Friday, April 01, 2005

Albany Passes Budget on Time, a Feat Unequaled Since 1984

The New York Times
April 1, 2005
Albany Passes Budget on Time, a Feat Unequaled Since 1984

ALBANY, March 31 - For the first time in 21 years, New York State lawmakers passed an on-time budget on Thursday. The $105 billion spending plan limits the costs of Medicaid for local governments, raises taxes and fees on motor vehicles and mortgages, and increases spending in areas like education and transportation.

The budget, which may still face challenges from Gov. George E. Pataki, could end more than two decades of governmental dysfunction that had paralyzed local governments year after year and had made state legislators a national laughingstock.

Mr. Pataki, who applauded the Legislature's action, said that the budget package still needed work but that he was confident that the final details would be worked out soon. He has until April 12 to issue any vetoes.

"Quite simply, the budget is done and that is a very positive step," Mr. Pataki told reporters after lawmakers finished their work. "But this is not as good a budget as it should be."

Unfinished or not, the budget represents a startling political and cultural change in how business gets done in Albany. This year, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle felt compelled to complete an official document on time, fearing the wrath of voters, who in one poll after another have made clear their disgust with how Albany decided to spend taxpayer money: in secret, among only a handful of officials, and late each year since 1984, when Mario M. Cuomo was governor.

"The public was so fed up with the state budget process that there was an outcry to get the damn thing done by the deadline," said Assemblyman Michael N. Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who has been trying to democratize government workings.

Legislative officials said the $105.1 billion plan left out $1.5 billion they had wanted to spend on items like welfare, construction projects for public and private colleges, protections for the environment and an overhaul of the state's dilapidated election system. With those items added, they said, the budget would be about $106.6 billion. Typical for Albany, though, there was disagreement over the numbers. Aides to the governor, who presented a $105.6 billion plan, said the legislative plan was worth $105.4 billion without the extra items and $106.9 billion with them.

The Legislature rejected many of Mr. Pataki's proposed increases in taxes and fees, including some that would have raised taxes on wine sales and an assessment on nursing homes. But it raised taxes and fees by about $1.1 billion.

It extended for another year a sales tax on clothing under $110 for all state residents, to raise $450 million. A separate sales tax surcharge in 2003 that was supposed to expire in the coming year will be phased out everywhere except in New York City and its suburbs, to pay for Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects. That tax surcharge will be reduced by half in that region. Mortgage recording taxes and motor vehicle and campground fees will all increase under the plan.

The bills were approved by midday. The mood in the Capitol was positively self-congratulatory as lawmakers, in the hallways and on the chamber floors, praised one another for passing a plan before sundown more than four months earlier than they did just last year, when it came in on Aug. 11.

"I am grateful and I am proud," Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, told his packed chamber at 2:50 p.m. Applause followed. "A promise was made, a promise of reform."

Later, Joseph L. Bruno, the Republican leader of the Senate, said at a news conference that it was "a season to govern, and we're governing." The lawmakers filed out of the Capitol, but said they were aware that with the $1.5 billion held out of the budget, another phase of debates on spending and taxing was coming.

Still, State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi said he would certify the budget, and congratulated state officials for finally meeting the deadline. "Some issues were raised: 'If there are pieces not in the budget does that mean it's not done?' and the answer is no," said Mr. Hevesi, who shook Mr. Silver's hand at the Capitol. "In the days when the budget was always on time, there was always a supplemental budget, traditionally at least one and sometimes more later on in the session."

From New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg also weighed in, offering praise. But he pointedly reminded Albany of its work ahead, particularly in overhauling Medicaid, the colossal $44.5 billion health insurance program for the poor, and addressing a State Court of Appeals decision that said New York's 1.1 million public school students had been shortchanged for years.

This year's budget includes $848 million more in education spending than last year's, with most of the additional money going to districts outside New York City. A state judge ruled last month that an additional $1.4 billion must be spent in the coming school year on the city's ailing schools alone, but it was clear that that mandate would not be heeded.

Assemblyman Steven Sanders, a Manhattan Democrat who heads the Assembly's Education Committee, said Mr. Pataki's promise to appeal the ruling, and the Legislature's desire to pass a timely budget this year, meant that there were few opportunities to come up with the kind of money the court required.

But the plaintiff in the case, a group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which brought the lawsuit more than a decade ago, was disappointed. "It's a flagrant contempt of the judicial branch," said Michael A. Rebell, the group's executive director. "I think it's a disgrace that in order to speed things along and pass a timely budget, the Legislature and the governor are continuing to defy the courts. It's a cruel April Fools' joke."

The Legislature rejected the governor's plan to raise annual tuition by $500 at state and city universities. It rejected proposed cuts in the Tuition Assistance Program and regular annual increases in tuition for incoming students. It approved a $38.5 billion transportation plan and will ask voters to approve $2.9 billion in borrowing to pay for transportation projects, with the money evenly split between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and roads and bridges upstate and on Long Island.

Of all the topics on the table, health care proved the stickiest of all. The governor wanted the state to cap the rate of growth in localities' rising Medicaid costs. But his plan was tied to $1 billion in spending cuts, and he wanted an independent panel to make suggestions on which ailing hospitals and nursing homes should be closed.

Mr. Silver opposed the cuts, particularly in a program that provides health insurance to low-income workers. Lawmakers restored many of them and, though they agreed in principle on forming a hospital-closing panel, the details were not worked out.

In the final hours, a sense of giddiness took hold among lawmakers. Even the governor seemed somewhat ebullient. Officials in the executive and legislative branches gave credit to one another; each called for an open and speedy process. But many in and out of government said that in meeting its deadline, state officials simply did their job and met their constitutional obligations.

"It was simply an act of will," said Edmund J. McMahon, the director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy of the Manhattan Institute, who added that a court ruling affirming the governor's vast budget-writing powers helped by narrowing lawmakers' options. "Rather than swelling with pride in their accomplishments, they might feel embarrassment in showing they were able to do it all along."

Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the State University College of New York in New Paltz, said the accomplishment should not be trivialized. "It showed that they heard that people care about competence in government and they set out to demonstrate that competence: meeting a deadline."

Greg Winter contributed reporting for this article.