9 Westchester lawmakers pass budget after 8 Democrats walk out

Questions remain on if the budget is legal, as eight lawmakers walked out mid-session.

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A coalition of Republicans and two breakaway Democrats on the Westchester County Legislature Friday afternoon voted to approve a variation of County Executive Rob Astorino's budget proposal that the group put together.

Astorino signed the budget at a news conference about an hour-and-a-half after the vote.

The nine legislators voted unanimously to approve a proposal that took elements of Astorino's budget and ideas from the Democrats. The lawmakers voted after the other eight Democrats on the Legislature walked out of a legislative meeting Friday in protest of the hybrid proposal.

"They have done what is right," Astorino said in praise of Legis. Michael Kaplowitz (D-Somers) and Virginia Perez (D-Yonkers) for breaking ranks with the Democratic majority.

"It's never easy doing what they did and not always the most popular politically. They took a courageous step," Astorino said at his news conference where he signed the budget before a room packed with staff members.

The hybrid proposal passed would restore at least 30 of the 126 jobs Astorino had proposed laying off and set the family contributions for child-care services at 27 percent, slightly lower than the 35 percent in the Republican county executive's original proposal.

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The eight Democrats who walked out of Friday's legislative meeting claimed it is illegal to hold the budget vote with only nine members present. And there were veiled threats of legal action to invalidate the vote.

"They can bring whatever lawsuit they want," said Minority Leader Jim Maisano (R-New Rochelle), an attorney. "The law is the law and that's it. They don’t have a legal leg to stand on.”

Maisano and the other backers of the proposal argued that nine members constitutes a quorum.

Meanwhile, Legislature Chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers) and Majority Leader Pete Harckham (D-Katonah) blasted the nine-member coalition in a statement.

"Today's actions of the Republican legislators, along with that of Legislator Perez and Legislator Kaplowitz, were despicable and made a mockery of the legislative process," Jenkins and Harckham said. "We stand committed to providing a fiscally sound budget that is right for the people of Westchester: A budget that protects our families, safeguards our environment and invests in our future economic growth."

Astorino returned fire at the budget-signing event, admonishing the eight Democrats for trying to put the brakes on the budget process and for "antics" in legislative chambers. After they walked out, Democrats turned off the streaming video of the coalition’s budget vote -- leaving viewers including Astorino's staff in the dark -- and switched off the lights in the legislative chambers, among other disruptions.

"I am appalled at the actions of the other Democrats who walked out on this budget vote and literally shut off the lights in chambers," Astorino said. "The will of the majority has to be respected. That is the way our country operates."

He said the hybrid budget was different from what he had proposed but met his objectives of keeping property taxes flat and not raiding the county's reserves.

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"This is a good, responsible budget," he said. "I can accept these changes because the coalition made sure that it came up with a spending plan that did not raise taxes, did not underfund programs, did not hurt the county's most needy and did not in any way jeopardize the county's triple A rating."

Earlier Friday, Perez and Kaplowitz's announcement that they would not vote as a bloc with the board's majority was a surprise to their Democratic colleagues.

"Leaders lead and that's what the members of this coalition are doing," Kaplowitz said. "We are demonstrating that though we may hold differing views of how to best serve the people of Westchester County, if we put public service before our own political interests, we can find common ground."

"Unlike the current situation in Washington, D.C., there will be no fiscal cliff in Westchester County," Kaplowitz said. "We certainly disagree on policy issues moving forward, but we now have forged a very important level of cooperation that should guide us in the future."

Democrats, who hold a 10-7 majority, earlier this week countered Astorino's budget proposal with one of their own. They suggested adding $31.6 million in expected revenue and $40.8 million in spending to Astorino's budget plan. On Thursday, they offered a series of deletions to keep spending in line with revenues.

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The charter mandates the board and county executive approve a balanced budget by Dec. 27.

With Ron Bittner

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