Nassau lawmakers, led by the Republican majority, passed a budget with a great big hole in it last week.
The good news (for now at least): By approving the measure — raggedy as it is — lawmakers left services for seniors, veterans and the needy intact. The budget also leaves untouched funding to keep county buses running.
The bad news: For the first time since Nassau voters approved county charter reform in the mid-1990s — which required that lawmakers pass tax increases before rather than after elections — the legislature passed an incomplete plan.
Did the majority, led by Legis. Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), punt on closing in the deficit to help keep Republican senators who face re-election Tuesday in office? That’s the charge from Democrats, who are seeking to bar future lawmakers from passing unbalanced budgets.
But the Democrats’ charge doesn’t hold much water.
If Nassau Republicans wanted to help their own, Gonsalves et al. could have rejected a proposal from County Executive Edward Mangano to impose a new $105 fee on all traffic and parking tickets — an unpopular proposal that would put the cost of offenses wildly out of whack with neighboring municipalities.
Rejecting the fee would have tossed the job of finding more revenue back into Mangano’s lap, which Republicans in the past weren’t shy about doing when Mangano proposed increases in property taxes.
This time around, Republican lawmakers didn’t take that route — which, given Mangano’s indictment on federal corruption charges, actually may have been the safest political move. Mangano has pleaded not guilty.
Instead, Republicans took an alternative route, searching for a quick, sure infusion of revenue that — if successful — would allow reduction or maybe even elimination of the unpopular fee.
Monday, lawmakers made a move — by approving a measure to offer “partial amnesty” to commercial property owners who have not complied with a 2013 law that levies huge penalties for not providing timely information about income and expenses.
Should business owners — like traffic scofflaws who sometimes get amnesty when municipalities need quick cash — decide to pay up, Nassau would get big revenue. But there’s no guarantee, since commercial property owners for years have been fighting the law in court, where the measure is under appeal.
Gonsalves “decided to do things differently this year because she wanted to try to reduce that fee,” Cristina Brennan, a spokeswoman for the Legislature’s Republican caucus, said Monday.
But what about the budget deadline and the charter?
Brennan said county officials have until the end of the year to file budget changes, which presumably would include ways to fill the $77 million budget gap.
Neal Lewis, an attorney who was on the charter reform panel in 1994, said the intent of the change was to stop officials from passing budgets in the days after they were elected.
But he said the Republicans’ move — though violating the spirit of reform — likely didn’t violate the charter. “We did the rules, and we created the independent office of budget review as a check because anybody can pretty much do anything by playing with numbers,” he said.
Will the Republicans’ maneuver work? Will charges by Democrats stick?
Ultimately, that could be decided by voters — but not Tuesday.
Nassau’s lawmakers aren’t up for re-election until next year.