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WNY legislators defend budget votes Negotiations were behind closed doors

State lawmakers from Western New York staunchly defended their votes cast last week on the strategy to close the current budget's $1.6 billion deficit.

The deal was negotiated behind closed doors and went through little public review. It employed one-shot gimmicks and leaned on state university students to provide $62 million for general state needs.

The two legislative leaders and Gov. David A. Paterson also vacuumed money held by public authorities and the state university system into the general fund, so the state budget can balance when the current budget year ends March 31.

They froze or delayed several categories of spending, including some pork.

But serious cuts and overhauls to the way the state does business will wait for another day.

"I believe that the state is in a major fiscal crisis, like many other states," said Sen. Antoine M. Thompson, D-Buffalo, who obtained a leadership post when Democrats took over the Senate this year. He was determined to protect education and health care, he said, and hopes the SUNY raid can be rectified later.

"A lot of painful decisions had to be made," he said.

Others see it differently.

"It was the state equivalent of rummaging through the couch cushions," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, who has been watching Albany function, or not function, for years.

"I think in Albany, everyone is hoping the federal stimulus package will help them figure out this coming year's budget. So I think they were kicking the can," he said.

The most powerful special interests were spared.

Aid to public schools remained at current levels, in a state that spends more per student than any state in the nation. Spending for health care, protected by the hospital industry and the powerful Local 1199 of the
Service Employees International Union, was only bruised.

Meanwhile, new assessments were placed on the health insurance industry, and SUNY students had their recent tuition increase swept into the general fund.

"The first group to get whacked in a difficult budget situation is the college students," Horner explained. "It's historic. It's because they don't make campaign contributions. And they don't vote as seniors do."

Local legislators who voted for the strategy -- as their leaders expected -- told The Buffalo News they made difficult decisions, or will make really difficult decisions, as they balance spending for the fiscal year that starts April 1.

The vote followed party lines, among all 212 legislators and among legislators from Western New York. The Democrats who control the Assembly and now the Senate voted for the package. Minority Republicans tried to play the spoiler.

The Democrats hashed out their differences "in conference," meaning they met behind closed doors. And in classic Albany form, the package went to a vote after the Senate and Assembly leaders and the governor -- the three men in a room -- had a deal they knew would pass.

The Assembly Democrats who voted "yes" include Robin Schimminger of Kenmore, Sam Hoyt and Crystal Peoples of Buffalo, Francine L. DelMonte of Lewiston, Dennis Gabryszak of Cheektowaga and William Parment of Jamestown. Absent was Mark J.F. Schroeder of Buffalo.

Senate Democrats from Western New York -- Thompson and William Stachowski of Lake View -- voted for it, too.

"The talks intensified after we got the majority," Stachowski said. "We got some of the ugly things that were in there out. Hospital cuts. Nursing home cuts. Home health care cuts."

But what about cuts? Won't they be necessary now that the Wall Street engine has stalled?

"One of the things people are missing," Stachowski said, "is that when they say there are not going to be any state worker cuts, the governor can't just pass concessions in the budget. He has to negotiate them, and if he can't negotiate them, there are going to be layoffs."

Paterson in November floated the idea to seek concessions from public employee unions. The head of the Civil Service Employees Association flatly ruled them out for the current year, though Paterson still has them in play for 2009-10.

Similarly, Paterson had proposed cutting aid to public school districts in the middle of their budget year. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, wouldn't go for it. But cuts in school aid are being counted on for 2009-10.

The efforts to cut this year's budget went in fits and starts. A modest package of corrections was approved in August, but the economy continued to worsen. Paterson sought action in November, but Senate Republicans had just been voted out of their majority and were OK with letting the Democrats take the unpopular votes. The Democrats, however, didn't take over the Senate until January.

By late January and early February, the deficit was growing by $1 million a day, and the state was facing an "emergency." The designation allowed lawmakers to circumvent a legally required three-day aging period for new bills.

"Had we acted back in November or December, at the end of the last calendar year, we would not have had to act now in the first week in February," said Schimminger, the longest-serving Democrat from Western New York.

email: mspina@buffnews.com

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