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Professional, amateur lobbyists descend on Capitol in search of funding

ALBANY – Behind the scenes Tuesday, the State Capitol offered a dose of intrigue as Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found himself thrust into the role of sole arbitrator in a revenue dispute between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature.

In full view, the state Capitol found itself the scene of a rush of last-minute lobbyists – both paid and volunteer – trying desperately to affect the outcome of the 2019 state budget adoption.

DiNapoli, after both legislative houses ended their work for the day, fulfilled his legal role, declaring anticipated revenues are $190 million above the $168.2 billion that the governor projected. The Democratic comptroller's projections means the Legislature has more opportunities to spend in the budget talks underway now – though by hundreds of millions of dollars below what Senate and Assembly fiscal advisers were projecting just a week ago.

The Cuomo administration accepted DiNapoli's report, but then threw lawmakers a curve ball: the governor's budget director, Robert Mujica, said the $190 million DiNapoli identified as available revenue would not be used for spending but would be placed into the state's rainy day account to help the state get through any economic downturns in the future.

As the macro fiscal fight played out, people who rely on large and small accounts buried within the budget descended upon the hallways and stairways of the Capitol, shivering in rallies in subfreezing temperatures first thing in the morning.

“What do we want? Funding. When do we want it? Now," chanted a group of school funding advocates gathered outside the State Senate chamber on the Capitol’s third floor.

Not waiting for the education group to wrap up, environmentalists – seeking stronger state actions on climate change issues – started up a dueling event just steps away.

“Remember, these lawmakers work for you," shouted one of the climate activists.

Welcome to Lobby Day at the Capitol. But with both legislative houses set to pass their own one-house budget bills next week, Tuesday was last licks by stakeholders from every cause, corner and philosophy in the state.

It started early as a group of a couple hundred gathered on the Capitol’s east side chanting and more than 100 others representing a different cause stretched up a staircase trying to get past metal detectors and into the warmth of the Legislative Office Building where most state lawmakers have their Albany offices.

Along the main and side streets, traffic was already backing up as a caravan of ambulances from around the state – in town to protest Medicaid cuts – fought for parking spaces.

Underground, in a tunnel leading to and from the Capitol, signs pointed to a gathering of hospital representatives. It was an important enough group that the Healthcare Association of New York State drew top legislative leaders as speakers – who came and went without any notice to the press.

“Some cuts never heal," one of the group’s signs said.

Going toward the Capitol, at 10:30 a.m., two lines – three or four people across and stretching more than 100 yards long at one point – headed toward a bank of metal detectors, which they had to get through to begin their citizen lobbying for the day.

At elevator banks in the legislative office building at noontime, a line of more than 40 lobbyists-for-a-day – many wearing white lab coats that identified them as being part of a lobbying group of independent pharmacy owners – snaked down a hall waiting for the slow-moving elevators.

For a spell, an underground intersection of the concourse near the Capitol that is used by thousands of state workers was supplemented by thousands of visitors. It resembled a busy airport concourse over a Thanksgiving holiday. People reported waiting up to an hour to clear security lines.

They had a common mantra: more money.

The asks were many.

  • State University of New York students were looking for better funding for the public college system.
  • A small group wearing “NYSUT” badges waited outside Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins' office in the Capitol. The New York State United Teachers union dug deep last fall to help Stewart-Cousins and her fellow Democrats take control of the Senate.
  • Farmers were in the house pressing farmworker labor matters.
  • Advocates pushing for more housing for mentally ill people worked rank-and-file legislators’ offices.
  • Transit union workers grabbed lawmakers on their way into the Assembly while advocates for more child care funding spread out through the Capitol.

“I’ve been pretty honest with people … it’s a tough year," said Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, the chief fiscal committee of the 150-member house.

“We’re going to put out our one house budget bill next week and then work with the Senate and governor to see how much we can restore and just do a really tight examination because there’s not going to be much room for error in this budget," she added.

In the morning, a group of mostly upstate business groups, led by Unshackle Upstate, were pushing back against efforts by labor groups to expand prevailing wage mandates in the state.

In the afternoon, a different group of business organizations, some with tight ties to Cuomo, were on the Capitol’s historic Million Dollar Staircase urging a bill to make permanent the state’s property tax cap program.

By noon, retirees volunteering for AARP were just starting to fan out. Before their day was done, they would deliver 15,000 postcards to Cuomo’s office and state legislative leaders in their request for $15 million in the budget for services to help keep older people in their homes. A couple of hours later, a Cuomo aide approached the group, smiled and thanked them for the petitions; they smiled back, thanked him, waved and moved on to their next stop.

“I’ve never seen it this crowded," said one lobbyist and former legislative staffer who has worked at the Capitol for decades.

“Oh my. This is the least crowded elevator of the day," another lobbyist said as a Capitol elevator ascended with only five people aboard.

The day was far from over. Treatment experts and law enforcement officials used Tuesday to call for more state money for opioid addiction problems and 750 social workers and students pushed for what they called “racial equity assessments” on major laws that might disproportionately hit minority communities.

In one day at the Capitol, the diverse racial, ethnic, social, religious and socioeconomic composition of New Yorkers was well represented. At one end of the Capitol’s third floor, a group representing Orthodox Jews huddled, while Catholic lobbyists and school children were just outside the Senate. On the first floor, a monk sat on a bench.

Lawmakers took some pleasure in heading over to the Capitol, where the thousands of stakeholders were not allowed on the Senate or Assembly floors.

“I’m not going back to the LOB. I’m going to stay over here,’’ Assembly Speaker Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat said of the logjam at the Legislative Office Building that was just as apparent at the Capitol.

What does she tell all the people asking for money Tuesday? “I just go back to my father’s wisdom," she said. "You can’t spend what you don’t have."

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