Brown: In Suffolk, legislators aim for cooperation

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the county's budget problems during a news conference in Hauppauge. (April 2, 2012) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

There were no Republican lawmakers standing at Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's side Monday when he announced the first steps in a plan to mitigate Suffolk's cumulative $500-plus million deficit.

But unlike in Nassau County that doesn't necessarily signal that the minority and majority political parties are pulling in different directions. In this case, Minority Leader John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) said, it means GOP lawmakers back the need for cuts, but need to review the plan.

In Nassau, it's always been Republicans versus Democrats, or vice versa, with the majority party too often in lockstep with an executive of the same party. In Nassau's legislative chamber, lawmakers sit two rows deep with their caucuses, often leaving spectators to view the proceedings almost as if they were a tennis match, their heads swiveling between one side or the other.

In Suffolk, it's decidedly different. Lawmakers sit according to their district -- beginning on the far left, with District 1, represented by Republican Edward P. Romaine, and ending on the far right with District 18, represented by Democrat William Spencer.

The legislature in Suffolk is so determined to be respected as a separate and equal branch of government that it has its own, separate seal: a plow. The county's seal is adorned by a bull.

"I don't think that in general I have a problem with the county executive's proposal," said Romaine, who during Bellone's news conference was meeting with residents of Horton Avenue, a Riverhead community where a dozen families had to abandon their homes after a 2010 nor'easter. "There are some areas, however, that concern me and that I will be asking questions about." One of Romaine's issues is a proposal that would cut public health nurses.

Kennedy sent along a statement for Bellone to read. It was carefully crafted so as not to endorse every single one of Bellone's proposals.

That's because Kennedy, who like Romaine worked on a bipartisan committee to come up with the proposals, has questions about some of them too. He'd like to see more information, for instance, on the county's proposal to bond to pay for police cars. It would be the first such bonding in years for what Suffolk long has considered an operating expense.

"We are at the point where there are things we are going to have to do instead of looking at things we want to do," Kennedy said in an interview. "I just want to get more information about those cars."

Romaine and Kennedy indicated pride in the fact that in Suffolk, the legislature's focus traditionally has been on the work rather than on any specific political party.

In Nassau, the latest interparty scuffling is over Republican County Executive Edward Mangano's proposal to borrow millions of dollars to fund a variety of operating expenses. Republicans say the move is necessary to make way for future balanced budgets; Democrats say massive borrowing kicks the problem down the road. But they're also using the borrowing -- which would require Democratic votes for a supermajority -- to try to force Republicans into a legislative redistricting plan more in line with their interests.

In Suffolk, where Democrats hold more legislative seats, Republicans view the crisis as more than the majority party's problem. "We are not going to sit here and play hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil, it's the other guy's problem," Kennedy said. "We are more concerned with governing."

Which is a good thing. Because even with Bellone's proposals, Suffolk's still got a long way to go.

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