POLITICAL NEWS Analysis
Legislature Fails To Tackle Budget
(AP) In a weird two weeks in a singularly weird place, Albany’s most confounding moment might have been when lawmakers said New Yorkers should appreciate how hard they toiled in a bipartisan way to do important work.
The lawmakers were talking about two major pieces of legislation— one that made a felony of driving drunk with a kid in the car and the other an overdue reform of public authorities. What they weren’t talking about was how, at the same time, they were failing to act during the last two weeks of extraordinary sessions on a $3.2 billion deficit that could slam schools, hospitals and nursing homes, and taxpayers.
“We can do this job with intelligence and energy and this is proof,” said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, the Westchester Democrat who, after years trying, got the authorities reform bill passed.
Progress was lacking, however, on the primary reason they were in Albany this off season. For days, lawmakers stood in front of TV cameras and assured reporters they were “very, very close” to a deficit reduction deal. They were smiling, the comments were glib, and the statements had little basis in reality.
Sen. Martin Malave Dilan, a Brooklyn Democrat and a sponsor of the drunken driving law, put it more pointedly and made the photo op uncomfortable for some of his colleagues.
“It’s a good day for all of us,” said Dilan, who emerged as a rare leader in bipartisanship this week. “And I hope and pray ... we can continue this bipartisan effort and get New York’s work done.”
Assemblyman James Tedisco, a Schenectady County Republican who’s witnessed Albany’s antics for more than 25 years, called those bills important in substance, but diversionary in timing.
“We could have done these bills in a day, last spring,” he said. But daily headlines about agreements on the DWI and reform bills served to overshadow the smaller headlines lines about inaction on the fiscal crisis.
“They’ve got themselves in a position where they are paralyzed right now,” Tedisco said of lawmakers in deficit reduction talks.
Negotiations are blocked by Albany’s two biggest sacred cows. Gov. David Paterson insists on what he considers modest but unavoidable cuts to school aid and health care, at least compared to the cuts other less protected areas of state spending are facing. Last Friday, Nov. 20, a major credit rating service backed up Paterson’s concern, warning the state could face a rating downgrade if the deficit persists.
The Assembly blamed the Senate. The governor blamed the Senate. The Senate blamed the Assembly and the governor.
Failure means state worker furloughs, layoffs, borrowing, the potentially costly credit rating downgrade and delayed payments to schools and local governments that could hurt taxpayers. There also are the experiences of 10 states in worse shape than New York: Prisoners released early, most libraries closed, state buildings sold, and pre-kindergarten programs closed.
“I think this is a lot more serious than the interest of some of the legislators who would rather go home and be heroes, saying,’`I didn’t cut school or aid,’ or, ‘Look, I didn’t cut health care,’” Paterson said last Friday.
The session was extraordinary for more than the $70,000 it cost taxpayers each day.
Paterson compelled lawmakers back to Albany to strike a deal, hoping for force the whole Legislature to focus and act quickly on the problem that has New York hurtling toward insolvency.
That may be what school kids are taught about how democracy works, but it’s not the way things work in Albany. Rank-and-file lawmakers who could play larger roles in the talks— and, so, bear direct responsibility for cuts—complained that they were forced to be in town when only their leaders should have been. In Albany, the governor and the leader of the Senate and leader of the Assembly meet privately, work out a deal, and the legislative leaders then sell the idea—or impose it—on the majority conference members. A press conference is next to announce a deal is final, followed at some point by public debate and a vote.
“I am doing my job, plain and simple,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “There is no reason to continue to just have a charade of staying here in session to do nothing. It is more important to be in consultation with members.”
While leaders continued to negotiate, rank-and-file lawmakers went home last Wednesday, Nov. 18, and Thursday, Nov. 19, returning on Monday, Nov. 23, to vote on a deal.
“It’s better to have a public discussion, but from a taxpayer perspective, it’s better that they get something done,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “This was the worst of both worlds—they came back, but they didn’t do anything.”
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