ALBANY - New York's Legislature averted an unprecedented shutdown of state government Monday night, the latest scare in a 2-year-old fiscal crisis and with a state budget now more than 10 weeks overdue.
A shutdown would have idled many of the state's 200,000 workers and disrupted or suspended nonessential services including running lottery games, issuing driver's licenses and paying unemployment and welfare benefits as well as closing parks and campgrounds.
The Senate, with some drama, voted 34-27 to approve the bill that easily passed in the Assembly.
In the end, a Capitol that has been involved in brinksmanship since before the 2010-11 state budget was due April 1 pulled back. The Senate's Democratic majority, razor-thin and divergent, reined in one member - Sen. Pedro Espada of the Bronx - and appeased another - Sen. Ruben Diaz of the Bronx. Diaz won a $188 million restoration of funding Monday, most of it federal and about $18 million of which will go to Diaz's concerns to keep senior centers open in poor neighborhoods in New York City.
The Senate's Republican minority gained a voice in budget talks and agreed to end its bloc voting against emergency spending bills as some of its members representing large segments of state workers took election year heat from Democratic challengers.
Democratic Gov. David Paterson set it all in motion by using a 30-year-old law that allowed him to force the Legislature to accept his full-year budget cuts - $327 million worth for mental health and social services - that he tied to weekly emergency spending appropriations. The Legislature's only recourse was to shutter government.
"I think that we had come to a realization that we cannot talk about government shutting down," said Senate Democratic leader Johns Sampson of Brooklyn. "I think Albany realized that we've heard the voice of the people and the people have expressed their concerns about our inability to put them in a position of certainty. I think people want certainty from their elected officials."
"We are affecting services that we never, ever dreamed of cutting, but we understand times are tough," he said.
The Legislature appeared to avoid a shutdown early Monday when Republicans in the Senate minority saw the final bill that included some of their proposals. The Assembly, with a super majority of Democrats, passed the bills easily.
Diaz surprised many Democrats by voting against the bill despite winning health care funding for his district. He set up another potential showdown over an emergency bill next week if there is still no agreement on a state budget.
"I'm going to make a lot of people angry because of my vote," Diaz said from the floor. "I'm not voting for cuts today and not next week ... I am a Democrat, and I will not cut more benefits for people," he said.
Republican Sens. Hugh Farley of Schenectady County, Roy McDonald of Saratoga County and Charles Fuschillo Jr. of Long Island voted for the bills.
"Don't count on my vote for any more extenders," Farley said in an angry explanation of his vote on the Senate floor. "It's time to pass the budget. It is dysfunction on steroids."
McDonald blamed the Democratic majority and brinksmanship for having to vote for an emergency bill in June, because the budget wasn't done on April 1.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Carl Kruger, a Brooklyn Democrat, accused the Republican conference of trying to shut down government to hurt the Democratic majority for political gain. He called for "one brave soul" from the Republicans to put "service over politics."