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Deals elusive in Albany as UB is among those waiting

It is becoming the legislative session that can't find a way to end.

Final deals remained elusive Wednesday night in the Capitol on a host of matters, from whether to legalize gay marriage to the question of giving the University at Buffalo the authority to relocate its medical school downtown.

As supporters and opponents of gay marriage continued their late-night -- and loud -- vigils in the hallways of the Capitol, negotiators were still stalled on crafting a bill for a five-year, 30 percent increase in state university tuition and accompanying language to produce a scaled-down version of the long-stalled UB 2020 plan.

The Governor's Office did not comment on the UB components of a SUNY bill, which had not yet been introduced by late Wednesday night.

On gay marriage, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the sides are still discussing protections for religious institutions, which are worried about losing tax-exempt status or state licenses for everything from catering halls to bingo nights if they do not offer certain services for gay couples seeking to get married.

The governor said the talks are not about trying to convince several undecided Republican senators, including Buffalo's Mark J. Grisanti. "It's for the conference," Cuomo said of the entire GOP Senate conference.

The bill, which already has passed the Assembly, is one vote shy of approval in the Senate, and GOP lawmakers as a group were weighing whether to put the vote out to the floor for a "conscience vote" or hold the legislation.

Rumors spread furiously on both sides of the debate that the Senate would try to suddenly rush the gay marriage bill to the floor for a late-night vote. Senate Republicans insisted that would not happen; they maintained that talks were continuing on the religious-exemption issues and that they want to see deals first on unrelated bills that are still stalled.

"We are going back and forth on language. But we've not hit any obstacles," Cuomo said in reference to talks he has held with Senate Republicans.

In what has become a daily replay, protesters on both sides of the gay marriage issue stood across from each other in a Senate hallway singing and chanting at each other. "I've heard so many hymns I don't have to go to church for 10 years," one senator said.

The issue has seen its share of sports and entertainment celebrities check in at the Capitol. Wednesday saw the first chef: restaurant owner and television celebrity Mario Batali, who was joined by Audra McDonald, an actress on the "Private Practice" television series, in promoting the gay marriage bill.

The 2011 legislative session was supposed to end Monday, but a number of hot-button issues, including gay marriage, have kept the session going. Assembly Democrats were told to reserve hotel rooms again tonight in case the session keeps going.

"I'm in no rush," Cuomo said.

Among other bills getting final approval Wednesday was a measure, stalled for several years, requiring health insurance plans to cover pills to treat chemotherapy patients in the same manner as when the drugs are intravenously administered. Oral chemotherapy treatments have expanded in recent years, but insurers classify them as prescription drug treatments -- making the costs beyond the reach of many cancer patients.

Insurers say the measure will boost premiums, though advocates say the pill therapies have become less expensive while keeping patients from having to go to hospitals or other settings for chemotherapy. Moreover, backers say that new treatment breakthroughs are often available only in pill form and that there are fewer side effects, such as hair loss, with pill therapy than with traditional chemotherapy.

The bill was a major issue for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, whose lobbyist has been at the Capitol pressing the measure in recent weeks.

"This is outstanding news for people with cancer, who now have dramatically improved access to some of the most advanced and promising therapies," Dr. Alex A. Adjei, chairman of Roswell Park's department of medicine, said in a statement.

Lawmakers also reached a deal to enact statewide rules to make the process for locating new power plants more specific. The measure, backed by business and environmental organizations, takes over for a law that expired in 2003 that has left a hodgepodge of state and local rules for new power plants. The legislation covers any type of facility producing more than 25 megawatts of power.

On the SUNY front, officials had said Tuesday that they had reached an agreement to raise tuition by $300 per year over the next five years. Cuomo has vowed that SUNY campuses can keep the additional proceeds to help hire more full-time professors, reduce class sizes and add back programs cut during the last three years of state financial reductions to the 64-campus system.

The tuition hike would affect SUNY's 21 four-year campuses. Tuition would go from $4,970 annually to $6,470. Cuomo said the deal would permit families to better plan tuition increases than confront the long tradition in New York of big spikes at unpredictable times.

Out-of-state students would be hit with increases of 10 percent per year, and the four campus centers, including UB, can add another $75 annual fee for all students.

The governor already has announced that UB is eligible for $35 million in state seed money for its $375 million medical school expansion.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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