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Pataki Vetoes Funding for School Construction

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No sooner had the Republican governor announced the cuts on April 26 than lawmakers and education groups were angling for ways to restore them. At the top of the list was a four-year, $500 million program for school construction and renovation statewide, as well as $77 million to raise teacher salaries in the state's five biggest urban districts.

Despite the cuts, however, the budget approved by Mr. Pataki contained plenty of good news for schools.

For example, he left intact the legislature's $740 million increase in basic formula-driven aid to districts, a 7.2 percent gain from the current school year and $300 million more than he originally proposed. The increase will bring such aid to more than $11 billion statewide.

In announcing the cuts, Mr. Pataki took sharp aim at the facilities program, an initiative pushed by the Democratic leaders of the Assembly--the legislature's lower chamber--and the largest single item he axed.

Calling the facilities plan "a huge taxpayer-funded boondoggle," he said it would "squander millions of dollars while leaving the infrastructure problem unaddressed."

School leaders and some legislators disputed that assessment and vowed to work for the money's restoration.

"This is an area of enormous concern that the governor just blithely ignored," said Assemblyman Steven Sanders, a New York City Democrat and the chairman of the Assembly education committee. "He doesn't want to borrow money to build schools, yet he's willing to borrow money to build prisons."

Need for Prudence Cited

In vetoing an estimated 1,300 line items in the overall budget, Mr. Pataki cast himself as a voice of austerity at a time when temptations to overspend are high. Not only are he and the legislature up for re-election in the fall, but tax coffers are overflowing because of the robust economy.

"I will not allow this state to return to the politics-as-usual, tax-and-tax, spend-and-spend policies that nearly bankrupted this state," the governor said. "Fiscal prudence mandates that we use additional revenues for reserves and future unanticipated costs."

It is possible, although not probable, that legislators could try to override Mr. Pataki's vetoes, which brought the size of the total state budget for 1998-99 to $71.4 billion. They could also bargain with the governor over boosting spending in some areas with supplemental appropriations. The lawmakers are scheduled to be in session through June 18.

This winter, the governor proposed raising total state aid to schools by $518 million, to nearly $11.5 billion. Lawmakers wanted to boost that increase to $924 million. The governor's vetoes scaled it back to $847 million, pushing total state school aid to $11.8 billion.

Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills, an appointee of the state board of regents, called the final spending plan "a pro-education budget" that supports the regents' drive for more-rigorous academic standards. Of particular interest, he said, was the creation of a new type of state aid, funded at $82 million in 1998-99, to help districts reach the tougher standards.

"There are obviously unmet needs, but there are unmet needs in every budget," Mr. Mills said.

Salary Aid Sliced

Mr. Pataki's veto of the $77 million teacher-salary program represented the largest cut to the legislature's education budget, apart from the school construction proposal. Other cuts included money for teacher-mentors and professional development.

A spokesman for New York State United Teachers, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, called the governor's vetoes "a slap in the face."

New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew said cutting the facilities plan and the teacher-support programs would have "dire consequences." The 1.1 million-student city system would have gotten an estimated $200 million of the school construction and modernization kitty.

"Decades of underfunding have left our buildings with the need for upward of $10 billion in repairs," the chancellor said.

Cutting the salary aid, which was designed to help urban districts offer salaries more competitive with those in nearby suburbs, would make it harder for the city to cope with "a massive wave of teacher departures as the baby boom generation reaches retirement age," Mr. Crew said.

Mr. Pataki's vetoes followed voters' rejection last fall of a bond program that would have netted schools statewide about $2.4 billion for facilities upgrades.

Mr. Pataki cited that vote as a factor in his decision. He also noted that the final budget increases state aid for school capital projects by some $140 million, to $900 million.

Mr. Mills stressed that state and local school leaders would keep up their push for more facilities money.

"We have to look long term," he said. "We just have to keep demonstrating the need and use the money that has been provided very thoughtfully."

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