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Democrats say SUNY plan is still alive; Senate plans to finish budget tonight

Senate Democratic leaders Tuesday insisted a plan giving more financial autonomy to the state university system is not dead, a day after senators adopted a budget bill that excluded the proposal. Talks to resolve the matter have stalled.

"No. Who says it's dead?" said Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson. "It's not dead at all."

Why?

"Because I said it's not dead," Sampson said.

"I don't give an ending until the ending is clear, and it appears there's a lot still going on," added State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

But time is running out. Senate Democrats say they plan an all-nighter tonight to complete the budget.

Indeed, talks all but collapsed on trying to resolve several major fiscal matters on Tuesday.

In an Associated Press interview, Gov. David A. Paterson repeated his vow to veto 6,900 spending items that lawmakers added over his objections -- including $400 million in school aid he rejected Monday.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in the Assembly renewed sharp criticisms for the SUNY plan to raise tuition at annual levels based on an inflation index. But later in the day Tuesday, the SUNY plan was the subject of a heated close-door meeting among Assembly Democrats, leading some proponents to believe there could be a softening of some of the opposition.

An alternative proposal being kicked around -- to help three Democratic senators, including William Stachowski of Lake View, facing tough re-election battles this fall -- would permit elements of the plan on a pilot basis at the University at Buffalo, Stony Brook and Albany.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said he would consider "modest" tuition hikes, but only with guarantees of state grant increases for low-income students and that the tuition revenues not supplant a commitment of state aid to SUNY.

"If he wants to talk about SUNY, he has to come to us. We are done negotiating," said a high-ranking Paterson administration official.

Backers say the SUNY board has agreed to ensure that low-income students will have tuition above state aid covered.

"Those who would represent us as not concerned for low-income students do not really have the facts," Zimpher said.

The SUNY plan is being tugged by both policy and political considerations. On the policy front, the debate comes down to whether SUNY should be given more control over its own finances and if access will be hurt for low-income students.

Politically, Sampson's Democrats are trying to maintain their thin 32-30 margin in the Senate and protecting Stachowski is one of those equations. On Long Island, Democratic Sen. Brian Foley wants Stony Brook as a pilot, and on Tuesday Sampson added Sen. Neil Breslin's demand for the University at Albany to the list.

Advocates believe Thursday morning will be key. That is the day when the final big budget bill -- the revenue raising portion -- goes to lawmakers. They believe Stachowski and Foley will vote no if the SUNY issue isn't resolved.

"Baloney," said one Senate Democrat, speaking privately, of such a threat.

Sampson insisted Foley and Stachowski won't hold the budget hostage to the SUNY plan.

"No, Foley and Stachowski are not saying that," Sampson said. "They asked me to continue my push to get them what they need," he said of the SUNY bill.

Stachowski could not be reached to comment Tuesday.

Stachowski and Sen. Antoine Thompson are being lobbied heavily from advocates back home -- from business to union interests -- who say the SUNY plan is crucial to UB's ambitious program to expand its downtown campus.

UB President John Simpson declined an interview but sent a message across the campus Tuesday that the bill is "absolutely critical to the future of our university, our community and our students."

On the broader budget front, Paterson will be in Washington today lobbying to get $1 billion in Medicaid money. Paterson has warned lawmakers the money is far from guaranteed.

As Paterson continues the veto process, neither of the Democratic-run houses appears to have the appetite for an override fight. Senate Republicans, whose votes would be needed for an override, note they already voted against the budget bills and have no interest in giving votes to block the vetoes.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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