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Schools May Win Share of N.Y. Budget Windfall

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New York State legislators huddled late last week behind closed doors to complete a budget with a different wrinkle from recent years: unexpected revenues of perhaps a half-billion dollars.

The surplus could lead to a boost in school aid, help for the state's aging school buildings, and funding for the first time for a scholarship program enacted four years ago.

The final funding levels in the fiscal 1995 budget were still subject to change, however, depending on last-gasp legislative maneuvers and a final tally of the extra funds available.

After budget experts said the state's rebounding economy would result in greater-than-expected tax receipts, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed last month to count on a windfall of roughly $450 million.

Some in the legislature said that figure was too high. But at the end of March, the economy still was outrunning projections, raising the possibility that there could be even more funds available, according to Charles Porcari, the Governor's spokesman.

"This is the first time in several years that we're not going to have a draconian, cut-and-slash budget,'' said Alan Chartock, a professor of communications at the State University of New York at Albany and the publisher of The Legislative Gazette.

Corridor Collisions

After years of recession-wracked budgets, the surplus has brought relative calm to Albany, observers said. But the prospect of a bigger state budget still has some factions butting heads in the Statehouse corridors.

Late last month, lobbyists for New York's business community blasted the New York State United Teachers for leaning on legislators who support a bill providing tax cuts for industry.

Officials of the Business Council of New York State said teachers' union lobbyists made "veiled threats'' against lawmakers supporting the bill.

"It's one thing to have a lot of weight,'' said Robert Bellafiore, a spokesman for the council, "but it's another thing to throw it around inappropriately.''

Linda Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman for NYSUT, said that while union members lobbied against using the entire surplus for tax cuts for business, they never threatened members or argued against any specific bill.

Moreover, Ms. Rosenblatt said, the business council's position that tax cuts would lead to an increase of jobs is "totally unrealistic.''

"This money would not go back to the workers,'' she added. "It would go back to C.E.O.s and corporations.''

In his original budget proposal, Governor Cuomo called for $210 million in tax cuts for businesses, including reductions in the state corporate surcharge, hotel-occupancy tax, and other miscellaneous fees. He also proposed increasing school aid by $198 million, to a total of $9.3 billion.

Early reports of a tentative agreement between lawmakers and the Governor on the budget framework suggested that both the school-aid and business-tax-cut proposals would be doubled, to roughly $400 million each. But observers noted that informal deals do not always hold up.

"We will probably add to what the Governor has proposed for schools,'' said William Stevens, a spokesman for Sen. Ralph J. Marino, the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate. "But will the final number be $400 million? Who knows?'' Mr. Stevens said.

Last year, lawmakers added $330 million to the school-aid budget, the first increase in three years. (See Education Week, April 21, 1993.)

'Looking for Big Things'

To many school districts in the state, however, the issue of the total amount of school aid is less pressing than the question of how it will be divided up.

One district that was anxiously awaiting its final aid amount last week was Syracuse, the state's fifth-largest school system.

With the bills on several big contracts coming due, Syracuse school officials said they were hoping for $10 million in state aid, compared with the $2 million they received last year.

To reach that goal, legislators would have both to tap the surplus and to change the formula for how school aid is distributed, according to Les McCormick, the district's budget director.

"We're looking for big things, probably just like every other district,'' Mr. McCormick said.

Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, meanwhile, is pushing for money to rebuild the state's aging school buildings. Under the tentative agreement, Speaker Silver, a Democrat, and Senator Marino plan a capital-projects fund for work on schools, as well as for construction of swimming pools, recreation centers, and minor-league baseball stadiums in upstate cities, according to a spokesman for Speaker Silver.

How much money would go to school buildings, and whether it would be counted as state school aid, was still being negotiated.

In addition, aides said, the leaders have agreed to an unspecified appropriation for Mr. Cuomo's Liberty Scholarship program, which was approved by the legislature in 1990 but never funded.

The program guarantees middle and high school students the financial aid they need to attend college.

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