It’s been 24 years since I left state government, and the one thing that still holds true is that the legislative leaders make the biggest decisions, from the beginning of the session to its very end. Yes, there is consultation with the committee chairs, but it’s pretty much like they say: The three men in the room (this year it’s four) have the final word.
Which is why the following story is so unique. When I left Albany, I was replaced by Harvey Weisenberg, a former lifeguard, schoolteacher, City Council member and policeman. I felt sorry for Harvey stepping into such big shoes. After all, I was the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee for 12 years, and I had the luxury of being able to direct millions of dollars to worthy programs throughout the state.
In late March of this year, the Legislature passed its third on-time budget in a row. Buried in that fiscal plan was a $90 million cut in programs for the disabled. There was no meanness behind the cut; the state had simply lost federal funds for those programs, and in turn the budget technicians cut the state funds.
If ever a document is written in stone, the state budget is it. Legislators can moan, whine and complain, but once the spending plan is passed, it is the law for one year, with no changes. I remember many legislators introducing their own budget bills, but I always advised them that they were wasting their time, because there’s no way that a single member’s budget bill will pass.
As most of the members of the Legislature know, Assemblyman Weisenberg has a disabled son who is now an adult. Harvey and his wife, Ellen, are as devoted to their son, Ricky, as any human beings could ever be to another. When the budget passed, with its $90 million cut in funds for the disabled, Harvey was understandably enraged. That was money that would have gone to nonprofit organizations of the kind that serve individuals like Ricky.