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Albany works on adopting final budget; Protests spur closing of Capitol public areas

As hundreds of chanting demonstrators roamed in large groups Wednesday throughout the Capitol, state lawmakers were trying to rush through the final pieces of a $132.5 billion budget that cuts spending for schools, hospitals and an array of social welfare programs.

Lawmakers, who backed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in balancing the 2011 fiscal plan without a heavy reliance on tax increases or borrowing, resorted to rare shutdowns of the Capitol's public areas -- including hallways and chamber viewing areas -- to keep protesters from slowing down the proceedings.

"This is what democracy looks like," a group of mostly state university students chanted on the building's historic Million Dollar Staircase as a ring of state troopers surrounded them.

"Tax the rich, not the poor," another group on the other side of the building shouted during one tense moment when they started banging on a blocked set of doors leading into the Senate hallway.

In the end, the protesters -- who saw everything from whistles to marshmallows confiscated during security sweeps as they entered the Capitol -- had no immediate impact.

By nightfall, no arrests had been made.

While pieces of the budget have trickled out in recent days, the most secretive part -- individual school district aid levels -- was not made public until just before 9 p.m.

The school cuts range from a reduction of less than 1 percent, or $3.6 million, for Buffalo from the current total state aid funding, to drops of 5 percent or more for some suburban districts. Niagara Falls schools will lose $1.1 million in state aid, or 6.4 percent from this year.

In all, Erie County schools will see $27.5 million less in state aid than the current year.

Across the state, aid to schools will drop by nearly $1.3 billion in the coming year, which schools say will force teacher layoffs and classroom cuts.

Lawmakers said they added more than $650 million in spending beyond what Cuomo had proposed. But through a series of fiscal maneuvering and some cuts to the governor's plan, they said they would end up adopting a budget that overall was the same size as Cuomo proposed earlier this year.

Lawmakers on Wednesday night were trying to adopt an early budget before today's March 31 deadline for the first time since 1983 when the governor's father, Mario M. Cuomo, was in his first year in office.

The 2011 budget will spend 2 percent less than last year. It closes a $10 billion deficit, the majority of which was driven by the end of two years of federal stimulus funding.

Security was as tight as it has been in decades at the Capitol; even the Assembly, which lawmakers like to call the "people's house," closed down two large public viewing areas above the chamber floor, cutting off access to protesters, as well as school groups and tourists.

Beyond the school aid cuts, the budget will reduce funding for a slew of human services programs in Western New York. Funding was restored for some areas, such as summer youth employment, but was cut in others, such as prescription drug programs for seniors.

The general fund budget anticipates about $50 billion in personal income tax receipts -- about two-thirds of that state-financed portion of the budget.

Lawmakers supporting the budget said the package provides new incentives for job creation while controlling spending in a state capital that usually borrows and taxes its way out of deficits. Some matters, like which upstate prisons will close, won't be known for weeks or months.

"We've got to turn this state around, and that's what this budget is about. It sends a clear message to the people of this state and the people of this country that this heavy taxation will not continue," Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican, said during debate on one budget bill.

But Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, said he was voting against the bill because it did not include the University at Buffalo's plan known as UB 2020, made cuts to key human services programs and failed to extend an income tax surcharge on millionaires.

"This bill takes money away from Western New York families and puts it in the pockets of Wall Street millionaires," Kennedy said.

Voting for the budget bills was freshman Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, who last year vowed to vote against the budget if it did not include the UB 2020 plan. He said assurances from Cuomo to hold a summit before the end of legislative session to resolve the long-stalled plan, as well as his backing of other key aspects of the budget, led him to change his mind and vote yes.

The budget includes some restorations from Cuomo's budget, such as nearly $8 million to Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Another $25 million in capital money for Roswell Park was not approved, though the hospital still can apply for that funding, lawmakers said.

Wednesday, between the protesters and the long and drawn-out final fiscal talks and delays printing the budget, the process was, at best, messy.

Organizers of the protest included the New York State United Teachers union. The protesters included college students, teachers and advocates of more spending for everything from housing to welfare programs.

"It's not a budget crisis. It's a crisis of priorities," Cayden Mak, a UB graduate student, said as fellow demonstrators chanted against the budget cuts. Mak criticized the governor and lawmakers for choosing to cut State University of New York operating funds again, a step that students say has led to larger class sizes and program cuts.

"It's preposterous to let the millionaires tax expire and at the same time cut programs for the most vulnerable New Yorkers," Mak said.

The group thinned a bit by nightfall, though a couple hundred or so fanned out in different areas of the Capitol. At one point, a large group surged toward the governor's office, but they were met by a stream of troopers. "Hey, Cuomo, you're the worst, time to put the people first," they screamed outside his office.

The lockdown of areas of the Capitol was sharply criticized by government watchdog groups. Susan Lerner of Common Cause/NY said it was "outrageous that the Legislature is so frightened of ordinary New Yorkers."

But Assembly Majority Leader Ronald Canestrari said, "We had no choice." He said protesters "threatened us," and both houses wanted to try to get the budget done Wednesday. "If they wanted to disrupt us, they could have very easily. We just couldn't take that chance, not on a day like today," he said.

With many funding cuts already known, the most anxious groups Wednesday night were school districts, which are preparing their own spending plans for the next school year. Clarence Superintendent Thomas Coseo said any money restored by lawmakers should be spent cautiously. "There's no assurance that they won't have a midyear cut," he said.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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