Paterson: Republicans Playing Dangerous Game with State Budget

Talks came two days before state legislature takes up the fiscal crisis

An angry Gov. David Paterson called legislative leaders to an emergency legislative session after accusing the Senate's Republican majority of playing a dangerous political game that threatens New York's fiscal future.

The Democratic governor lashed out Monday night at Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, for what Paterson said was a refusal to negotiate billions of dollars of spending cuts during a fiscal crisis in the face of strong opposition by Albany's powerful education, healthcare and public employee unions.

"I would have expected professional responses from the leadership," Paterson told reporters on the eve of his emergency legislative session. "The majority leader has refused every attempt to negotiate ... this is a time for leadership."

Skelos, after a closed-door session with Republican senators, said he would put Paterson's proposals for $5 billion in cuts to promised school aid increases and to healthcare on the Senate floor Tuesday. Although Skelos said he would vote against the measure himself because it would be too disruptive to schools and students, he said his senators could vote any way they choose.

Paterson said that was playing a game that assured the proposals would be defeated.

But Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Democratic leader Malcolm Smith didn't even promise to bring Paterson's proposals to the floor for a vote in Tuesday's session that Paterson had called weeks ago.

The difference, according to Paterson, is that Silver and Smith have agreed to negotiate an agreement that could be passed by the full Legislature.

"The only thing we are doing is what the governor asked us to do," said John McArdle, spokesman for Skelos. "If that's a game, then this governor plays this game better than anyone."

Paterson also said he might agree to retract his midyear cuts to school aid, which education officials and their lobbyists warned would disrupt instruction and result in layoffs of some teachers. Paterson said a plan to cut state spending enough to at least fill a projected $2 billion deficit in the current fiscal year needs to be achieved Tuesday.

Paterson said failure to act Tuesday on his $5 billion in proposed cuts would be "more than irresponsible, it doesn't make sense ... it's embarrassing."

"It is really just being out of touch with where the people of New York are," Paterson said in a brief teleconference with reporters Monday. "The people of New York have no sympathy for the Legislature. Individuals have had to cut back on their costs."

Skelos said the cuts, particularly the midyear school aid cuts, are unfair and should be part of a state budget proposal, not "piecemeal."

"Doing budgets piecemeal, I think that's totally irresponsible," Skelos said. Despite Paterson's urging, Skelos doesn't plan to offer an alternative to the governor's proposals that could be negotiated to approval. Skelos said he didn't recommend a vote by the GOP conference, which was already opposed to Paterson's proposals.

"It's a total lack of leadership for someone to tell us he's not making a recommendation, he's not putting anything together," Silver said.

Paterson said failure to address the projected $2 billion deficit this fiscal year will drive up the deficit forecast for next year from $12.5 billion to $15 billion.

Paterson noted Citigroup Inc.'s announcement Monday it will cut 53,000 more jobs, showing Wall Street's meltdown is far from over. And state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced state tax collections have been so dismal that officials projected zero dollars in business tax revenue for October. State budget officials had projected the tax would generate $111 million during the month.

Albany's powerful special interests -- including teachers' unions and other public employee unions -- have fought Paterson's proposals. Hundreds of protesters were scheduled to arrive in more than two dozen buses Tuesday to oppose his education and health care cuts.

Smith, the Senate Democratic leader who is in line to lead the new Democratic majority come Jan. 1, wouldn't say if he had enough votes to pass any of Paterson's bills.

Silver said some of Paterson's proposals go too far, but he said the Legislature should take action soon because delay will only make the fiscal chaos worse.

Failure to approve Paterson's proposals Tuesday could mean no negotiation or action until after Paterson proposes his 2009-10 budget on Dec. 16. Or it could mean Skelos and the GOP senators could pass the fiscal crisis on to the Democratic majority, which would have a tenuous 32-30 majority on Jan. 1 after more than 40 years of Republican rule. Skelos is also counting on a federal stimulus package under negotiation in Washington, which could bring billions of dollars to New York.

Skelos argued midyear cuts in school aid would be disruptive to students and teachers. Waiting for the 2009-10 budget to address the crisis would also allow lawmakers to make the politically difficult choices once, rather than twice.

"We believe the governor is doing the right thing and leading the state and this government in the right way," Smith said, declining to comment later after Skelos said Paterson's bills would go to the Senate floor for a vote.

and health care.

Skelos has said midyear cuts would be too disruptive to schools. His Republican conference was boosted late in the fall elections by the powerful endorsement of the New York State United Teachers union, which strongly opposes the cuts.

Although Paterson last week proposed $5 billion worth of cuts to begin to offset what he projects will be $47 billion of deficits over the next three years. Although, he hasn't provided any bills for legislative leaders to consider Tuesday, he provided detailed bill drafts meant to be used to arrive at a consensus. Legislative leaders have refused to suggest their own cuts. While recognizing the state is a historic fiscal crisis, they have so far not embraced Paterson's ideas.

"It was clear from the meeting that Majority Leader Skelos has not changed his position," Paterson said in a prepared statement. Skelos "did say he plans to conference with his members and I hope that by Tuesday we will have a constructive package of spending reductions for this year."

An Associated Press reporter who learned of Sunday's meeting in Paterson's state offices in Manhattan was escorted from Paterson's outer office with a state trooper. Paterson spokeswoman Risa Heller said there would be no public disclosure by the public officials of what transpired in the closed-door meeting.

Heller had no immediate comment on why the public officials met in the unannounced session.

Despite NYSUT's financial and campaign support for the Senate GOP's current majority, the Republicans lost their majority in the Nov. 4 elections beginning Jan. 1. But Senate Democratic leader Malcolm Smith, the likely Senate majority leader in January, wasn't part of Sunday's meeting.

In Albany, the majorities in each chamber don't allow bills to even get a floor debate unless they are already negotiated to the satisfaction of the leaders and approved by the rank-and-file in closed-door conferences.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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