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State Senate OKs emergency funding amid snarl

The State Senate on Monday approved a $4.6 billion emergency spending bill to ensure that state workers get their paychecks and that funding continues for Medicaid and other programs.

It was a final, official recognition that the state will not have a deficit-reduction plan in place by the start of the 2010-11 fiscal year Thursday.

The lawmakers then promptly left town for a holiday break and are not expected back until April 7.

Before heading home, the Senate also approved a bill to provide a sweetener for teachers who retire early and authorized what Republicans say are nearly $400 million in transfers, known as sweeps, from various state funds into the government's deficit-ridden general fund.

With the Assembly nowhere in sight -- after having approved the emergency spending measure Friday night -- the Democratic-controlled Senate quickly passed the bills before hitting the Thruway to break for religious holidays over the next week.

"No, it's not a failure," Senate Democratic Conference Leader John L. Sampson of Brooklyn said of the fact that a fiscal plan will not be in place by Thursday's deadline to deal with the state's $9.2 billion deficit.

"An on-time budget does not mean a good budget," he said.

Sampson deflected Republican criticism that the Democrats in the Senate and the Assembly are giving up early before the actual budget deadline later this week. They say Democrats should have held off passage of any emergency bills until Wednesday night when it is certain that deals cannot be made.

While he portrayed the sides as getting closer to a budget deal, Sampson acknowledged that the Assembly, the Senate and Gov. David A. Paterson have agreed on only about $3.4 billion in cuts to narrow the $9.2 billion gap. He said that additional cuts of up to $2 billion could be needed.

The Assembly wants to borrow $2 billion, and Senate Democrats think they can refinance existing bonds to get about $700 million in cash.

"The tragedy is, they're not dealing with the structural problem," Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, said of Democrats' plans that he says will not address coming deficits, which total about $60 billion over five years. "If they don't deal with it, it's going to be a disaster."

In a session lasting less than an hour, the Senate also approved a bill to allow up to about 5,000 teachers eligible for early retirement. The bill, which has not yet passed the Assembly but is expected to, was pushed by the New York State United Teachers union and the New York State School Boards Association.

The measure would change current law that penalizes anyone 55 and older who retires before 30 years of service with a reduction in pension benefits of up to 27 percent. The new bill would impose no penalty on teachers or other school personnel to retire at age 55 with just 25 years of service.

Critics warned about the teacher pension bill. "There are some concerns there might be a one-year benefit, but a long-range hit," said Sen. Stephen M. Saland, a Dutchess County Republican, who served for years as chairman of the Senate Education Committee before the Democrats took over in 2009.

Republicans also criticized the sweep of $361 million from state accounts to help the 2009-10 fiscal year, which ends Wednesday, achieve balance.

"All they're doing is raiding one place to pay another," said Sen. Thomas W. Libous, a Binghamton Republican. "It doesn't solve the problem."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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