Senate majority leader in middle of budget fray
By SHERRY HALBROOK
A head of very hot steam is building in New York's budget boiler, and state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno is feeling the heat from all sides.
Sen. Bruno and his fellow Republican state lawmakers are in the middle of the perennial budget standoff between the Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled state Assembly.
While Bruno is clearly, in a pivotal power position, he also runs the danger of getting pummeled by both sides.
Meanwhile, progress on the budget stalled in April as Bruno, state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Gov. George Pataki wrangled over just how much money the state can afford to spend.
The state Senate and Assembly passed budget resolutions independently in late March, but held off sending them to joint conference committees resolve their differences in hopes they could agree first on a budget bottom line.
Last year, Pataki axed $763 million the lawmakers wanted to spend and $843 million they wanted to borrow.
Lawmakers in both houses are hoping the governor won't use his line-item vetoes again this year to nullify the Legislature's budget efforts.
"We're still in the development stage," Bruno said, "but we're trying to be very responsive and we're trying to avoid the massive vetoes we saw last year."
"Above all," he said, "I want to make sure we do something prudent and responsible that fulfills the needs of the people of the state, but does not over spend. If the stock market and economy take a downturn, I want to avoid the pain and suffering that could result from over spending."
Bridging troubled water
If anyone is going to bridge the gaps between the Assembly and the governor's office, it likely will have to be Bruno and the Senate Republicans.
And Bruno seems to have staked out consistent middle-ground positions. Pataki submitted an Executive Budget proposal that would spend $72.7 billion.
Then the Democrats in the Assembly passed a budget resolution that would spend $74.7 billion. Once those positions were clear, Bruno and the Republican Senate put themselves smack in the middle, passing their own budget resolution to spend $73.3 billion.
"The difference lies in how much of the approximately $2 billion budget surplus left from last year they are willing to spend," said PEF's chief budget analyst, Tom Cetrino.
"The governor wouldn't spend any of it. The Assembly would spend all of it, and the Senate would spend just over a quarter of it."
The Assembly Democrats expect the state to take in more revenues this year than the the governor or the Senate.
The Senate Republicans have the lowest expectations of all, coming in about $39 million lower than Pataki and $652 million below the Assembly projections.
But the devil is in the details and they nearly all still have to be worked out.
Start with broad brush
"Since we aren't agreed on how much money is available, we've passed a budget resolution that takes a broad-brush approach, but we'll be sensitive to the ramifications," Bruno said.
By and large, he said, the Senate wants to be responsive to PEF's main budget concerns.
"We are concerned about the governor's proposal to cut state mental-health positions," Bruno said. "Working within our means, we hope to restore as many of these positions as possible, since they serve some of our neediest population."
The Senate's budget resolution, he said, adds $8.2 million to restore 215 state mental-health staff now shared with counties, and another $2.3 million to save the positions of scientists conducting mental-health research.
The Senate is also trying to respond to PEF's call for improving safety for mental health staff, as well as the public. A call that took on increased urgency following the murder of PEF member Judi Scanlon during a home visit to a psychiatric patient.
Bruno said the Senate is reviewing legislation proposed by state Attorney General Elliot Spitzer that would open the door a little wider for involuntary psychiatric commitments.
Respect for state employees
The Senate also is taking a close look at the governor's proposed NYSCARES program to help meet the backlog of demand for homes and care for mentally retarded and developmentally disabled adults in the state, according to Bruno.
And the Senate is well aware, he said, that PEF wants the Legislature to earmark some of the funding and services in this program for state employees, instead of turning it all over to private voluntary agencies, as the governor proposes.
The Senate is not ready to make a commitment yet on this issue, he added, but "we would like to be helpful."
The Senate also is waiting to pass judgement on further changes the governor has proposed to the state parole system, Bruno said.
"We have not yet seen the governor's proposed changes to parole," he said. "But we understand that the use of determinate sentencing will not result in the elimination of parole officers, as there will be a period of required supervision which will have to be performed by parole officers."
Another major concern for PEF in this year's Executive Budget proposal is the governor's plan to cut nearly 200 state transportation engineers.
PEF has consistently found bipartisan support in the Legislature for using state engineers where possible to avoid the higher cost of hiring private contract engineers for highway and bridge projects. According to Bruno, that support remains.
"The Senate has always supported a reasoned approach to the use of private engineers at the state Transportation Department," he said. "We believe that if state workers can do the job at equal or lesser costs, and at the same quality, they should do the work.
"Last year, in fact, we required that 50 percent of the significant funds set aside in the budget for transportation engineers be used to hire in-house DOT engineers.
Although this provision was vetoed by the governor, he, nonetheless, hired 450 additional in-house engineers," the Senate leader continued.
"This year, we are concerned with the governor's highway-program cuts and will work hard to restore as much as we can. Our subcommittee has recommended a full $200 million restoration."
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