senate bill could cost New York State $2 billion, said Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers.

"We're distressed with what the Senate did," Iannuzzi said. "The House started moving forward on education funding. We hoped the Senate would match it, but they're backing off."

Asked to comment, Erin Duggan, a spokeswoman for Gov. David A. Paterson, said, "We're reviewing the details and hoping agreement is reached this week."

Schumer said the most important part of the stimulus for local school districts -- the fiscal stabilization fund -- sustained a relatively small cut.

"I fought to keep the stabilization fund as high as it possibly could be," Schumer said.

But Massa said he worried that the Senate cuts could result in exactly what the House was trying to avoid: property tax increases for schools in the middle of a recession.

"Senate Republicans are not representing the interests of working Americans," he said. "I know the people of this country want more bipartisanship, but they deserve to know which side is trying to raise their taxes and which side is trying to protect education funding."

Lee, the Republican congressman from Clarence, opposed the House version of the bill but said he was unhappy with the cuts for Western New York on the Senate side.

Saying he opposed the new government programs that were included in the House bill, Lee said, "If it is directly going to create jobs, then I am for spending money to create jobs in those areas."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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