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Crossing His Excellency

Democrats override Collins’ vetoes and rail against tyranny, while Walters rolls hie eyes and Kennedy campaigns for State Senate

Chris Collins

You’d think Erie County Legislator Ray Walter was some snot-nosed eighth grader mocking his teacher: On Tuesday morning, as each of the 12 Democrats in the Erie County Legislature called out “yes” to overturn the county executive’s vetoes of their modifications to the 2010 budget, the Clarence Republican mimed them and made faces, rolling his eyes. To his credit, fellow Republican Ed Rath, who seemed to be Walter’s audience, did not encourage him with a response.

The Democrats in the Legislature had plenty to say to Collins and his supporters. The veto override by the majority of 12, which will shrink to nine in the new year, returned to the budget four lines comprising five jobs and about $330,000—items that the Legislature had added to the county executive’s proposed budget but which Collins had subsequently vetoed.

That’s a fair amount of money, though only a tiny percentage of the $1 billion budget for 2010. The real issue was Collins’ stated intent to ignore rather than to veto most of the Legislature’s budget changes. For example, Collins told reporters that he would ignore the $1.2 million the Legislature had added to his proposed $5 million in funding for cultural institutions. He said that he would sign contracts with the funded cultural institutions for the amount he had originally proposed. He is also likely to ignore the override of his veto of $100,000 for PUSH Buffalo to develop and administer a countywide plan to address distressed and abandoned properties. And he will likely cause two county health clinics in Buffalo to close, despite the Legislature restoring funding for them, by refusing to pay the doctors who staff them.

The county executive’s intent to dismiss the will of the Legislature infuriated Democrats, who used the occasion of the override votes to complain about Collins’ disdain for democracy and unwillingness to consult Democrats as he seeks to jettison county government’s support for health clinics, social services, Olmsted Parks, and culturals. No one was more vociferous in her attacks than Majority Leader Maria Whyte. “The county executive alone does not does not determine public priorities,” Whyte said. “It’s been two years and this is what we continue to debate: basic civics.”

Collins, she said, eschews ideas advanced by Democrats while offering none of his own. “If not a regional planning board, then what? If not a distressed propoerty fund, then what? There is no leadership.”

In his veto message, Collins accused Democratic legislators of using “phantom” dollars to add funding to culturals. Nonetheless he left in place the Legislature’s funding for one cultural institution he had not included in his original budget: $300,000 to build a museum on the first floor of the Colored Musicians Club, a worthy project championed by Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams. Miller-Williams is expected to challenge Legislature Chair Lynn Marinelli, with the backing of Collins and the six Republicans who will sit on the Legislature next year, along with Democrats Tim Kennedy and Christina Bove. Miller-Williams, silent on Tuesday, was called out by fellow Buffalonian Betty Jean Grant. “Why didn’t he veto the Colored Musicians Club?” Grant said, echoing what Legislator Tom Mazur described as Collins’ “total disregard for urban issues.”

Grant said she supported the Colored Musicians Club but questioned the politics. “What deals are being made here?” she said, drawing applause from many of her fellow Democrats—all of them, in fact, except Miller-Williams and Kennedy.

When Kennedy spoke, he leap-frogged the issues at hand, which were the override votes and the county executive’s indifference to the putative powers of the legislative branch. (The power of the purse, for example, and the power to instruct the executive to enact its legislation.) Kennedy said the “root problem” was state government, whose mandates comprise 90 percent of the county budget. He argued that the region’s state delegation needed to work harder to reform state government, so that county governments weren’t stuck paying Albany’s bills.

Spoken like a candidate for State Senate. Kennedy will make a run for State Senator Bill Stachowski’s seat next year. Kennedy will almost certainly face attorneys Mike Kuzma and Sean Cooney in that primary, among others, and possibly even the incumbent, if Stachowski doesn’t retire.

geoff kelly

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