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Effort made to fight state on budget cut

Despite an announced state budget deal, negotiators finalizing the spending plan were besieged Monday by lawmakers and lobbyists seeking one last crack at restoring money for popular programs.

A day after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced an agreement with legislative leaders for a 2011 budget, details on key health and education funding initiatives were elusive.

"They're nickels and dimes," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said of the remaining differences in the $132.5 billion spending bill.

Before any budget bills were printed, advocacy groups for poor people, schools, doctors, state courts, prison guards, senior citizens and college students railed against the budget agreement, which trims state spending 2 percent from the current year's budget.

Advocates were looking to get funding restored for everything from Roswell Park Cancer Institute to rural schools.

School districts were among the loudest critics, after lawmakers managed to get $230 million in operating aid restored, reducing the $1.5 billion in Cuomo-proposed cuts for 700 districts.

Cuomo says districts have other ways to cover the cuts, but school leaders say they are preparing for teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and other class and after-school reductions.

Robert Christmann, president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said districts have gotten the message they can't turn to property taxpayers to make up all the differences in the state cuts.

"We have to do a better job in school to prepare our students for college or the world of work -- and some of the supports we have in place for that might not be there," said Christmann, superintendent of the Grand Island School District.

Lawmakers on different budget panels kicked some of the more contentious matters up to legislative leaders, including health-related matters. District-by-district school aid numbers won't be released until Wednesday, lawmakers said.

The Cuomo administration took exception to criticism that details are lacking. "The programs have been agreed to, the pots of money have been agreed to and the concepts have been agreed to," said Josh Vlasto, a Cuomo spokesman.

While many majority party lawmakers said they will vote for the budget even though they don't like many of the cuts, some minority party members were already sharpening their arguments. Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, criticized the spending plan for not including the University at Buffalo's UB 2020 plan and for what he believes will be a "disproportionate hit" on Western New York public schools.

Kennedy said the budget should have included an income tax surcharge on millionaires.

"It's a bad deal for the people of Western New York," he said of the still-emerging budget.

In advance of precise numbers, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, said "every region of the state was treated fairly" with school aid funding.

Business groups lauded the budget for avoiding major tax increases, controlling state spending and including such provisions as making permanent a low-cost electricity program for hundreds of businesses. Still unresolved is exactly how a new program will be run that will guide the state's economic development spending on a more regional basis.

Among the sharpest budget critics Monday was a group representing physicians, which had signed onto Cuomo's Medicaid cost-cutting plan in return for a cap on malpractice awards. The cap died this week.

"We are angry, disgusted and feel betrayed by this unconscionable decision," said Dr. Leah McCormack, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York. McCormack threatened that the physicians' group will be "reevaluating its political efforts and taking a long look at our priorities. It is no longer business as usual."

AARP, meanwhile, said a $36 million cut to the state's EPIC prescription drug program will affect several hundred thousand seniors; one advocate said some seniors will pay more in monthly drug costs or be pushed to generic versions of medicines.

Lawmakers announced a number of agreements, including restoration of $87 million for the state university and city university systems. Most of the money will go to undo some funding cuts to three SUNY-run hospitals.

As business groups hailed the budget, human services advocates said programs for the poor will be hit hard, citing a delay in a previously approved increased in the state's basic welfare grant.

"We have to make sure we're concerned with all the communities, not just the business community," said Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson.

On the contentious UB 2020 plan, which was punted to post-budget talks after the Assembly rejected it, both sides said they await Cuomo's plan for a task force to study the issue. The proposal calls for tuition hikes and public/private partnerships as part of UB's downtown development effort; other SUNY centers also want the same powers.

While lawmakers rejected a number of policy plans advanced by Cuomo, they also agreed to leave him some significant powers, including which prisons to close and how the regional economic councils will be run. Money was restored for special education schools, including St. Mary's School for the Deaf in Buffalo, and summer youth employment programs.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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