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Leaders optimistic on budget after meeting with Pataki

April 8, 2002, 2:41 PM EDT

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ The leaders of the state Legislature expressed guarded optimism Monday after an almost hour-long private meeting with Gov. George Pataki that an agreement might be in sight for a new state budget that is already a week overdue.

"We're well beyond midfield," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, after the session in Pataki's state Capitol office.

"We're gaining," said state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican. "We're closing some of our differences, but we don't have an agreement on anything."

Neither Bruno, who turned 73 on Monday, nor Silver would provide any details, but Silver said more education aid for schools was at the top of his list of priorities.

Silver said that at a similar point in negotiations over the budget last year, the Assembly and Pataki were about $2 billion apart on how much money was available to spend. This fiscal year, Silver said the two sides are "significantly less than half of that" apart.

"There is still the final, what shall I say, the final lap is still before us," Silver said. "But we've come closer than we've ever been at this stage."

Bruno did say Pataki and the legislative leaders, unable to agree on exactly how much money was available to spend, were seeking to first work out where money was needed and then decide where that would come from.

New York's state budget is late for the 18th straight year. Last year's budget wasn't adopted until Aug. 3, 2001.

Pataki has proposed an almost $89 billion budget plan.

Bruno said the trio would likely get together again later this week to pursue a possible budget deal.

Copyright (c) 2002, The Associated Press