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May 4, 2002


Food Wagons in Full Blossom, and Lawmakers in Slow Thaw




There are many who throw up their hands at the machinations of Albany. Few try to explain them by way of the weather.

But if the case has been made that this nation's presidential candidates are less than prime because they are chosen by New Hampshire residents in brain-freezing weather, it is certainly possible to argue that the New York Legislature is elevated to finer form by the rise of the mercury. To do so, it is necessary to think conceptually but in Albany, spring is more concept than reality anyway.

The first sign of it comes not with crocuses, but with trucks. They park along the green expanse of West Capitol Park, spread their awnings and sell lunch.

It sounds mundane, but for many people who work in the Capitol, it is the year's first excuse to go outside. Like bears after hibernation, they amble out, dazed, swaying gently between the gyros and the fish fry.

Perhaps because of Albany's habit of snowing in April, the Capitol complex is laid out so that it is possible to get from the Assembly chamber to the gym, the dry cleaner, the parking lot or the Liberty Market cafeteria, all without going outside.

Such journeys are accomplished by way of an underground concourse, where there is a plaque noting that in 1986, a formal dinner in honor of Albany's tricentennial was served there to 4,831 guests.

Perhaps in imitation of the climate conditions above, the concourse is designed in such a way that a fierce wind tunnel forms just where one enters from the Capitol side, so that people leaving the halls of government look like extras in a harrowing action film.

Almost every day the concourse is filled with a different set of booths, where people can get free lollipops as they watch meditating members of the Falun Dafa, buy potpourri or visit with friendly people from the State Department of Taxation and Finance.

This past Tuesday, the booths belonged to the 22nd Annual Legislative Disabilities Awareness Week, presumably for the benefit of those in Albany who are not already aware of the infirmities of the government.

The lunch trucks appear on April 1, which happens to be the day the budget is due. If the budget is not passed by then, which it never is, senators and assemblymen stop getting paid.

So that is another sign of spring in Albany: penurious lawmakers.

"Everyone has their own fiscal year," Assemblyman M. Scott Stringer of Manhattan said the other day, in the midst of calling in a debt he was owed, for a restaurant dinner.

"For me, around about the Ides of March is when I start getting ahead of the curve. Then comes April 1." He added later, "I'm like the state fiscal crisis."

The budget negotiations to resolve that crisis are but the cusp of spring, a time when the figurative ice begins to break into bergs and float into the current with the occasional logjam.

Mention spring to a lawmaker, and he or she will inevitably invoke the month of June, when, if all goes well, the budget will be finished and politicians can move on to the fun things, like graduated driver's licenses and the Rockefeller drug laws. Typically, the bulk of the bills passes in June.

"I don't know if the season is spring or postbudget, because sometimes the budget doesn't get done until fall," said Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick of Manhattan.

This year, April Fool's Day dawned cloudy but ended with clear skies, and with the news that the state had $2.6 billion in the bank. The Legislature promptly went on vacation.

But the budget talks continued. The week of the heat wave, when tulips and daffodils popped up around Albany like so much time-lapse photography and the temperature reached 91, the negotiations turned a corner.

Senator Joseph L. Bruno, the majority leader, held an imaginary golf club, took aim and said that the leaders were just "a chip shot away."

But then temperatures dropped again, down into the 40's and 50's.

The leaders Senator Bruno, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Gov. George E. Pataki met until midnight. They fought openly over what appeared in the papers.

A sudden hole of more than $1 billion gaped in the April tax revenues.

Senator Bruno, who is relied upon by reporters to be quotable when others fail, labeled the process "dysfunctional."

Last Wednesday began under a stubborn lid of clouds. The leaders came out of a meeting frowning. Then they went back in. The sun came out, and so it's true did they.

They had a deal, although, predictably, they refused to reveal what it was.

The details will have to wait for warmer weather.

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