Skelos: Coalition 'struck a balance' on state budget
ALBANY -- During the first three months of the legislative session, the leaders of a new, unusual coalition governing the State Senate said they heard it from all political corners.
Upstate Republicans grumbled about Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and the leftward political drift after the chamber approved a new, comprehensive gun control law. At the same time, moderate Republicans worried about every vote becoming a litmus test for support from party faithful and conservatives.
Skelos' partner, Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), heard it from the left: He sold out on a diluted minimum wage hike. He didn't push Skelos enough on easing marijuana laws or allowing children of illegal immigrants to participate in New York's college aid programs.
Skelos and Klein said getting complaints from both sides means one thing. "It means we've struck a balance," Skelos said.
Forging a coalition with breakaway Democrats last December to control the chamber gave Republicans sway in budget negotiations. Without that, the state's spending plan would look different, Skelos said.
"If we were in the minority, there would not have been business-tax cuts," he said. "School aid would have been much more New York City-centric. There would not have been a family tax credit. Minimum wage would be at a higher number and not phased in."
The veteran Nassau politician said he was "90 percent happy" with a budget deal made with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Klein and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan). By passing the final bill midnight Thursday, they beat the April 1 budget deadline by three days.
The 2013-14 budget would increase spending by less than 2 percent, to about $135 billion. The total increases to $142 billion when federal aid for superstorm Sandy is included.
Elements of the deal
Some of the budget highlights include a 5 percent increase in school aid, a minimum wage hike, an extension of the so-called millionaires' tax, an array of business tax cuts and a $350 "family tax relief" check for households with at least one child. Families will receive the checks in 2014, an election year.
As with every budget, major elements reflected compromises. For example, minimum wage will grow to $9 per hour by the end of 2015, as many Democrats favored. But it doesn't tie future increases to inflation and includes generous tax credits for companies that pay minimum wage -- elements Republicans wanted.
The settlement was due, in large part, to the Senate coalition. In last year's elections, Democrats won 33 of 63 Senate seats. But Republicans formed a governing coalition with six renegade Democrats to seize control of the chamber.
Skelos and Klein agreed to share not only the title of Senate leader but also control of the chamber's agenda -- and closed-door negotiations with the governor and Silver.
"Sometimes we talked before" the leaders' meetings, Skelos said, referring to Klein. "It was fluid. Sometimes, we just went and sat down and just stated what was on our minds."
Skelos had been under fire from conservative critics after he supported Cuomo's gun control law in January; most Republican senators voted against it. Some even suggested he might face an internal revolt, though that hasn't happened.
Later, business groups criticized the minimum wage hike, the extension of the surcharge on those who earn $1 million or more annually and the partial renewal of a utility tax.
The National Federation of Independent Business said the budget "sends a difficult and regressive message to small-business owners across New York." The Committee to Save New York, a business group allied with the governor, said it was disappointed about the millionaires' tax.
On the other side, Hispanic legislators criticized Klein's band and Cuomo for not backing college aid for children of illegal immigrants. Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) called the minimum wage compromise disappointing and said that if all Senate Democrats had worked together, they could have enacted a stronger wage hike.
'We are coming together'
Privately, some Democrats said Klein allowed Skelos to control the Senate agenda, saying little had changed even though their party won in November.
Klein said he doubted Democrats could have advanced either issue without Republican support. " 'Negotiation' is not a dirty word," he said. "We are coming together and making compromises in a serious, civil way."
Skelos said most New Yorkers want politicians to find middle ground. "People on Long Island, most people in the state are in the middle. They are moderate."
Every year, legislators are under pressure to make the April 1 deadline, regardless of who is leading the houses, observers say. Miss it and a governor could impose his budget, leaving legislators the options of agreeing with the governor or shutting down government.
Even so, Skelos said the timely budget proves the coalition's success. "The way I look at it," he said, "many thought the coalition would lead to dysfunction. What it has led to is bipartisanship."