Western New York lawmakers were thrust into key posts to help resolve the state budget stalemate during Day 2 of the State Capitol's new twist on democracy.
The leaders of the Senate and the Assembly on Thursday named several veteran Buffalo-area lawmakers to head the panels that will decide how specific areas of the budget -- from economic development projects to prisons -- will be decided.
With Buffalo and other Western New York communities pressing for more money from Albany, their requests could be prodded along by the appointment of Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve, D-Buffalo, as chairman of the budget subcommittee that will oversee the division of state aid to municipalities, according to several insiders.
"It gives me an opportunity to help local governments, and certainly Western New York, and certainly Buffalo, needs that," Eve said. "But it's going to be a battle."
The appointments were made as Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, this week turned to an open conference committee to resolve the state's $71 billion-plus spending plan for the fiscal year starting April 1. For generations, the budget has been worked out in secret by the governor and legislative leaders.
But after years of criticism about the closed-door process, Bruno and Silver agreed to set up nine subcommittees -- from health to higher education -- that will begin meeting in public next week to air and settle the differences between the Senate and the Assembly budget proposals.
While some lawmakers were lobbying hard to get appointments to the budget conference committee, observers said the process is not without its political risks. While the secret process has been bemoaned, it has given a certain amount of political cover to rank-and-file lawmakers with their constituents back home.
But if Eve, for instance, is not able to come up with all the money Buffalo is seeking, he could -- as chairman of the local assistance panel -- be a target for criticism. Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, also is on the local assistance committee and the health conference committee.
The appointments put the lawmakers into the position of having to be champions for their districts, while also representing the collective thinking of the Assembly or Senate.
Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, for instance, was named chairman of the economic development and tax committee. With a number of Western New York groups and companies looking for aid from Albany this year, it puts pressure on Schimminger to deliver.
Also serving on the panel with Schimminger is Assemblyman Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga.
Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, was named chairman of the Public Protection Committee, which will look at spending for criminal-justice programs and the judiciary.
Volker's panel will likely be one of the more combative, as the Senate and the Assembly are at odds about whether a new maximum-security prison should be built. The prison, which could be located in Western New York, is being pushed by Gov. Pataki and the Senate, but Assembly Democrats insist that the system will not be expanding enough to justify the $180 million facility -- money they say should be spent on treatment instead.
"It will be a contentious issue," Volker said.
Other committee assignments include Sen. Jess J. Present, R-Bemus Point, taxes and economic development; Sen. William T. Stachowski, D-Buffalo, higher education; and Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda, human services.