The State Capitol on Wednesday became the scene of something indeed rare for this town: open democracy.
After decades of closed meetings between governors and legislative leaders about how to divvy up the state budget's dollars, the fiscal process moved to a public forum for what might have been the first time in the state's history.
Republicans and Democrats from the two legislative houses held their first conference committee on the budget, an 80-minute gathering that dealt more with housekeeping matters than with resolving the budget stalemate. Nonetheless, even some of the most ardent government-reform critics left the room heartened.
"I think everyone has been empowered today, and that's what government is all about," said Barbara Bartoletti, a lobbyist with the New York State League of Women Voters.
In a hearing room packed with leading lobbyists and rank-and-file lawmakers, Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, presided over a 10-member panel responsible for setting parameters for how the process will work. In the end, no numbers were agreed to, except how many subcommittees -- nine -- the Legislature will break into to resolve spending disputes in specific interest areas of the budget.
The scene started out well-choreographed, as taxpayer-funded legislative camera crews captured the opening moments. For the show, reporters and cameras were assigned the best seats up front, as legislators had to scramble with lobbyists for the remaining chairs.
Quickly, however, the messiness of big-dollar budget-making took over, as the members jostled about how the process would work and how much money lawmakers can really spend. It was about then that some in the audience began joking about a desire to return to the days of closed-door talks.
Clearly, Bruno and Silver, with all the rhetoric about open process, will be unable to now turn back the path they began to take on Wednesday. While some lobbyists insist that the two leaders will never surrender their enormous power to rank-and-file members and instead will merely dictate from behind the scenes, Bruno and Silver insist otherwise.
"Watch the process," Silver suggested.
"This is going to be a totally open process. And it is truly historic, and it's different, and it's new, and we're feeling our way as we're going along," Bruno said.
Lobbyists, long accustomed to back-door means to influence the process, were left guessing about how the budget will be played out. For rank-and-file legislators, who in the past found themselves voting on budget bills they had not even read, a feeling of giddiness was in the air.
"It certainly is a way other states are functioning," said Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville. "And our process was broken, and we had to fix it." She said some are speculating that a budget could be in place in two weeks.
But one lawmaker joked that legislators were being fitted with special hearing devices so they could be told by the leaders what to say during the upcoming meetings. A lobbyist suggested that the sessions be held in a nearby state theater instead of the legislative hearing rooms.
Assemblyman William L. Parment, D-Jamestown, said that while he had concerns whether rank-and-file members will truly be able to digest the intricacies of the budget process, he is hopeful.
"There will be a greater diversity of views and perhaps a greater consensus when the budget is adopted," he said. "It will be more reflective of members and less a deal put together by three people outside the public view."
But before the democracy-in-action can continue, Bruno and Silver's overall joint committee must still agree on a total spending package -- how high the budget ceiling can go. The sides are hopeful that a deal can be reached on this by Monday.