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Smiles outside, fights backstage in budget talks

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- Legislative leaders were all confident and smiling again about the pace of negotiations over a 2014 state budget that needs to be approved by Monday to be considered timely before the start of the fiscal year on April 1.

But behind the scenes, the battles continued. Last week, it was Senate co-leader Dean Skelos who blew off some steam in closed-door budget talks. Today, it was Larry Schwartz, the secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Sources close to the talks said an angry Schwartz said he was quitting before he exited the negotiating room on the second floor.

No such words were uttered by Schwartz, Cuomo administration officials said. They chalked up Schwartz's departure from the negotiating session as part of the normal blow-ups that mark the closing days before a final budget deal is reached. Indeed, there is a long history in Albany of negotiators, many of whom are getting by on too little sleep and too much caffeine, getting into yellling matches before the handshake deals come. One year, it took a trip by legislative leaders to a nearby Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor to make amends before a budget deal.

Anti-SAFE Act rally to feature Astorino, Trump, Paladino

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- Gun rights advocates will hear from the likes of Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and billionaire Donald Trump in a rally outside the state Capitol next Tuesday, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino announced Tuesday.

In an email sent to supporters and reporters, Paladino said the "stand up for your rights'' rally will call for the full repeal of the New York SAFE Act, a law passed in January last year that cracks down on the sale of assault-style weapons and, eventually, will create a tracking system for all purchases of ammunition in the state.

Others expected to speak, according to Paladino, include Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard. The three-hour rally is scheduled for the Capitol's West Park. Whether Astorino and Trump will appear together is uncertain; Trump recently said he will not run for governor this year against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the author of the SAFE Act, and a number of Republican leaders are urging county GOP leaders to rally behind Astorino.

Assembly approves debt service measure

By Tom Precious

ALBANY – The first bill of the 2014 budget was adopted by the Assembly Wednesday, a measure authorizing the state to pay $6.2 billion in the coming year on past and new borrowing to pay for everything from road to park work.

The debt service alone will cost an average of more than $300 per resident of the state. Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chairman Herman Farrell told colleagues during the brief floor debate that the state’s total new and existing debt -– some of which he said goes back decades -– this year will total $57.1 billion. Of that, just $3.5 billion was approved by voters in statewide referendum votes.

Assemblyman Andy Goodell, a Chautauqua County Republican, took a cue from his predecessor’s annual budget speech highlighting the concerns of mounting state debt levels. He said that, while roads, bridge and other construction programs for which debt is issued may be needed, voters should have a say.

“I believe this violates the spirit if not the letter of the constitution,’’ Goodell said, echoing years of criticism about debt by former Assemblyman Bill Parment, a Jamestown-area Democrat.

But Farrell dismissed Goodell’s claims, saying court decisions have backed the Legislature’s authority to OK borrowing without direct voter approval.

An hour after the measure was overwhelmingly approved, legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo headed into closed-door budget meetings to continue talks on the 2014 budget, which is due by March 31.



DREAM Act bill defeated in NYS Senate

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- The Dream Act, providing state fianncial aid for college for the children of illegal immigrants, has failed in the state Senate.

The vote, rushed to the floor with little advance word, was 30 opposed and 29 against. It takes 32 votes for a bill to pass in the Senate. All Republicans present voted no and all but one Democrat voted yes.

DREAM Act headed to State Senate floor this evening

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -– In a surprise move, the State Senate this evening is expected to bring to the floor the DREAM Act, the controversial proposal that would give state college financial aid to children of illegal immigrants.

The bill has passed for years in the Assembly, but been killed in the Senate. With the Senate led by a coalition of Republicans and several breakaway Democrats, the regular Democratic conference of the Senate, which is in the minority, has been raising political pressure to get the matter included in the state budget talks.

Time for political theories for why it might be coming up today.

Most seem to center around Sen. Jeff Klein, the co-leader of the Senate and a Bronx Democrat who has been taking a verbal beating from some Democrats for not being able to push the DREAM Act into law. The Senate budget resolution passed last week was silent on the Dream Act, while the Assembly included $25 million to get the program rolling this year. Lawmakers say Klein could be losing on a number of policy fronts that he has wanted to get inserted into the final state budget, and that the DREAM Act coming to the floor could be a pre-budget political present for him.

If the bill does come to the floor and fails, Klein, who could be facing a primary this fall, would be able to say he used his pressure to get Republicans to bring it to a vote, but that there just wasn’t enough support for it. Thus, the issue can take an exit from the budget talks.

If the bill passes, as Democrats are privately saying it will, Klein can boast it was his influence that made it happen.

Third, it could give Republicans, either way, some political points for the general election. They will use the potential yes votes by a few Senate Democrats facing possibly tough re-election races this fall as political points against them with conservative voters in those districts.

Stay tuned for one of those Albany evenings.

Silver tells Democrats budget conference process starts tonight

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver just told his colleagues in a closed-door Democratic conference that he expects the "mother ship'' -- the main legislative budget conference committee -- to meet at 7 tonight and the rest of the subject-area committees to start meeting Thursday.

Of course, that all depends on the Senate and its ability to get a one-house budget resolution introduced and passed today. Neither had  happened as 1 p.m. approached.

The conference committee process, which offers rank-and-file lawmakers fiscal crumbs to wrangle over given the size of the overall budget, does at least signal the beginning of the end of the budget negotiations. The "mother ship'' is the committee that features legislative leaders and a few of their appointees. The talks over the most controversial issues will, as ususal, be handled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders in secret over the next several weeks.

The Assembly this afternoon is due to pass its own-one house budget plan.

In the Senate, Republicans and a small group of breakaway Democrats -- who together control the chamber -- have been arguing over everything from the Dream Act, a campaign finance measure, property taxes and public school matters. Albany will know when those arguments end when the Senate puts out its one-house budget plan.

Whether that can all happen by 7 p.m. is unknown, though ambitious would be one word to describe the prospects.

UPDATE: Shocking, but plans made in Albany in the morning didn't quite turn out by the time the sun set. The Senate just broke for the evening and won't be back until 11am Thursday. Senate leaders were unable to agree on a budget resolution to move to the floor this evening, a document that lawmakers say will be intentionally vague and not include any budget bills as have been debated all afternoon in the Assembly. The budget conference committee process cannot start until the Senate adopts its budget resolution.

Skelos: Democrats "betrayed their constituents"

By Tom Precious

ALBANY --Senate co-leader Dean Skelos, the Legislature's top Republican, was somewhat gentle with his criticism of Democrats when he spoke on the floor during today's voting for the Board of Regents.

Tonight, on paper, he raised the rhetorial wars:

"Today, Democrats in the state Assembly, and many Senate Democrats, voted for the status quo and betrayed their constituents and school children. The flawed process that resulted in the election of four Regents candidates, nominated by the Assembly, was a missed opportunity to change course and begin to clean up the Common Core mess.

"Unfortunately, the reinstatement of Regents responsible for the disastrous implementation of Common Core has damaged our goal of raising educational standards and improving our schools. Higher standards are critically important to ensure that students are college and career ready. We remain committed to improving our schools and raising standards.

"On behalf of the thousands of frustrated parents, students and teachers that I represent, I voted against confirmation of the four Regents candidates to send a loud and clear message that our students deserve better. Parents are demanding that this bureaucratic disaster be fixed. New York State must return its focus to one overriding goal: providing the best quality education in the country so every student can achieve a bright, successful and rewarding future."

Fourth Regents vote: incumbent re-elected

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- Christine Cea, a member of the Board of Regents since 2009, was re-elected to another five-year term today by state lawmakers.

Cea, from Staten Island, received 116 votes. She needed 107 votes for another term.

Voting in the joint session of the Legislature is now over, and the count is: three of four incumbents were re-elected. The fourth seat was filled by a newcomer, made possible only after the incumbent pulled his name out of the running last night.


Third Regents vote: newcomer elected

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- Josephine Victoria Finn, a Sullivan County resident, was elected this afternoon to the Board of Regents during a joint session of the Legislature.

Finn's named only surfaced on Monday when she was interviewed by lawmakers for a seat on the Regents that represents a large area from Albany to the lower Hudson Valley. Hours later on Monday, James Jackson, the incumbent member of the Regents from the Albany area up for re-election, suddenly dropped out of the running.

Finn, a University at Buffalo law school graduate, was elected with 121 votes. She ran against two candidates nominated on the floor by Republicans.

Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, an Erie County Republican, said Finn's name getting into the mix only on Monday was a break with rules. She said resumes for candidates were supposed to be submitted by January 31 for interviews in February.

Second vote for Regents: incumbent re-elected

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- Wade Norwood, a Rochester-area resident who serves in an at-large seat on the Board of Regents, was just re-elected to another five-year term. Saved by Democrats in the Legislature, Norwood received 118 votes. He needed 107 votes. He beat a Western New York candidate -- Walter Polka -- nominated by Assembly Republicans; Polka received 43 votes.

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About Politics Now

Robert J. McCarthy

Robert J. McCarthy

A native of Schenectady, Robert J. McCarthy came to The Buffalo News in 1982 following a six-year stint at the Olean Times Herald. He is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and has been covering local, state and national politics since 1992.

Tom Precious

Tom Precious

Tom Precious joined The Buffalo News in 1997 as bureau chief at the state Capitol, where he covers everything from statewide politics and state government fiscal affairs to health care, environmental and municipal government matters. Prior to The News, he worked for news outlets in Albany and Washington, DC.

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri is an Amherst native and has covered politics and government in upstate New York since 2003. She joined The Buffalo News in 2012 and covers City Hall.

@jillterreri |

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski, The Buffalo News Washington bureau chief, has reported from the nation's capital since 1989 after joining The News as a business reporter in 1984. A graduate of Syracuse University, Zremski is a former Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University. In 2007, he served as president of the National Press Club.

@JerryZremski |