After a year of scandal, gridlock and the designation as the most dysfunctional state governing body in the nation, New York's Legislature hopes the rare on-time budget it approved early Thursday turns the page on a nasty chapter for the two-century-old body.
"A deadline might not seem like much of an accomplishment outside of Albany," said Senate Democratic leader John Sampson of Brooklyn. But "New York has reached a crossroads. ... There is tough medicine in this spending plan, but I believe this budget sets the table for the kind of state government middle class families deserve, and is the strong medicine Albany needs."
That medicine didn't go down well for hundreds of protesters who heckled the Legislature throughout the afternoon and night Wednesday as it tried to pass the $132.5 billion budget. It contains a 2 percent spending cut and eliminates $10 billion, with historic cuts to schools, public colleges, social service programs and health care.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo won nearly every element of his hard-times budget proposal in talk with the Senate and Assembly, whose leaders acknowledged the state's grave fiscal crisis early on.
"The Legislature not only passed an on-time budget, but a historic and transformational budget for the people of the state of New York," Cuomo said.
"It was an invaluable public service for the state government to `function' so well at this difficult time and I especially applaud the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for this demonstration of competence and performance in state government," Cuomo said in a statement.
But while financial analysts praised his effort to put New York on a long-overdue course to fiscal stability, protesters targeted him as a snake from Eden threatening the welfare of the most vulnerable New Yorkers.
Some carried signs that read, "Eat the rich!" It was one of many attacks on the failure to adopt the Assembly proposal to charge millionaires an income tax surcharge that could ease or eliminate cuts. Cuomo and Senate Republicans blocked it, calling it a job killer.
Troopers said one protester struck a legislative staffer with a cymbal, though no injury was reported. That resulted in a misdemeanor charge of possession of a weapon.
After 1 a.m. Thursday, protesters camped out in two meeting rooms in the Empire State Plaza connected to the Capitol under an arrangement worked out with state police.
Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Bronx Democrat, complained that the budget "is killing the black and Hispanic people" so Cuomo and legislative leaders can take credit for an early budget.
"We could have stopped this," he said to the Legislature's black and Hispanic lawmakers. "It's our shame." He said his fellow minority leaders talk as if they "eat lions" back in their districts, "and we come here and the master calls and we say, 'Yes, master.'"
In last-minute negotiations, lawmakers and Cuomo agreed on how to divide $230 million in restorations of base operating aid for school districts. Under that agreement, New York City schools will get $51 million, Long Island schools will get $45 million and upstate schools will get $134 million.
The statewide cut in school aid remains historic at $697 million. The budget contains no tax increases or significant borrowing, but deep cuts including another 10 percent decrease for public universities after similar cuts last year.
"Yes, there's pain," said Sen. Hugh Farley, a Schenectady County Republican acknowledging the protesters chanting on the Capitol floors. "But there's pain for everybody. We are solving a huge problem, and we are bringing back New York state to the Empire State again."
E.J. McMahon of the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute said passing a budget on time after decades of mostly late passages doesn't mean much.
"It's an obsession of people in Albany," he said. "More important is the lack of tax increases. The fact that it's on time is sort of the icing on the cake for Cuomo."
Although the budget is a step in the right direction, it's no permanent fix. McMahon said an overall reduction in the budget was a certainty after the loss of temporary federal stimulus money and Cuomo's campaign promise of no tax increases. The budget is still buoyed by $7 billion in tax and fee increases over the past three years.
"You could argue it should have been more," McMahon said.