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Governor George Pataki’s ambush veto of the state legislature’s bipartisan budget, a humiliation for Albany Democrats, has created a cash crisis for legal services lawyers, advocates and state housing programs.

Pataki’s veto of the bipartisan Assembly/Senate spending plan last week included deep cuts to preexisting funding for Legal Services and Legal Aid, along with the unexpected elimination of funding to the nonprofit that provides legal advice to unrepresented tenants in housing court who are on the verge of eviction. Pataki’s dramatic election-year veto–which is not likely to overridden by the state legislators–also wiped out $38 million in new housing construction passed by the Senate and Assembly leadership.

Pataki cut $6.8 million to legal services statewide–half of that to the city’s Legal Services of New York chapters and the Legal Aid Society, which both absorbed $1.9 million in reductions.

Scott Sommer, a former Legal Services’ lawyer who is now an official with the lawyers’ union, says the cuts could meant the elimination of between 40 and 60 legal services lawyers.

“We’ve been able to reduce the deficit to about a half million this year by cutting 20 staff lines,” said Steve Banks, deputy attorney in charge of Legal Aid’s Civil Division. “Now this throws all of those plans into chaos. It’s deadly.”

The City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court suffered the most damaging cut of all: Its entire state budget line of $263,000. “If we can’t figure out some way to get that money back, we’re basically out of business,” said Director Angelita Anderson.

Ironically, this year’s budget, which was passed in early April, was touted as a good-government improvement over business-as-usual in Albany. In recent years, budgets have typically been passed in July after marathon closed-door sessions between the governor, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. This year Silver and Bruno held public hearings, from which evolved a consensus budget. Pataki remained largely silent throughout the process, saying only that he would veto new expenditures funded through state bonds.

He was true to his word and then some, slashing:

$27 million slated for low-income and affordable middle-income housing and $6.3 million in modernization funding for state-run public housing.

$725,000 to the Albany-based Public Utility Law Project, which advocates for affordable utility rates.

$700,000 in additional funding for neighborhood housing groups.

A source close to Silver says Pataki’s staff is willing to restore some of the vetoed funding in exchange for the speaker’s support of measures he previously opposed, including new parole restrictions and harsher sentencing laws.

If that doesn’t work, advocates hope for additional funding from New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a Queens Democrat who hopes to oppose Pataki in November. “The speaker has been personally very supportive of the programs that the governor has attacked,” Banks says.

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