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With an eye to shoring up his credentials as a fiscal conservative, Governor George Pataki's proposed budget includes plenty of social service cuts. Just about the only increase is a new $10 million line for after-school programs dubbed “Advantage Schools.” But the legislature won't have it–even though the governor's plan is almost identical to one it floated (and the governor killed) in 1998.

Last year, the legislature presented Pataki with a $10 million budget for after-school programs. The money would go to community-based groups to set up programs in neighborhood schools from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., when statistics show youth are most likely to get into trouble. And the money would bring in an additional $3.3 million for after-school programs courtesy of a matching grant from uber-funder George Soros.

Pataki vetoed the plan, but resurrected it this year as part of his own budget. Instead of being thrilled, legislators are miffed. The Senate has suggested the program's budget be trimmed down to less than $2 million, and the Assembly has officially taken a “no position” position on the matter.

It's because there's one very important adjustment in the proposal. Under the governor's plan, the funds will go where he can control them–through the state Office of Children and Family Services. The legislature's plan had the money flowing through the the State Education Department, run by the state Board of Regents. For state Dems, that's all the difference in the world.

“OCFS is a governor-controlled agency. The commissioner would have sole discretion over how grants are awarded to which schools, as opposed to the state Education Department, over which he has no control,” said Steve Sanders, chair of the Assembly Education Committee. “It makes no sense to bifurcate a system and introduce another agency.”

And behind these politics, there are more politics. Two years ago, the Assembly agreed to support upstate property tax cuts in exchange for a commitment on lowering class size and funding pre-kindergarten programs. But this year's Pataki budget falls about $80 million shy of that pledge, and it block-grants the money to be used for whatever the districts want. “The Democrats are really ticked that Pataki isn't going to be expanding pre-K programs,” noted one state budget observer.

Sanders called these issues “a very significant part of the budget impasse right now” but added that the Assembly is willing to cooperate with the governor and the Senate. “The worst result is not having the [after-school] programs at all. That's not something I'm anxious to see repeated.”

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