Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s $3.11 billion 2019 budget was adopted by default Wednesday without a single change when the seven-member Republican caucus and two Democrats refused to vote for a $1.5 million package of changes put forward by the legislature’s budget working group.
The legislature deadlocked on a 9-9 vote on a multi-pronged omnibus amendment, allowing Bellone's budget to go forward intact, a first for a county executive in more than three decades .
The amendment, which would have provided drug counselors to combat opioids, needed emergency 911 dispatchers, child protective service workers as well as auditors to look for savings on the $450 million a year the county spends on employee health insurance.
It would have also dropped Bellone’s controversial plan to use $32 million from the county’s rainy day fund to cover shortfalls in the 2018 budget for police overtime and welfare costs, with a promise to repay the fund in 2019.
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) called the legislative vote a “new low.” Earlier he urged lawmakers to approve the changes, noting it involved only a small increase, warning, “There is going to be a lot of pain if this goes down.” Gregory added it also weakens the legislature’s independence. “If you want anything you’re going to have to go to the county executive,” he said. “That hurts us and takes away our independence.”
Bellone through a spokesman thanked lawmakers for supporting his budget and vowed to work with them.
The two defecting Democrats were Legis. William Lindsay III and Sarah Anker. Lindsay said he balked because the Republicans refused to support what in the past is usually a bipartisan measure. Given ongoing fiscal woes, he added, “We have to be a little more fiscally conservative.” Anker said she also is concerned about spending. “We’re not flush with cash,” she said. “We still have a ways to go.”
While two Republican lawmakers Rudolph Sunderman and Steve Flotteron were part of the budget working group and had input to the changes, both refused the back the final package.
Republicans say they opposed the package because it did not deal with what they said are Bellone’s overblown revenues estimates and understated expenses. It also did not include any reduction in fees or cope with potential losses from a lawsuit that claims the $70 million in fees are illegal. However, Republicans filed no amendments of their own on those issues.
Republicans did try to separate out from the omnibus amendment, Republican Comptroller John Kennedy’s request to hire three auditors to review health costs, but Legislative Counsel George Nolan said such a move would require two days’ notice to other lawmakers.
Current legislative officials say the omnibus resolutions have been approved without fail for the past decade. Paul Sabatino, former legislative counsel, said it is the first time an omnibus budget amendment has failed since the practice began in 1994. He added that the last time a county executive's budget was approved unchanged was in 1990, when lawmakers wanted pay raises for elected officials and patronage appointees, but did not want to vote for it.