CUTTING STING OF FURLOUGH VOTE

Sen. Neil Breslin inserts poison pill cited in order delaying governor's plan

JIMMY VIELKIND CAPITOL BUREAU
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Friday, May 14, 2010

ALBANY -- Sen. Neil Breslin voted to furlough 100,000 state workers, including thousands who live in his Albany County district.


But Breslin, a Bethlehem Democrat, also got the Senate to pass a poison pill.


A resolution passed unanimously by the 62-member chamber Monday deemed the furloughs "contrary to the law and public policy of this state" and that "this legislative body believes it is not reasonable or fiscally necessary to impose furloughs on unionized state employees in violation of their existing collective bargaining agreements."


While nonbinding, the technical language of the resolution appeared in a lawsuit challenging the furloughs -- one of four -- filed by the Public Employees Federation. Breslin then joined with the 31 other Democrats in the Senate to authorize the furloughs as part of a bill proposed by Gov. David Paterson that offered a week's worth of money to continue the functions of state government.


It was classic political defense for a legislator stuck between a rock and a hard place, and Republicans whispered that it was silly for Democrats to vote for something they had just said was illegal.


But when U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn issued a temporary restraining order Wednesday, he explained he did so with deference to legislative intent, saying "this clear statement by the New York State Legislature strongly supports the Court's decision to grant the temporary relief requested by Plaintiffs."


By Thursday, Breslin couldn't help but gloat a bit. He issued a statement saying the ruling "demonstrates merit" in his resolution. Speaking near the Senate chamber, he slyly grinned before saying, "I'm delighted."


"I think the law is still the law. I probably helped facilitate the process but I think the outcome would have been the same," Breslin said. "It clarified my position -- either way I was going to get criticism, but I did the right thing. I voted to keep government open with the knowledge that I expected the employee unions to be victorious in court."


But will it serve as a political shield? Breslin denied politics entered into his calculations, but it seems he was working closely with PEF all along. Officials on both sides acknowledged they spoke continuously throughout the process, and when asked by Breslin was not attending a rally of over 2,000 state workers yelling at legislators about to vote for a furlough, PEF President Kenneth Brynien jumped to Breslin's defense.


"Neil said he's working right now to put together a resolution to send to the governor to stop the furloughs," said Brynien. "So, we gave him an out because he's working on our behalf. That's more important than standing in the crowd."


In addition, Breslin is facing two primary challengers who are attacking his stance on the furloughs.


The only legislator standing before the PEF crowd who ended up voting for the furlough was Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, who said he didn't want to vote to shut down state government when some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, including 600,000 people expecting unemployment checks, might get caught in the cross-hairs.


McEneny said Wednesday that he has received letters and e-mails blasting his vote.


"There are some very upset people out there," McEneny said Wednesday. Later, he led a mini-insurrection of legislators to a sit-in at Paterson's office, saying he was frustrated the governor had put him and others in a "no-win situation." He and Paterson emerged smiling, saying negotiations over the budget -- the extender bills are necessary because New York has been without a spending plan since April 1 -- will resume next week.


"It was something that came up rather spontaneously and wasn't a strategic-type thing. People see it is a shield, but we had people from both sides down there, including Reilly and Gordon who voted no," McEneny said. "It's sending a message to constituents that I'm trying to do the best for them."


Will it resonate?


Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant, said probably not.


"We have public workers who are working and who have mortgages to pay. They have long memories and short fuses, and someone's going to pay the price," he said. "When you're voting to put your own constituents out of jobs, they might very well do the same thing come the fall. Turnabout is always fair game."


Sheinkopf suggested blaming the governor, which both men have done. The governor on Thursday directed his ire toward the courts, saying Kahn ruled without reviewing written or oral submissions from the state of New York.


"What disappointed us is we were not allowed to have a hearing," Paterson said on WOR AM-710. "If you read the judge's decision, there was a mistake that would have been cleared up (about how much pay workers would lose) if we had had a chance to make our case."


A spokesman for Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said the state is drawing up its legal reply, which is due May 19. Kahn scheduled oral arguments on whether Paterson has the authority to unilaterally order furloughs for May 26.


The spokesman said Cuomo, who is expected to be the Democratic nominee for governor but has not spoken publicly in recent weeks, would make his position known in the court documents.


Jimmy Vielkind can be reached at 454-5081 or jvielkind@timesunion.com.


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