Assemblyman-elect Mark J.F. Schroeder went to Albany Thursday for a freshman orientation that covered everything from voting on bills to finding the men's room.
But the Assembly also learned something about the South Buffalo Democrat.
Though scheduled to participate in a preliminary re-election vote for Sheldon Silver as speaker, Schroeder skipped the session after receiving no assurance the Assembly would prioritize his request for an on-time budget.
Rather than "making a spectacle" and still hoping for an on-time budget promise before a formal vote in January, Schroeder returned to Buffalo Thursday night and became the sole Assembly Democrat choosing not to vote for Silver, one of Albany's most powerful figures.
"I'm asking for a written assurance from the speaker for an on-time budget," Schroeder said. "I understand it's not totally his call. But I need to know if it's an absolute priority. And if I don't get what I need, I'm not going to vote for him for speaker."
In the heat of his Democratic primary campaign to succeed Brian M. Higgins, the Assembly member who was elected to Congress, Schroeder and his two opponents all promised not to support Silver without his assurance the budget will arrive on schedule for the first time in 21 years. Schroeder said that despite several conversations with Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz of Cheektowaga, Silver's top deputy in the Assembly, he was unable to convey the importance of honoring a promise that proved central to his campaign.
"I was still 20 miles away from Albany when I called Paul to tell him how serious I was on this," Schroeder, an Erie County legislator, said Friday. "I told him I had no butterflies about this, and without it, I would not vote for (Silver) as speaker.
"I want to get along and I've always been a team member," he added, "but I won't be inconsistent with what I've said. And I'm just not going to go away easy on this."
In addition, Schroeder has sent a letter to Assembly colleagues asking them to sign the same pledge. Some have called it an unrealistic demand that could undercut the speaker's strength as the Assembly's chief negotiator in the budget process.
Silver spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee would say only that "the speaker looks forward to working with all 104 members of his conference."
Tokasz, meanwhile, said he understood Schroeder needed to return to attend to County Legislature business. But he also said his only allegiance is to his constituents and the State Constitution, explaining that late budgets sometimes loom as the only way to negotiate with a recalcitrant governor.
Local benefits such as $50 million for Buffalo schools or commitments to rehabilitate Buffalo's Richardson towers resulted only from tough negotiations that involved a late budget, Tokasz said.
"I can point to any number of things the delegation, on a bipartisan basis, has gotten into the budget," he said, adding that he must rely on every possible negotiating tactic if Gov. George E. Pataki submits what he and other Democrats consider an unacceptable budget. "On the face of it, it's unrealistic," Tokasz said of the Schroeder request.
Schroeder said he has also made several overtures to Silver, even inviting him to his district for a forum on legislative reform, and has received no encouragement regarding his request. If he still does not receive the assurance he seeks, he said he cannot honestly return to his constituents to ask for re-election in 2006.