State budget approved; protestors limited in State Capitol building

ALBANY, NY – New York has a new state budget- the spending plan passed on time in the early hours of Thursday morning, but the news was overshadowed by noisy day-long protests at the Capitol.

In the Senate, lawmakers finished the final pieces of the budget, health and education, shortly before midnight, the Assembly took a little while longer.

Senate Leader Dean Skelos says it's a "responsible" budget for troubled economic times that "cuts spending, reduces taxes and empowering the private sector to create jobs".

Hundreds of protesters, upset with budget cuts, marched and chanted, and decried the near- shutdown of access to the Senate and Assembly chambers.

Chanting "this is our house", and "let the people in", hundreds of angry protesters gathered outside the Senate and Assembly viewing galleries, most of which were locked to the public after the demonstrators gave notice that they intended to protest all day and all night over deep spending cuts to school and human service programs.

Both Assembly galleries were shuttered, at one point the protesters began banging on the locked doors, the rhythm echoing throughout the halls of the five story Capitol.

One Senate gallery was open, but the crowds were too numerous to be allowed in to watch the budget voting.

Amparo Sadler, of Central Islip, was angry.

"I am highly, highly disgusted with how I've been treated today in this building," said Sadler. "I can't even go into the gallery to sit down and listen to what's going on."

Sadler then held up a picture of her two year old granddaughter, and said she had come to the Capitol because she feared that the $1.2 billion dollars in cuts to schools, as well as other reductions, would hurt her granddaughters chances for a good education.

"She needs to get a damn good education, not just any kind of flimsily education," said Sandler.

Even the Senate lobby was closed, which led Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, to quip:

"What do you do when you don't allow lobbyists in the lobby?" Horner asked. "What are they called, ists'?"

Horner, as a lobbyist, was not allowed entrance, only Senators, their staff and the media were permitted to pass through, though guards locked the doors after each entry and exit.

Horner says he knows that state officials have to perform "a balancing act" between access and preventing unruly disruptions, but he says it's not right that the "public is being denied access" "because of concern over a protest".

"It's disturbing to see a public building shut down, so that the public can't actually observe their own government in action," Horner said.

Speaker Sheldon Silver said one day before the protests, that the visitors would be "welcome", and Assembly officials pointed out that there was access to limited seating on the Assembly floor to view the voting.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos says one of the galleries in his house was closed because the metal detector broke. Skelos says he believes in the public's right to peacefully witness proceedings.

"They have the right to protest, they have the right to speak their minds, but they don't have the right to disrupt government," Skelos said.

Inside the Senate and Assembly chambers, it was relatively tranquil, as voting continued on budget bills.

As dinnertime approached, tensions came to a head, when state officials tried to deny the demonstrators the delivery of pizzas.

The protesters, who intended to stay overnight at the Capitol, were counting on the delivery of 70 pizzas to sustain them through the long evening hours. But state troopers, who allowed legislative staff to get food delivered, at first denied the pizza delivery, leading to chants of, "equal treatment under law" and "no pizza, no peace".

Finally two Democratic Senators from the New York City region, Senators Kevin Parker and Bill Perkins, intervened, and the pizzas were allowed through.

"The pizza is going to be taken care of, we're going to take it in for you" said Seantor Perkins

"What about the budget?" one of the demonstrators shouted.

"We're not doing the budget right now, we're doing the pizza right now," said Perkins, with a laugh.

"One thing at a time," said Senator Parker.

The demonstrators finally got to eat their pizza, but they were not as successful in getting more school aid and a tax on millionaire's restored to the budget.