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Toughest decisions still lie ahead in wrapping up tardy state budget

In a remarkable feat of fiscal maneuvering, state leaders have failed to adopt a budget for the current fiscal year -- yet already have appropriated 70 percent of its expected spending through weekly emergency bills.

Now, as officials found out again Tuesday, the hard part really gets under way: They have closed only half of the projected deficit while settling considerably more than half the budget's spending side.

Negotiators face the toughest, and potentially least popular, decisions: how much to cut state aid to 700 school districts, how deeply to reduce state university funding and how much more -- they've already settled on $600 million -- to raise taxes and fees.

Perhaps most difficult of all, they must decide whether to borrow to help close the $9.2 billion deficit.

Lawmakers have broken with the usual practice of adopting an annual budget all at once. As a result, haven't they boxed themselves in during what could be the final days of negotiations in the face of Gov. David A. Paterson's threat to force action by next Monday?

No big deal, say legislative leaders. "We have ideas where we're going and what we're doing," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.

But in a nearly comedic routine, both Silver and Senate Democratic Conference Leader John L. Sampson, D-Brooklyn, repeatedly declined to reveal any details of spending or tax plans.

How are the sides closer? "We have put things out on the table that we think can close our gap," Silver said. Like what? "Several items. There's no point in discussing [them] now until they've been vetted all the way through," he said.

What happened to all the talk of transparency this year? "With respect to the information you want, we have to make sure the information is vetted. I don't want to give you incorrect information," Sampson told reporters after he and Silver emerged from closed-door talks with Paterson.

Any movement Tuesday was a step back -- at least for property taxpayers. Paterson officially threw in the towel on persuading a reluctant Assembly Democratic conference to place an annual limit on property tax increases by school districts.

Instead, he is trying for half a loaf -- or closer to 35 percent, the share of property taxes collected by towns, villages, fire districts and others, excluding school districts. Beginning next year, Paterson's new plan calls for a limit of 3 percent or 120 percent of the inflation rate, whichever is lower, on property tax increases by those local government units.

"I support the idea as opposed to nothing," Paterson explained of the difference between his new proposal and the previous one, which included limits on tax increases by school districts. Still, he said, some legislative leaders did not receive the idea enthusiastically.

The budget fight could be coming to a head.

Paterson has threatened to push through the remaining pieces of the budget Monday if no deal is reached by then. Lawmakers would have to approve it, or close state government.

While the emergency bill could provide cover for some lawmakers -- allowing them, for instance, to say they had to vote for tax increases or risk a government shutdown -- others do not want to give Paterson that much power.

Silver dismissed the idea of a Monday deadline, saying the state only has one deadline: the April 1 start of the fiscal year, which already has passed.

"Maybe somebody thinks I'm playing around. Maybe somebody things this is a game," Paterson said of lawmakers who doubt his threat. He added, "That budget is going to get passed on Monday."

About 153,000 state workers will get paid today after Monday night's adoption of another emergency bill. Still, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli warned employees using direct deposit to check their accounts for any processing delay problems resulting from the later-than-usual passage.

As budget talks drag on, lawmakers are in a shutdown mode for the current session, passing an increasing number of bills each day.

Health insurance coverage for people with autism will expand under legislation given final approval. The bill still needs Paterson's signature. Some families have complained its insurance mandate does not go far enough, but supporters say it ensures coverage for many autism treatments for a person's entire life.

Another measure receiving final approval gives Mercy Flight of Western New York access to borrowing from the state Dormitory Authority, providing a cheaper way for the emergency medical service to finance everything from equipment purchases to building construction.

Hundreds of bills that will be considered or die in the next week cover everything from a ban on smoking in private vehicles containing a person under age 14 to the now-expired Power for Jobs program, a lower-cost energy program used by hundreds of companies.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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