In Nassau, balance budget and powers, too

Late Nassau County Legis. and Presiding Officer Peter

Late Nassau County Legis. and Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt. (Oct. 12, 2011) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Peter Schmitt, the majority leader of the Nassau legislature, did the right thing by pre-emptively blocking an attempted power grab by Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano.

It is no small thing, especially in political-death-match-prone Nassau, when one branch so blatantly attempts to circumvent what should be an open system of checks and balances.

Mangano sent lawmakers a proposed local law that would allow him to act unilaterally on a legion of matters, from imposing furloughs on union members and eliminating county programs to selling property and eliminating county funds to villages and towns.

"The law provides the county executive the powers necessary in the event the Democrats move forward with their threats to cause a fiscal crisis," was the most that Brian Nevin, a spokesman for Mangano, was willing to offer by way of explanation in a statement.

Schmitt (R-Massapequa) was characteristically direct. "He's asking us to give him things that I couldn't do even if I wanted to," Schmitt said. "It's not going to happen."

The powers Mangano is seeking, by charter, depend on approval by the legislature. To change that balance of power by diminishing the legislature's duties would require a referendum-approved change in the county charter.

That, and Schmitt's refusal to consider the measure, makes Mangano's proposal what it should be: DOA. "The legislation is flawed," Schmitt said, "and I don't put flawed legislation on the calendar."

Schmitt's refusal to go along with fellow Republican Mangano hardly assures that Nassau won't make cuts, however.

Mangano's stuck with an unanticipated $40 million hole in the county budget because Democrats -- the legislative minority by one vote -- refuse to give Republicans the needed votes for a supermajority to approve borrowing to pay out property tax refunds. Democrats say they're not moving until Mangano guarantees a transparent redistricting process that would help bolster a two-party system. And with it -- insert irony here -- better checks and balances, within the legislature at least.

Schmitt said he's appointed Republican members to a bipartisan redistricting commission; Democrats have yet to make theirs, however. The deadline for appointments is later this week.

As for the budget, things are likely -- as Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Hempstead), the legislature's minority leader, predicted a few weeks ago -- to get ugly.

Legislative Republicans are working on a list of department, program and other cuts that, Schmitt said, will equal $40 million.

"It's a shame, really," he said. "Most of the areas ripe for cuts are in social services and most of the people who rely on those services are in areas represented by Democrats."

Where will it end?

Schmitt said he would sit down with Mangano and compare recommended cuts. From there, the Mangano administration could ask lawmakers to approve specific cuts to specific programs, which would require only a simple majority vote for approval.

Which means Mangano likely will get what he wants.

Without an unnecessary power grab.