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Smiles – but no details – from legislative leaders as deal nears on state budget

ALBANY – State legislative leaders emerged all smiles from a nearly two-hour closed-door budget session with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday afternoon in advance of the new fiscal year beginning next Tuesday.

Their lack of specifics on any topic raised by reporters indicates that the sides are closing in on a final deal.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said he expects to have all budget bills printed by Friday night – meaning that they will be “live” after a three-day aging period to be passed Monday, the deadline if Cuomo and lawmakers are to enact their fourth on-time budget in a row.

“Look how much I love Shelly,” Senate co-leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, said while smiling and hugging Silver as they emerged from Cuomo’s office. Last week, Silver described Skelos as having been “agitated” in a brief private session that did not go well.

But, with all sides on record as saying an on-time budget is a key priority, Tuesday’s 3-minute, 40-second back-and-forth with reporters produced zero news – just as legislative leaders were hoping.

Skelos came the closest, though, when he refused to rule out the possibility of a taxpayer-funded campaign finance system being approved as part of the budget. Senate Republicans have been adamant that no such plan will ever pass their house as long as they have a role in the coalition-style governance in the Senate.

“Everything’s being discussed,” Skelos said of the campaign finance plan being pushed by Silver and Cuomo.

On a walk to his Capitol office, Skelos was asked if his remarks to reporters indicated some warming to the idea of a system in which taxpayer money would help fund races by statewide and legislative candidates. “All we said was, people are discussing different things, so some people discuss it more than others,” he said.

So he is not the one discussing it? “I save my breath, at times, for things that are important,” Skelos said.

Cuomo and legislative leaders set the broad parameters for how issues are to be resolved, and the nitty-gritty of having the numbers all fit together is left for their staffs.

The issues still on the table include the level of state funding for everything from public schools and municipalities to the state university system, as well as how much to dedicate to a new, full-day prekindergarten program across the state.

The governor’s property tax freeze program – giving a modest rebate to taxpayers in communities whose taxing authorities agree to cut costs by mergers or sharing services – is also still not resolved.

Other issues still needing final resolution include how much to borrow – it will likely be at least $2 billion – for school infrastructure and purchasing programs and whether donors giving to nonprofits that provide financial gifts to private schools will get a tax break.

Skelos and Silver both said the state’s Common Core education program is on the table, though it is not yet certain whether major elements to amend the program will be part of the budget or delayed until later in the session.

Other items still up in the air range from whether to have a nonprofit group run the state’s organ-donation program, if medical marijuana should be legalized and if children of undocumented immigrants will be permitted state financial aid to attend college. Lawmakers said there has been no discussion of Cuomo’s plan to provide certain prison inmates with a state-funded college education.

Silver, Skelos and Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, D-Bronx, who leads the Senate with Skelos, gave no specifics of the talks, and neither did Cuomo.