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The state budget will have a political cost as well

   The most challenging fiscal crisis since, as Gov. David Paterson likes to say, the Great Depression has been answered by the governor and legislative leaders. Today, the rank-and-file lawmakers get to go on the record and take a stand.

   It will be a good day, at least for some Democrats, to be in the Assembly.

   In the Assembly, there is plenty of breathing room for Democrats to be given "a pass" by legislative leaders to vote no on unpopular bills. The Democrats control the house 109 to 41 over the Republicans.

   So a handful of Democrats were already talking of voting no on one or more of the nine budget bills when they hit the floor today. Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, a Niagara Falls Democrat, said she could not vote for a bill that contains an increase in energy utility taxes of nearly $600 million.

   Now, go over to the Senate. The Democrats took control in January of the 62-member chamber after seven decades of GOP dominance. But there are only 32 of them and 30 Republicans. Worse yet, there is no margin. If one Democrat votes no on a bill and all Republicans vote no, that makes it 31-31. Ordinarily, the lieutenant governor breaks the tie. But, call it the curse of Eliot Spitzer, there is no lieutenant governor since David Paterson was elevated last year following Spitzer's prostitution issue.

   Democrats insist they will all vote for the budget today in the Senate, even if they have to do so while holding their nose. In past years, when things were reversed, Democrats had the luxury of being able to vote no on politically difficult issues.

   Meanwhile, Senate Republicans seem downright giddy that some Democrats - especially those they think could be vulnerable in next year's elections - will be voting for record tax increases and cuts to a host of popular programs while raising the overall budget nearly 9 percent to $131.8 billion.

   Expect to see the fun played out next year in political advertisements when the GOP, in one last effort to take control before the next redistricting process that could banish them to political oblivion, reminds voters how Democrats voted for higher taxes on everything from health insurance policies to motor vehicle registrations and wine.

   "Like shooting fish in a barrel," said one Republican.

   --- Tom Precious

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GM taken to task

President Obama has made it clear he expects more from General Motors if it expects to receive another round of government aid. He rejected the automaker's restructuring plan as insufficient, and GM's CEO, Rick Wagoner, was forced out. Can GM pull off the overhaul his administration is seeking? What about the prospect of a bankruptcy filing if it fails?

-- Matt Glynn

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Finding new flocks for former Catholic churches

   Pastor Kenneth R. Winfield was proud to show off the former Catholic church building his congregation, Try Jesus Ministries, purchased in December.

   And why not? The structure boasts beautiful stained-glass windows, pristine oak pews, a new boiler and roof, and a full banquet hall in the basement -- all for $100,000.

   Winfield credits the building's former occupants, SS. Rita & Patrick parish, with keeping it in good condition.

   "A lot of people tell us we got the buy of the year," he said.

   The pastor calls it a blessing from God.

   Try Jesus looked at a few other churches, but Winfield said they were too big.

   "We didn't want to bite off more than we can chew," he said.

   In the red brick church at Fillmore Avenue and Seymour Street, they found a jewel.

   "To build this church from the ground up, you're talking about a million dollars," said Winfield.

   It will no longer be a Catholic church, but Winfield said the role of the building stays the same in the East Side community.

   "It's just a continuation, moving on in the same direction. We all believe in God. It's just changing hands, changing culture, changing worship styles," he said.

   Some Catholics opposed to the closing and selling off of so many glorious churches would argue that diocesan leaders are simply giving up, especially in poor, urban areas, and should work harder to evangelize.

   What's your take on how the Catholic diocese so far has handled the restructuring of parishes, especially the sale of closed buildings?

   Will other congregations worshipping in former Catholic churches thrive in their new locations?

   And if not worship, what other uses might work well for closed church buildings?

   -- Jay Tokasz


Where to find the good paying jobs locally

Need a good-paying job?

They may not be plentiful but they do exist, even in today's dismal economy.

In fact, economist John Slenker of the state Labor Department says they exist in virtually every sector of the local economy. And yes, that includes that great Rust Belt staple — manufacturing.

"Even there, if you have the proper skill sets, there are opportunities," Slenker says. "Skilled tradesmen are still in demand."

Of course, the greatest opportunities, in terms of pure number of openings, are in the health care, education and technology fields.

"Not a day goes by that I don't get a call from a firm seeking nurses, occupational therapists or physical therapists," said Judith Applebaum, interim director of career services at the University at Buffalo.

So good jobs exist here. But how do you find them and, better yet, how do you get hired?

If you're one of those looking for a job, or one of those who recently found one, tell us your story.

— Phil Fairbanks

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Senate Democrats giving their staffs double digit pay raises

Sen. William Stachowski defended the raises for his staff this way: They are doing a lot more work.

The Democrats control the Senate now, so Democratic senators like him are in big demand. He's busier. So are his workers. Their pay had been suppressed for years because, after all, Democrats were the minority party in the Senate.

I asked him why the Senate had to run that way. Why couldn't power be allocated not by party affiliation but by a senator's successful initiatives, their problem-solving skills, their ability to save money and help New York reach a better place than it finds itself today?

How would power be allocated if New York elected its legislators in — gasp — non-partisan races?

There was a long pause at the other end of the line. Stachowski attempted some kind of answer. And he left me feeling like I needed a fresh injection of reality.

Which I probably do.

But why should taxpayers pay more because Albany operates under a feudal system that suppresses one set of legislators and promotes another, when they all serve the same numbers of deserving state taxpayers?

In the worst economy since the Depression, the people who will set budgetary policy for state government  see nothing wrong with handing out double-digit raises when thousands of private-sector workers are losing their jobs.

Your thoughts?

— Matthew Spina

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Battling overtime in the Buffalo Fire Department

   Buffalo's overtime tab in the Fire Department was five times higher in 2008 than it was just four years earlier.

   The city doled out about $10.6 million in overtime to firefighters last year.

   City Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa says enough is enough.

   She thinks it's time to crunch some numbers and see how many new firefighters Buffalo needs to bring on board in a September class to virtually wipe out overtime.

   The fire union won't have official comment until next week. But firefighter Martin V. Barrett, the union's sergeant-at-arms, said he thinks it's good news the city finally appears ready to staff its firehouses the way they should have been staffed for years.

   In the past, some have argued that the city saves money -- even with sky-high overtime bills. They've said it would cost far more in salaries and benefits to bring the Fire Department's work force to levels that would avert the need for overtime.

   Still, long-term pension costs increase when firefighters receive tens of thousands of dollars in overtime in the years leading up to their retirement. The practice is called "pension spiking," and the head of Buffalo's control board is pushing for state reform. Paul J. Kolkmeyer thinks overtime should be eliminated in the calculation of pensions.

   In the shorter term, city budget officials will be working on a plan to try to wipe out fire overtime costs, or at least keep them to a minimum.

   Should Buffalo significantly beef up its fire force if it can eliminate overtime?

   -- Brian Meyer  

Odd pairing is food for thought

The jokes might be hilarious if people's livelihoods weren't at stake.

"I want a chicken sub, please. Lettuce, tomatoes, onions. Oh, and I want that chicken."

One can almost hear Jay Leno poking fun at a project planned on Buffalo's East Side.

Two Brooklyn men have been given the green light by city zoning officials to open a slaughterhouse at 1285 William St. at Babcock Street. They plan to butcher poultry, goats, lambs, rabbits and calves.

But there's already a tenant in the building -- a Subway sandwich shop. Owner Bobby Horton is worried that having a slaughterhouse in back could create offensive odors. Even if there is no stench, Horton's wife worries that some customers might be repulsed by the idea of having the two businesses under the same roof.

"If they're cutting up [animals], are you going to want to come up front an eat some meat?"  Felicia Horton asked.

But Mustasa Jaarah and his father, Yousef, insist their slaughterhouse will be odor free, won't cause rodent or insect problems, and will be an asset to the city. They will employ 25 people in a facility that will include a butcher shop and a farmers market.

The businessmen say there is no slaughterhouse in the region that butchers in a Muslim tradition known as Halal, which includes a prayer as the animals are slain. They added that they've operated a slaughterhouse in Brooklyn for 15 years and have not had any complaints from neighbors.

The Common Council will likely approve a license for the slaughterhouse, Council President David A. Franczyk predicted. He visited the Jaarah's business in Brooklyn and said the only thing he detected was a faint smell of poultry -- not unlike the odor one might detect in a butcher shop.

 What do you think? Can a slaughterhouse and a sandwich shop share the same digs and thrive?

-- Brian Meyer

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Burden of proof steep in collision on slope

    The ski season ended March 4 for Kissing Bridge ski instructor Carl Hensler, who suffered multiple, serious injuries when another skier collided with him.

    Now Dominic Galasso of Lancaster has been charged with reckless endangerment, initiating what's believed to be New York's first criminal proceeding arising from such circumstances.

   Do you consider Galasso's behavior to be criminal?

 -- Janice L. Habuda

Albany's latest ploy: surcharges on utility bills

   Consumers dodged a bullet, albeit a small-caliber one, when the New York Power Authority backed down Tuesday from its plan to raise electricity rates on upstate ratepayers.

   Consumers save about $10 million via the Power Authority retreat.

   That money will come in handy to help pay for a plan to impose higher surcharges on utilities -- which will be passed along to consumers -- that state budget negotiators are working on in Albany this week.

   The surcharges -- no, they can't be found lined out on most electric or gas bills -- will bring in at least $651 million to Albany in the coming year if Gov. David A. Paterson has his way. That is up from about $120 million the past year.

   Opponents, who include business groups, utilities and some advocates for low-income people, say the timing of such a tax increase on such basic needs -- electricity, natural gas, telephones -- is especially onerous during the steep economic slide the state is living through.

   While the Paterson administration would not comment Wednesday, the governor has said he does not want to raise taxes. But there is little choice.

   The state is facing a $16.2 billion deficit, and higher revenues and spending cuts are required if the state budget is to be balanced.

   It means higher utility taxes could be just one of many new ways New Yorkers will be asked to pay for the state budget. And new ways of raising revenues are possibly coming: higher income taxes on people making more than $250,000 annually, a higher state sales tax, and maybe expanding the bottle bill to include non-carbonated beverages. Some revenue-raising ideas were in trouble Wednesday, such as letting supermarkets sell wine.

   But is there a tipping point? Will more people flee the state if some of these plans end up making life here less affordable? Does it make sense during a recession for Albany to dig deeper in the wallets of New Yorkers? And what happened to Paterson's mantra of changing the "spendaholic" ways of state government?

   The answers, or at least some of them, will likely be known in a few days if lawmakers are right in saying they will have a budget done by the March 31 deadline.

   -- Tom Precious

Albany may be following California's example

Is New York becoming California?

If there is a poster child of a state hit hardest by the recession, it is California. For a year, the state government has hit its work force, taxpayers and every range of social program to ring savings out of its stumbling budget.

For his part, Gov. David A. Paterson has been warning that unless real cuts were made to the budget here, New York would feel the pain California has gone through.  With word that New York's deficit has now climbed another $2.2 billion in just the course of one month to $16.2 billion, the Empire State has a better-than-average chance of going the way of California.

What could be the effect?

For starters, big spending cuts are expected, as are big tax hikes. But if the Democrats who now control the governor's office and the Legislature in New York make the wrong decisions in the days ahead as they lead up to adoption of a 2009 budget, the consequences could be long lasting.

Will they turn to "creative" borrowings to fund things today that won't be paid back for a generation? Will they implement one too many solutions derided as gimmicks that, when combined with the sour revenue numbers, lead Wall Street agencies to lower the state's credit rating -- further driving up borrowing costs for years go come? Will real reforms be instituted -- such as combining government functions to reduce duplication?

Frustrated rank-and-file lawmakers privately fear Paterson and legislative leaders are on the verge of missing real opportunities to take advantage of the fiscal crisis to end some of the much-criticized ways Albany spends and taxes.

"It's the worst I've ever seen it here," one lawmaker said Tuesday. But, will it be even worse after the budget is adopted?

-- Tom Precious

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