By Courtney Dentch
Queens lawmakers in Albany are exercising some clout as the state Legislature squares off against Gov. George Pataki over the new budget agreement and prepares to override his threatened veto on a deal that would provide fiscal relief for the borough.
For the first time in at least 30 years state senators and assembly members from around Queens have been able to put more of their imprint on the unwieldy $90 billion annual budget, which in past years has been ironed out behind closed doors.
This year Pataki backed out of the negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), leaving room for Senate Minority Leader David Paterson (D-Manhattan) to take Pataki’s place, said Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans).
“What that has allowed us to do is to be a real player in this budget,” Smith said. “We’ve had the opportunity to really negotiate through the budget process to make sure things happen.”
In past years, the governor hunkered down with the Legislature’s two power brokers from both sides of the aisle — Bruno and Silver — behind closed doors to hammer out a compromise on his executive budget, which is introduced in January.
Queens legislators along with their colleagues from around the state would lobby their leaders to save funds for their districts, but they were largely left out and had little to say in the final budget negotiated by their party leaders.
But when the state Assembly and Senate reached an agreement Friday on a state budget that would send the city the $2.7 billion in aid Mayor Michael Bloomberg had requested, Queens lawmakers could see their efforts reflected in the final version.
“A lot of the things that are hurting my district are in the governor’s budget,” said Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio (D-Howard Beach). “Everything in that budget I fought for. Everything that we have is important.”
Lawmakers have been holding conferences, including one with just Queens delegates, and public hearings to shape the Legislature’s budget plan, Smith said. Priorities were placed on restoring the $1.1 billion Pataki cut from education funding as well as other funds for health care and library services, said Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria).
“There was a real sense that the governor’s cuts are wrong the choices and that the restorations are the right choices,” said Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Flushing). “The legislators are united on this.”
And while conferences are not unusual in a typical budget year, this year’s budget was examined more closely, Seminerio said.
“This is the first time in a long time that the process was really thorough,” he said. “Every aspect of this budget was thoroughly conferenced.”
The final budget plan must still win the approval of both houses and the governor, but without Pataki to help work out the details, the lawmakers have come up with a budget the chief executive has said he will not support.
This is a marked departure from practices during the past 30 years in Albany, said Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose), who has served 31 years.
“This is not the usual situation for the Legislature to take this action, to in effect contradict the governor with the potential for significant vetoes and then overrides,” said Padavan. “This makes the process more obvious to the public. In other years there isn’t much controversy.”
Pataki is expected to veto the budget, primarily due to tax hikes aimed at providing additional revenue for the city and state, and the Legislature, in turn, is expected to override the veto with a two-thirds majority.
“If you look at the vote that passed the budget in the first place, there’s no difference on the substance,” Gianaris said. “I can’t imagine why someone would switch their vote.”
Two Queens assemblymen, Seminerio and William Scarborough (D-St. Albans) were reportedly targeted to help Pataki block the Legislature’s override, but both disavowed the New York Post story, saying they will vote for it to support the budget.
“I absolutely intend to vote to override any veto the governor issues,” Scarborough said.
Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.