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Senate Democrats adopt nonbinding state budget proposal

Democrats in the State Senate passed a nonbinding resolution Monday laying out their budget priorities. The plan accepts Gov. David A. Paterson's proposal to cut funding for schools and health care, but rejects several big tax increases and restores an annual property tax rebate check for homeowners.

The $136.2 billion proposal also would legalize the sale of marijuana for medical purposes, step up collection of taxes on cigarettes by Indian retailers, turn back Paterson's plans to close or cut services at a number of state parks and let the University at Buffalo set its own tuition at levels different than those of other State University of New York campuses.

The proposal does not embrace a huge borrowing spree recently proposed by Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch, though it does include $700 million from refinancing bonds the state already used as a one-shot fiscal maneuver from a big 1998 settlement with the tobacco industry. Senate Democrats also made clear they were open to possibly more borrowing.

It passed, 32-29, with all Democrats voting it for and all Republicans voting against it.

"This is just a first step," said Sen. John L. Sampson of Brooklyn, leader of the Senate Democratic Conference.

Republicans slammed the blueprint as fiscally irresponsible and filled with gimmicks and temporary one-shot maneuvers, such as raids on off-budget state funds and risky forecasts. They said the plan is at least $1.5 billion in the red and ignores fiscal problems already projected over the next several years.

"It's going to blow out the deficit in the years to come," warned Senate Minority Leader Dean G. Skelos, a Rockville Centre Republican.

The significance of the Senate Democratic plan lies in its acknowledgment of the seriousness of the state's fiscal crisis. By accepting a plan by Paterson to cut state aid to schools by $1.4 billion, the Senate Democrats sent signals to various sides -- from budget negotiators in the Assembly to teachers unions and school districts -- of a willingness to back Paterson's controversial education cut proposal.

But Republicans poked fun at Democrats, especially 16 of the 32 who earlier this month released a letter to Paterson sharply criticizing his school aid cut plan. The letter, authored by Sen. Antoine M. Thompson, D-Buffalo, and signed by lawmakers who included Sen. William T. Stachowski, D-Lake View, said Democrats would not support a budget that includes "any cuts to education."

Monday, Stachowski described the March 8 letter, which he said was to have been sent to Paterson six weeks earlier, as merely "a negotiating position."

The Senate Democratic plan:

*Rejects several of Paterson's tax increases, including a additional $1 per pack on cigarettes and new levies on sugar-based beverages, such as soda, which together would raise nearly $700 million.

*Voids a potential $254 million in revenues by turning back Paterson's proposal to permit wine sales in grocery stores. But it anticipates an additional $250 million from more stringent collection of the cigarette tax.

*Envisions $15 million in new revenues by permitting, based on a California model, the sale of marijuana in private, state supervised dispensing facilities for certain medical ailments associated with serious, life-threatening illnesses.

*Restores a property tax rebate check program that ended last year with the state's fiscal crisis, but fails to include a plan advanced recently by Senate Democrats to limit local property tax increases.

The overall budget would rise to $136.2 billion from this year's $133 billion. Senate officials blamed a sizable portion of the increase on red ink carried over from the current fiscal year, which ends March 31.

The Democrats adopted the plan as lawmakers prepared to start a vacation Friday for the religious holidays. The number of officials in the Capitol expecting the adoption of a budget before the break, in time for the April 1 start of the new fiscal year, were dwindling by the hour.

Democratic Senators say conference committees can use their plan with whatever the Assembly Democrats might propose this week in coming discussions. Conference committees generally leave the major decisions on such things as tax increases to private talks among the governor and legislative leaders.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has not yet said if his house will propose its own budget this week.

Paterson said Monday that the Senate "for the most part" had accepted his deficit reduction ideas, though he raised concerns about the approaching looming fiscal year deadline. He also said the Senate had created revenues "that aren't real." The Senate plan, for instance, projects that the state will spend $300 million less in Medicaid in the coming year, although it doesn't explain how.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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