By NICK REISMAN
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY, NY - State lawmakers are due back in Albany on Wednesday to collect their $171 per diems, but they aren't expected to accomplish much other than that.
Lawmakers on Tuesday gave no indication that the proposals Gov. David Paterson wants them to vote on - including a plan to control property-tax increases and sweeping changes to the state university system - would be voted on.
They also didn't appear close to a budget deal for the 2010-11 fiscal year, which started April 1. Lawmakers are approaching the record for the latest budget adopted in state history set in 2004 when the budget was approved Aug. 11.
Though Paterson can compel lawmakers to return to Albany, he can't force votes on any of his proposals. He has called legislative sessions for Wednesday and Thursday. Lawmakers, as they have done in previous special sessions, can simply gavel in and out of session without taking any action.
"I think this is all about posturing and making headlines," said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County. "The legislators shouldn't be called back to town unless they're going to take up legislation, period."
It wasn't even clear whether Senate Democrats would have all 32 members in town. Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson, D-Brooklyn, was asked repeatedly during a conference call with reporters Tuesday if Senate President Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, was on vacation and would be unavailable to return to Albany. And each time he was asked, Sampson said the focus was to continue negotiations between the Assembly and the governor's office. "Tomorrow is about outstanding issues," Sampson said. "Once they have been resolved we will move forward."
A Smith spokeswoman would not confirm that Smith would attend the session. If he or any other Democrat weren't there, Democrats would need Republican lawmakers to vote with them to pass the budget or other bills, which is far from a guarantee. Democrats hold a thin 32-29 majority in the Senate with one vacancy heading into the November elections.
Paterson spokesman Morgan Hook said even if a Democratic lawmaker doesn't show up on Wednesday, there will be enough senators from both parties present. "We fully expect there will be more than enough Democratic and Republican senators to pass legislation tomorrow," he said. "It will be incumbent on all of them to get a budget done."
The Senate must still approve a revenue bill in order to complete the state budget. The Assembly approved that measure earlier this month before leaving Albany.
Lawmakers have not been paid since the start of the 2010-11 fiscal year, but most receive a $171 per diem allowance for food and lodging whenever the Legislature is in session. They also receive travel reimbursements. It costs as much as $100,000 for every day of session, according to some estimates. About $5.6 million in salary has been withheld from lawmakers.
Paterson met with Sampson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, on Monday in New York City. But little appears to have been accomplished.
Sampson and Silver submitted an alternative proposal to the SUNY Empowerment plan, which would allow individual state colleges to set their own tuition rates and undertake economic-development projects.
The compromise Sampson and Silver is seeking is likely a more modest version, such as limiting tuition independence to just some campuses. Currently, the Legislature has to approve any tuition increases. The full plan has the backing of Paterson, but key lawmakers in the Assembly are opposed.
Some Senate Democrats earlier this month would not vote to complete the state budget, now 15 weeks late, unless the SUNY Empowerment measure was approved. Hook said Paterson had asked Sampson and Silver to submit their higher-education proposal in writing, but as of Tuesday afternoon had not been received.
Paterson is also seeking a property-tax cap, but that appears to be going nowhere as well. Silver on Tuesday rejected the idea, saying it would have a negative impact local governments and school districts. "I think at this time when the state is cutting back, it is difficult for us to limit localities, limit school districts as to what they can do to provide for their members, their constituents," he said.
Senate Democrats, who want to maintain and expand their narrow majority, continue to push for some form of property-tax relief in a state where taxes are among the highest in the nation. "I think it's incumbent that we finish up this budget process and it's always been a priority that the final budget include property tax relief," said Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx.
In addition to the property-tax issue and SUNY Empowerment, Paterson is urging lawmakers to create a contingency fund in case up to $1 billion in federal Medicaid money doesn't come to the state. Paterson has also resurrected proposals such as a plan that would allow wine to be sold in grocery stores and a tax on sugary soft drinks.
What's left to be done:
Gov. David Paterson called lawmakers back to Albany with the hope they would consider several proposals. Here are some of the items on his agenda:
*Property-tax cap: Paterson wants to cap property taxes at 4 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. He has been pushing for this plan since the beginning of the year. Democratic legislators suggested an alternative plan of using $300 million in school aid to allow wealthier districts to reduce their taxes.
*SUNY Empowerment: The plan would allow state university campuses to set their own tuition rates and undertake economic development programs. Tuition increases would be capped at 7 percent annually for some programs. The plan also includes more money for the Tuition Assistance Program.
*Medicaid contingency: It is becoming increasingly likely that New York will not receive up to $1 billion in federal Medicaid funding. Paterson is trying to get the Legislature to approve a contingency fund through across-the-board cuts to other areas of the budgewt.
*Back from the dead: The governor is trying to resurrect controversial proposals that have failed to pass either the Senate or Assembly - a plan to allow grocery stores to sell wine and a tax on sugary soft drinks in order to raise revenue.
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