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Tentative state budget reached; Schools Get Some Money Restored
Cuomo, lawmakers hopeful other issues will be solved

A tentative state budget deal Sunday night calls for partial restoration of cuts to public schools, human services programs and legislative pork barrel spending, while an undetermined number of upstate prisons face closure.

The $132 billion budget still spends 2 percent less than last year, though money was found to undo some cuts to the state university system and to fund regionally based economic development panels.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders say they hope for an early budget before the Thursday deadline, though they acknowledge some issues still remain unresolved. "The people wrote this budget," Cuomo said in a handshake deal on what he called a "definitive agreement" for the 2011 budget.

Despite the restorations, the budget still makes sizable reductions to education, health care and virtually every government agency and not-for-profit that does work on behalf of the state. Uncertain still, is how many state workers might be laid off -- if any.

"This is a sobering budget, unquestionably," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The budget also extends the current Excelsior Jobs program and makes permanent the former Power for Jobs program, which provides low-cost energy programs for hundreds of businesses. The new effort drives more electricity to companies by reducing the amount of lower-cost power now available to thousands of upstate residential ratepayers.

Cuomo said his administration will decide in the near future which prisons will close to take 3,700 beds out of the system that are no longer needed because of declining inmate populations.

He said the closing effort will be geographically "balanced" and include funding for communities facing the loss of jobs from shuttered prisons, which are expected to be limited to minimum- and medium-security facilities.

Senate Republicans from Western New York, where a heavy presence of state prisons bolsters many smaller communities' economies, have been worried about the region getting hit by more job cuts.

Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos said there is a "trust factor" with Cuomo that the closings -- requiring 60 days' advance notice to communities -- will be based on geographic balance. Republicans want to ensure Democratic lawmakers see closings in their districts, too.

"We'll trust each other, and we'll work it out," Cuomo said.

Cuomo and Skelos went out of their way to say they embrace the UB 2020 plan to help fund the University at Buffalo's massive downtown development effort, though the proposal, as expected, did not make it into the final budget deal. Cuomo said he would convene a summit with involved parties "for the purpose of figuring out how to get the project going finally." Cuomo and Skelos said they hope for a deal before the legislative session ends in June.

Silver, whose Democratic conference opposed the UB 2020 plan, said he would meet with the new incoming UB president and said the Assembly will embrace a plan to make UB "the center of economic growth for the City of Buffalo and Western New York."

Silver said the Assembly Democrats have pushed much of the money UB has gotten over the years for the medical corridor area. He noted that an Assembly Democratic push for a big technology expansion at the University at Albany occurred without reliance on tuition hikes as UB envisions.

Also dying, at the Assembly Democrats' insistence, was a plan to cap medical malpractice awards as a way for the medical sector to save on insurance premiums. For the hospital industry, the malpractice awards cap had been a major lure for them to back cuts Cuomo wants them to take to reduce Medicaid spending.

Despite $272 million in state aid to education -- exact district-by-district numbers are expected today -- districts say they will still face layoffs and classroom cuts.

Cuomo said the $272 million includes money to restore cuts to 11 special-education schools, including St. Mary's School for the Deaf in Buffalo, as well as summer school programs for special-education students. He did not say how much, then, would be for operating aid for the 700 districts versus the special-education programs.

Cuomo had proposed a $1.5 billion, or 7 percent, cut to schools.

Education spending advocates say that Cuomo's budget will especially hurt districts like Buffalo and that cuts could have been avoided had he backed a tax on millionaires.

"Gov. Cuomo's first budget makes heartlessly large cuts to our schools," said Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, whose financial backers includes a statewide teachers union.

The governor said the negotiations added $250 million in spending beyond his original plan, though he said savings in other areas kept the overall budget to $132.5 billion.

Details were largely limited to some answers Cuomo fielded and a news release. More precise information will not emerge until the thousands of pages of budget bills are made public this week.

Cuomo said some areas of the budget are not yet finalized, such as precisely which human services programs will be saved by the restoration of $91 million in proposed cuts.

"The [legislative] conference committees will still meet, and they have work to do," Cuomo said.

Cuomo did provide some givebacks to the Legislature beyond school aid restorations and additional human services spending and blocking of the medical malpractice awards cap.

Lawmakers, for instance, got Cuomo to take back his attempt to redirect $130 million in pork barrel capital spending approved in previous years by the Legislature; he wanted the money to fund his new plan to create regional economic development councils. In the end, he let the Legislature keep its $130 million, and another $130 million was carved out for Cuomo's regional council idea.

Asked how he found the $130 million, Cuomo said, "Within the budget, we found savings."

After a couple of weeks of trying to set in the public's mind that lawmakers would be at fault if the budget was late and a showdown over a government shutdown could occur, Cuomo was all smiles with legislative leaders Sunday evening at the Capitol.

"My applause, my congratulations, goes out to the New York State Legislature," Cuomo said, calling the two houses "the best legislative body in the nation."

Many other issues are still to be resolved once the budget closes down, including a cap on local property taxes, the UB 2020 plan that could be extended to other SUNY campuses, a legislative ethics revamping and a downstate rent regulation law.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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