ALBANY, N.Y. - As schools reopened across New York with far less financial aid from the state than they hoped, state lawmakers returned to the Capitol Tuesday to serve the political equivalent of detention created by their overdue homework, better known around here as the state budget.
Called back for a special session by Gov. George Pataki, the Legislature freed up $2.1 billion so construction on state university campuses and toxic spill cleanups can continue without interruption. That money had been collected in previous years but had been left out of the Legislature's pared-down budget, passed a month ago, along with billions more in unspent funds.
But Pataki and legislative leaders were unable to agree on more substantial additions to the $79.6 billion spending plan the Legislature passed last month. Legislators intended that spartan budget, $4 billion less than what Pataki wanted, to be the floor for state spending, but since then negotiators have been unable to agree on a supplemental budget.
Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said Tuesday night that because so many upstate school districts had sent out their tax bills, he was not sure what point there would be to continue to negotiate over more school aid.
"Unless we can provide property tax relief, there is no reason on this earth, this year, this late in the season, that we do anything beyond what we've done," Bruno said.
But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said it would be a mistake to abandon discussions. "It is wrong to give up supplementing the governor's proposal now because we could require rebates or programmatic increases." He characterized the discussions with Bruno and Pataki as "positive" and said the three would meet again Wednesday.
A survey of 135 school districts by the New York State School Boards Association showed that about half of them had set their tax rates under the assumption that they would be getting more money later this year. The survey found that 61 percent of the districts had based their budgets on Pataki's initial budget proposal, which included a $382 million increase in school aid from last year. The Legislature included Pataki's increase in its pared-down budget even though the amount was less than half what the Senate wanted and only a quarter of what the Assembly desired.
With this year's April 1 budget deadline five months past and next year's legislative session only four months away, Bruno's comments signaled the increased
Pataki praised the Legislature for its action Tuesday but said it was "critical" for the Legislature to give him the authority to spend millions more left over from previous years.