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North country schools to see boost; War of 1812 programs to be funded

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Based on the rosy tone of rank-and-file state legislators’ reactions to the 2012-13 budget — more money for north country schools, help for seniors to pay for prescription drugs and grants to help the north country celebrate the War of 1812 bicentennial, they point out — swift passage of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s $132.6 billion plan appears to be a safe bet.

“I give a lot of credit to the governor,” said state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. “The governor has definitely been working across party lines. It’s great to see that two years in a row.”

And, unlike with past landmark legislation — most recently, pension changes and a redistricting deal — bills are being printed and subjected to the Legislature’s three-day aging rule, which is often flouted in a rush to get measures passed.

The exact amount of funding to each north country school had yet to be revealed as of Tuesday evening; the figures are expected to be released this morning.

But the budget will drive $200 million more than originally proposed to schools by cutting the competitive grant program that Mr. Cuomo had put forward. The extra $200 million will go into the typical aid formulas instead of a program that schools would have to fight over. North country districts complained that they wouldn’t have been eligible for the program anyway.

Despite the extra funds, lingering displeasure with the way the state dishes out school aid remains among educators and lawmakers. North country legislators clamored this year and late last year for a change in the formula, which they say shortchanges poor and average-wealth rural schools in favor of wealthy districts downstate.

“Really, the debate is going to need to center around this issue next year,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “The school districts are applying unsustainable reserves. The reserves are going to be exhausted in the next two years. The high-stakes year is going to be next year.”

In a visit Tuesday to Fort Drum, Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy defended Mr. Cuomo’s record of education reform, and said the executive is open to formula changes.

“I think one thing we have to do is keep on revisiting the funding formulas and how those decisions are made, because they do cause confusion around the state,” Mr. Duffy said. “I’m not here to defend the formula applications as perfect. They are not. I think we have to keep re-examining those, but the governor’s commitment is to make us number one in results, and he has done a tremendous job in the first 15 months trying to, again, take some difficult positions and make the decisions to get us there.”

The Assembly majority provided targeted aid, too, to the tune of $435,000 for a range of north country schools, Mrs. Russell said. The Senate will also be able to provide so-called “bullet aid,” but hasn’t decided on actual figures yet, Mrs. Ritchie said. Bullet aid is targeted to specific districts, and it’s up to legislators in the Senate and Assembly to decide what districts get what amount of money.

Mrs. Russell and Mrs. Ritchie independently said that their offices received a deluge of calls about the Elderly Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage program, known as EPIC.

In 2011, seniors were incensed about the budget’s EPIC fail; it cut support for prescription copayments and deductibles.

This year, the governor and Legislature agreed to restore $30.6 million to help certain seniors with drug copays.

“That’s major. That’s really major,” Mrs. Russell said.

Mrs. Ritchie agreed.

“I’ve received literally hundreds of calls and letters from my constituents saying they’re struggling, that they can’t afford to pay for their prescriptions,” she said. “It was great news. I’m glad to see it happen.”

And north country history buffs will have reason to celebrate about the budget.

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 has arrived, but it hasn’t come with any direct aid from New York state. And Mr. Cuomo has vetoed a bill that would create a commission to help organize events.

That left those hoping to hold commemorations in Ogdensburg and Sackets Harbor frustrated. But, Mrs. Ritchie said late Tuesday, the governor and legislative leaders agreed to restore a $450,000 grant to the New York Council for the Humanities, a line item that had been eliminated in 2010.

The council then will be able to use that money to fund War of 1812 commemorations, Mrs. Ritchie said.

Sara J. Ogger, the council’s executive director, said the nonprofit organization would provide grants to local governments that are putting on 1812-related events that are educational in nature. The money also will help fund the group’s speakers program, which was at risk of shutting down.

“There hasn’t been much put forward on our side of the river. So we’ve been talking about this for awhile,” Ms. Ogger said. “It’s so important to our nation’s identity.”

Times staff writer Gordon Block contributed to this report.

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