Bipartisan vote scrambles Westchester budget

Democrat Michael Kaplowitz speaks at the podium as,

Democrat Michael Kaplowitz speaks at the podium as, from left, Minority Whip Gordon Burrows (R), Minority Leader James Maisano (R) and Virginia Perez (D) stand by at their announcement of a bipartisan budget proposal before a Westchester County Board of Legislators meeting in White Plains. (Dec. 7, 2012) (Credit: Xavier Mascarenas)

The two Democratic legislators who crossed party lines last week to pass a 2013 budget for Westchester County don't consider themselves a breakaway caucus.

But Michael Kaplowitz (D-Somers) and Virginia Perez (D-Yonkers) expect to vote with Republicans on the Board of Legislators again to avoid gridlock as board chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers) embarks on an expected run against Republican County Executive Rob Astorino.

"Virginia and I will stick together and work with any and all colleagues who can act responsibly," Kaplowitz said. "And we'll work with the county executive to do the right thing. At the moment, our Republican colleagues are working with us, and we will work with them because they are amenable."


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A bipartisan majority coalition would end years of party-line bickering and legislative gridlock in the county.

On Friday, Kaplowtiz and Perez joined the seven Republicans on the 17-member board to pass a $1.7 billion county budget for next year. Their crossover came as Astorino threatened to veto what he called "irresponsible" changes that Democrats made to his proposed budget, which would have laid off 126 workers, floated new debt and cut spending to bridge an $85 million shortfall.

Kaplowtiz and Perez said they feared that Astorino's veto threat and Jenkins' intransigence would result in the board failing to pass a budget before the county charter's Dec. 27 deadline. That would have given Astorino a free hand to cut spending to balance the budget -- a potential boon to Jenkins' political fortunes, as the county executive proposed slashing popular programs, but a disaster for many residents.

"The only people I'm absolutely loyal to are my constituents," Perez said. "They are the only ones I have to stay true to. You don't want Democrats to seem divided. But when things aren't right, you need to do what's right."

Astorino is expected to seek re-election next year. Jenkins hasn't announced his candidacy, but he is widely expected to challenge the Republican.

Kaplowtiz and Perez didn't comment on Jenkins' anticipated run for higher office. They said they wanted to end the partisan impasses that have eroded faith in government, from Washington to Albany to White Plains.

"What Washington is not doing, White Plains just did," Kaplowitz said. "We're not going to stand around and let the budget blow up and chaos ensue."

The Democrats said they particularly didn't want to give Astorino an excuse to save money by increasing fees for subsidized day care by 15 percent -- his proposal. Instead, the amended budget they proposed increased fees by only 7 percent next year.

Perez viewed the increase as unfortunate but hailed it as a compromise.

"One of my important things was to keep the parents' share for the child care down," Perez said. "I hope that more Democrats will kind of open up their minds a little bit for compromise. I'm going to cross party lines whenever I see it necessary."

Perez said she already has received calls from county Democratic leaders telling her she might face a primary opponent because of her vote. But Perez defeated a longtime incumbent last year, without the support of Jenkins, to win her seat on the board.

Asked whether she had felt pressure from party bosses since the vote, Peres said: "I'm not going to sugarcoat it. Yes, I have. And I am very disappointed. I'm not sure if they remember or not: I got elected in a primary. I'm not afraid of primaries."

A spokesman for the board, Tom Staudter, said Jenkins is still determining whether the newly approved county budget was legally adopted. The seven Republicans and two Democrats might have flouted parliamentary procedure to pass the spending plan, he said.

As for the breakaway Democrats, he said, they were free to vote as they wished.

"They've made decisions for whatever reason they made them, and we respect that," he said.

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