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Battle over charter schools stalls deal on NY state budget

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Rebates, hospital aid, social support at stakeEdit

Source: By TOM PRECIOUS, tprecious @ buffnews.com, News Albany Bureau, 6/23/2006, Associated Press

ALBANY - A bitter, last-minute battle over charter schools kept state leaders from agreeing Thursday on a multibillion-dollar budget deal to provide homeowners with property-tax rebate checks, hospitals with new funding and low-income working families with child care and other support.

Gov. George Pataki warned lawmakers he would send them a financial package - which adds to the state budget already approved in March - that included a provision expanding the number of charter schools in New York.

Lawmakers, however, called it a poison pill, and said they would not act on it unless the provision was erased.

Meanwhile, the budget deal being negotiated includes a new program that proponents say would help cities, especially Buffalo, to remove some of the urban blight that has spread during the decades of economic downturn in the upstate region.

Officials involved in the negotiations said a pot of money - estimated as high as $500 million - would be available to urban areas to demolish or rehabilitate vacant properties. Still under discussion Thursday night were the size and geographic distribution of the funds.

The urban rehabilitation plan, similar to one proposed for upstate by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, would especially help Buffalo, which according to census figures has the highest number of vacant structures of upstate cities.

"This funding will help bring upstate cities back to life by restoring their tax base and their wealth," Brown said Thursday night. Unlike the usual direct aid to cities from Albany, he said, "This will give upstate cities the assistance they need to help themselves by strengthening the economy."

The urban renewal money would be part of an economic development package that Pataki and lawmakers are negotiating that would total well in excess of $1 billion.

Geographic politics is driving the pot of funds: Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno want to put $1 billion or more into a major computer chip manufacturing facility north of Albany, a deal that has lawmakers from other parts of the state clamoring for a piece of the economic development fund.

The high-stakes poker game between Pataki and lawmakers left in doubt about $5 billion worth of tax cuts and spending initiatives that both the governor and election-bound Legislature have political reasons to resolve. The fight drags into today. Lawmakers were supposed to end their 2006 session Thursday, and some said the matter could spill over until next week.

Whenever it is completed, the budget deal is supposed to include rebate checks averaging $250 to property taxpayers across the state, which would happen to hit mailboxes just weeks before the November elections. As he has done for months, Bruno again vowed that the checks will be in the mail this fall.

The dispute is not being helped by warring personalities; Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, have not talked since Tuesday when Silver said the governor's priorities in the budget talks are about impressing conservative Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire - a remark Pataki called "despicable.

As he walked down a Capitol hallway, Pataki repeatedly declined to discuss the dispute.

Silver accused Pataki of including "extraneous matters" into a budget plan lawmakers had expected to approve Thursday. With funding for welfare-to-work programs now stalled with the dispute, Silver said Pataki was trying to "take hostages, like poor people" for charter schools.

Critics, which include teachers unions concerned that charter schools are taking away money from traditional schools, say Pataki has latched onto charter schools to burnish his conservative credentials as he mulls a 2008 White House run. Supporters say unions fear losing members to charters, which they insist are performing better. NY State law permits 100 charter schools, a number already reached.

Peter Murphy, policy director for the New York Charter School Association, said charter schools should not be a "scapegoat" in the budget dispute. Asked if he believes Pataki will hold firm, Murphy said, "As far as we can tell the governor's position remains unchanged."

Lawmakers said Pataki was also trying to push through an early retirement incentive program whose recipients could include Pataki loyalists on the state payroll.

While Pataki and legislative leaders were at war, there was movement on other issues in Albany. In what preservationists say will provide major assistance to the rehabilitation of buildings in Buffalo and other cities, the Legislature agreed to provide income tax credits to companies and individuals for rehabilitating older commercial and houses.

The Preservation League of New York State estimated more than 1,000 houses in Buffalo could qualify for the tax credit. For homeowners, the credit is available only to homes located in what are known as distressed census tracts, which would include neighborhoods such as Allentown. The residential credit is worth up to $25,000. It has several conditions, including at least 5 percent of the work must be to a home's exterior and approved by a landmark commission.

The credit available to historic commercial properties has no geographic restrictions; it is worth up to $100,000.

Clinton Brown, a Buffalo architect whose firm specializes in revitalizing heritage buildings, said the measure will help projects ranging from fixing up porches on a historic house to renovation of the Webb Building in Buffalo.

"It is a significant amount of money that will make these projects that otherwise wouldn't be economically viable," Brown said.

It is uncertain how much the total program will cost the state. Brown characterized the measure as an investment for the state "because it keeps people living here and helps keep people's investments in their communities."

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