Gov. David Paterson and more than 200 legislators met in emergency session Tuesday to take on what they agreed was a fiscal crisis of historic proportions -- and did nothing.
A 90-minute meeting of the Democratic governor and legislative leaders was filled with accusations and some name calling. But they failed to approach any agreement on Paterson's proposed $5 billion in spending cuts or any alternatives, some of which surfaced for the first time since Paterson called the special session seven weeks ago.
"They swung and missed," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
"They were arguing, they were bickering," said Elizabeth Lynam of the independent Citizens Budget Commission. "They are elected representatives of the people and New Yorkers need to know this crisis is under control. They look to them for leadership and today they didn't deliver."
Paterson's plan for midyear cuts in school aid growth, health care and other areas faced fierce opposition from Albany's most powerful lobbying forces, led by teachers and other public employee unions. Outside the Capitol, more than 1,000 demonstrators marched in the cold to protest Paterson's proposals.
In the end, Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos achieved what he wanted against the Democratic governor, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly and the Democratic Senate leader who is in line to control that chamber's majority beginning Jan. 1.
Skelos got Paterson to suspend any cuts in the current budget, which has a projected $1.5 billion to $2 billion deficit, until at least January. Skelos had said the midyear cuts shouldn't be made without having the governor's full proposal for the 2009-10 fiscal year in hand.
Paterson plans to present that budget to the Legislature Dec. 16, a month early because of the fiscal crisis. He projects $47 billion in deficits over the next three years because of the meltdown on Wall Street, too little return of tax revenue from Washington, and what he describes as years of overspending by the state to benefit special interests.
Even Paterson, known for using humor to defuse tension, at one point waved a page of paper at Skelos, who he said hadn't come up with any ideas of his own.
"You have nothing!" Paterson said to Skelos.
Paterson accused Skelos of a political stunt by planning to put reduced education aid to a Senate vote, knowing it would be defeated by Republicans claiming they wanted to protect schools from disruptive midyear cuts.
"I'm still waiting for what your solution would be," Paterson said to Skelos early in the meeting.
Paterson accused Senate Republicans of trying to "sugar coat" the crisis when they should show leadership: "No one wants to deliver the bad news."
"There is no guts on the majority side," said Senate Democratic leader Malcolm Smith, describing Skelos' actions as a charade. "Come January, that will change ... that's gamesmanship. That's old school politics."
"When is democracy gamesmanship?" said Skelos. Later, Skelos offered several measures such as approving video slot machines at Belmont race track, opposed by Silver, and tapping into the $1.5 million "rainy day fund."
"Senator Skelos is not interested in passing bills, he's interested in passing the buck," said Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. He was apparently referring to a claim Skelos wanted to make the Senate Democrats who take power in January responsible for painful cuts, goring special interests that could then help Republicans finance a return to the majority in the 2010 elections. Skelos has denied that charge.
Assembly Republican leader James Tedisco of Schenectady supported Skelos. Tedisco said Paterson almost dared leaders on Monday to put the governor's cuts to a floor vote, doubting anyone would while generating public support for Paterson. Skelos was the only leader who agreed to put the cuts to a vote Tuesday.
"Is this a crisis?" Smith shot back at Tedisco.
"Yes," Tedisco said.
"Then grow up," Smith said. "Grow up and act like this is a crisis. Unbelievable."
After the meeting, and after the Legislature gaveled into and out of special session without taking any action, Skelos said the acrimony of the meeting was "absolutely" all show, and he can continue to work with the Democrats. At the end, most of the leaders hugged and posed for a photo.
The special session cost at least $60,000, including $143 per diem checks paid to most lawmakers for each day they are in Albany, plus transportation and catering, including the red meat and fruit-and-cheese platters served to Senate Republicans Monday night.
"The governor now has agreed with my position and the position of my conference and of (Deputy Majority Leader Thomas) Libous -- `Give us your budget, then we can start,"' Skelos said.
"This is a good beginning," said Democratic Assemblyman Richard Brodsky of Westchester. "The Legislature's job is to deliberate."