Suffolk legislators not waiting for Bellone

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks with Suffolk

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks with Suffolk County treasurer Angie Carpenter after Bellone unveiled his "Connect Long Island: A Vision for Our Future" economic plan which includes infrastructure investments on connecting existing and proposed developments by expanding transit service and reverse commuting. (June 26. 2011) (Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Suffolk lawmakers are not waiting for County Executive Steve Bellone to submit his proposed 2013 budget -- or the rest of his plan to mitigate a cumulative three-year projected deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Instead, groups of lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, are meeting among themselves and talking to each other -- and to Bellone -- about ways to right Suffolk's finances.

This is not how the process usually works. Traditionally, lawmakers would have waited for the county executive to submit his budget in September.

In Suffolk, the legislature has a long history of independence -- and of demanding respect as a coequal branch of government.

But there's something else at work too.

"These are unprecedented times," said Minority Leader John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset).

"I think everybody wants to build in as much time as possible to come up with ideas and to properly vet them," he said. "If we wait and end up with a partisan roadblock, we're doomed."

In interviews, some Suffolk lawmakers, although hesitant to criticize neighboring Nassau County, said they were committed to working together to solve Suffolk's crisis rather than letting it ride.

Earlier this month, for instance, a slew of contract youth, senior, addiction and mental health agencies in Nassau shut down because legislative Democrats and Republican County Executive Edward Mangano wouldn't compromise on borrowing and redistricting issues.

"They seem to be locked into a fiscal death spiral over there," said Suffolk Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches). "We don't want to do that."

So Republicans and a committee of Democrats, who hold the majority, are for now working separately to figure out ways to preserve key services, find recurring savings and potentially reconfigure how government works. One idea is to consolidate back-office functions. And the group of Democrats, with assistance from the legislature's budget review office, is working on their own ideas.

"We want to know what our options are," said DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville). "We want to take some time with this," he added, noting that the caucus includes several new lawmakers.

What does Bellone think of all this legislative pre-activity?

"Everybody's going through the exercise of figuring out how to balance this budget and then we compare notes," Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said yesterday. Schneider said he speaks to lawmakers several times a week. "I think this is a really cooperative process," Schneider said.

All sides acknowledged that there are likely to be disagreements on how to tackle fiscal 2013 and beyond.

Some Republicans say they want smaller government, while some Democrats are likely to continue fighting for programs, such as the minority health office, that at one time were suggested for the chopping block.

Things did get ugly between Bellone and legislative Republicans over the county executive's initial layoff list.

"We thought other things could be done before we had to do layoffs," Kennedy said.

Even so, he said -- and Democrats and Schneider agreed -- "There's no open warfare over here."

Nassau could take a lesson.