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State budget talks break down, despite optimism; Which prisons to close is still a sticking point

The rhetoric through the day might have been soaringly optimistic, but talks Friday failed to produce an agreement for a $133 billion state budget.

"No deal," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.

Issues unresolved include which upstate prisons will close, whether to cap medical malpractice awards and how to geographically steer what appears to be at least $250 million in restorations for public schools from the governor's proposed $1.5 billion state education cut.

The fiscal year starts next Friday.

The impasse left interest groups that are looking for an array of different funds or policy initiatives more time to make last-ditch lobbying attempts, whether for anti-tobacco health restorations or reversing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's plan that, AARP said Friday, would raise prescription drug costs for seniors across the state, including nearly 27,000 in Erie County.

Instead of the usual three men in a room that has marked past budget negotiations, the governor met separately at times with Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville, leading to much speculation that the sides were engaged in a game of fiscal chance to try to box each other in.

Silver at one point told a group of waiting reporters that he was going outside the Capitol for some fresh air. He then proceeded down different hallways to instead pop into a closed-door meeting with Cuomo -- a session that lasted only minutes.

The talking points had something for all.

Silver said he and Cuomo were in "virtual" and then "identical" agreement. Skelos said there would be no impediment to an on-time budget by Thursday.

And Cuomo said "good progress" was made, but added the sides were separated by "a relatively significant" amount of money.

Some Senate Republicans believe the state can close down up to six prisons -- focused on upstate -- without losing prison worker jobs, which are the main economic engine in many rural areas. But Cuomo dismissed the idea.

"If you protected all the jobs, then you wouldn't be getting the savings the state is looking for," he said.

Cuomo wants to eliminate what he says are about 3,500 unused prison beds. His plan also calls for $10 million in aid to any affected community. "Don't underestimate the economic impact closing a prison can have to an upstate community," he said.

Asked to describe the sticking points about prison closings, Cuomo said, "Closing of prisons is the sticking point."

It's usual for optimism to reign during budget talks. Like clockwork as a new fiscal year approaches, the sides talk of early deals. Late Friday morning, Skelos was predicting a mid-afternoon announcement by himself, Cuomo and Silver. That all crashed apart.

"Many issues are interconnected, so you solve one [and] you cause an issue," Cuomo said after meeting with Skelos late in the afternoon.

No deals are expected today. Most lawmakers scattered from the Capitol and aren't due back until Sunday evening or Monday.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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