Streams

Lawmakers Work Into Night as Budget Protesters Take to Capitol

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Senate galleries in the Capitol building were closed on Wednesday to prevent 'unruly disruptions' from protesters. (Karen DeWitt)

State lawmakers planned to work into the evening in an attempt to finish up the state budget one day before the deadline. 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 flimsy 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. The only protesting came from some Senate Democrats, who wanted the tax on millionaires to be extended in the budget. It wasn’t.

Finally, a compromise between the lawmakers and the protesters was reached. The state Assembly set up a giant television screen in the next- door legislative office building, so that the demonstrators would be allowed to view the proceedings. Many opted, though, to remain in the hallways, demanding to be let in.

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