ALBANY—With negotiations over how to bridge a $3.2 billion budget deficit stalemated, Carl Kruger—a primary contributor to the blockage—took to his bully pulpit.
“Part of being a New Yorker is paying taxes that are assessed upon you,” Mr. Kruger, a Democratic state senator from south Brooklyn, fairly screeched at a Nov. 16 press conference. “Today is the day that we draw the line in the sand, and I say that we should collect before we cut. We should collect the taxes due before we cut the services. While we negotiate we should be collecting. Anything short of that is denying the rule of law.”
Mr. Kruger had just delivered a letter to David Paterson demanding that the governor start collecting taxes on cigarettes sold on tribal reservations. It’s one of those perennial proposals that politicians dust off when they need an alternative to something governmentally responsible but politically unpalatable. Mr. Kruger’s projection of how much revenue it would yield is all but universally dismissed as absurd; its size unprecedented.
But for Mr. Kruger, this tactic is nothing new. With Democrats controlling the Senate by just one vote, Kruger discovered that any one member can effectively veto controversial legislation and hogtie Mr. Paterson and the Assembly in the process.
Mr. Kruger (and three other obstructionist senators who call themselves the “amigos”) delayed a bailout for the M.T.A. for months because it contained a provision for tolling he did not like. He won the chairmanship of the Finance Committee—a position which gives him control of extra staff, a seat in budget negotiations and makes him fifth in the line of gubernatorial succession—by refusing to vote for Malcolm Smith, the old Democratic leader, as leader.
And now, the deficit. According to two sources familiar with the deficit negotiations, he is the only one who refuses to acknowledge the need for cuts to spending and education, even in private meetings. (This still remains the public posture of Senate Democrats, but the sources say that the entire conference—aside from Kruger—is willing to give in on some areas.) Mr. Paterson and the legislative leaders were close to an agreement last week, with details to be hammered out this weekend.
Instead, Mr. Kruger threatened to subpoena the records of state agencies, unconcerned by a cash crunch Mr. Paterson says looms in December. The deficit has shown Mr. Kruger to be a more empowered frustrationist, learning the trappings of his chairmanship, and enjoying the longer leash the new Democratic leadership in the chamber appears to have given him.
“People were furious,” said one Senate source. “Carl decided to throw a punch at the governor on the day we were trying to shake hands with him.”
“The problem with the Senate is they’re all a bunch of clowns who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, and don’t have the votes to pass anything; it’s been like this all year,” one Democratic assemblyman said of the Senate Democrats.
“Carl Kruger’s a liar, his letter is a lie, he owes the governor an apology and this is not helping the process of getting a deficit reduction package,” Larry Schwartz, Mr. Paterson’s top aide, told the Daily News.
“I’d rather hear what Freddy Krueger thinks to be honest with you,” Mr. Paterson told the Associated Press. “For them to even say it is irresponsible bordering on malevolence.”
It’s not often that the standing crowd is four deep at a budget hearing. It was noon on a Monday, and the meeting had been hastily called for Mr. Kruger to talk about his idea for cigarette tax collection. He slouched in his seat as others spoke, his rimless glasses falling down his nose and intense eyes swallowing their target. In this instant it was Stephen Saland, a Republican senator from Poughkeepsie, who did not believe Mr. Kruger’s claim that $135 million of unpaid taxes could be collected in December alone.
“We’d be very, very lucky indeed if by April we had access to the money,” Mr. Saland said monotonically. “So it’s a bit…illusory. That’s about the nicest way I can say it.”
Two Democrats sitting to Saland’s left—Liz Krueger and Andrea Stewart-Cousins—sat lost in their Blackberries. Josh Ehrlich, Mr. Kruger’s attorney slouched in the chair on Mr. Kruger’s left, looking around the room with his eyeballs and appearing as though he were trying, at all times, to suppress a grin. Eventually Kruger’s allies on the committee lent their support. Pedro Espada Jr., a Bronx Democrat who now holds the title of “majority leader” after defecting to Republicans and re-defecting to Democrats with Kruger’s help, said “your tenacity and focus on really expanding this conversation beyond a hiccup and a reflex action and being in lock step with the executive offering.”
Ms. Krueger did not look up from her Blackberry. Neil Breslin, an Albany Democrat who often flees photo-ops with colleagues as they dither quietly fled.
“I’m with you, Mr. Chairman: as a Democrat, as a colleague and as an amigo,” State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. said as he promised to support any gimmick that would avoid cuts to the elderly, an action which would fall under the committee he chairs. Messrs. Diaz and Espada form the core of the “amigo” faction in the chamber, which Mr. Kruger directs.
Ms. Krueger, the committee’s vice chair, still did not look up from her Blackberry. (“That was rude of me; I’m sorry,” she told The Observer later. “I agree that we should collect the cigarette taxes. I don’t agree with the dollar estimate, the dollar estimate is lower, and we can’t get this done within DRP timeline, so it’s a timing issue that I don’t agree with him on.”)
The hearing concluded, and Mr. Kruger slouched toward the governor’s office, a swarm of print and television reporters in tow. He handed his letter to a staffer, who took it politely. He walked up another flight of sandstone stairs to the Senate chamber lobby, a dark and rich room of plush green couches where senators take meetings with lobbyists. A podium, some lights and a chart awaited Mr. Kruger, who signaled his arrival by grumbling about how much time had elapsed since he last climbed two flights of stairs. He noted that he was “joined with my partner Senator Diaz and many of my other colleagues that are not with us today.” Mr. Espada walked by as Mr. Kruger was speaking and looked over at him, paused as if he considered joining him, then quietly made his way into a conference room. Two top aides to John Sampson, the Democratic Senate leader, similarly snuck by, without pondering an appearance.
Matt Anderson, a spokesman for Mr. Paterson’s budget division called Mr. Kruger’s estimates “preposterous.”
“If people smoked that much there’d be a big black cloud over the state blotting out the sun,” Mr. Anderson said.
Mr. Kruger said his figures were derived from “industry sources.”
“I think there is a big black cloud over the capitol blocking out the sun,” he said. “And I think there’s a big black cloud over the Capitol in terms of the finance committee and this legislature getting the information necessary to negotiate outside of a vacuum.”
He said negotiations continue “virtually seven days a week.”