Next year's New York State budget process won't simply be a test of Eliot Spitzer's ability to add and subtract. Above all, it will be a test of the new governor's political will and leadership skills.
From 1984 to 2004, the state's failure to pass a budget before April 1 was seen as a leading symptom of Albany's "dysfunction." Reacting to mounting public dissatisfaction with their performance, legislators finally managed to get the job done on time in each of the last two years. This punctuality came at a stiff price: Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats resolved their differences more quickly by agreeing to spend even more than usual, easily overriding Gov. George Pataki's final round of budget vetoes. The crucial "state funds" portion of the budget grew by 25 percent in the last two years, putting spending on unsustainable track for Pataki's successor.
Spitzer says he wants to control spending and to open up the budget process. Pataki took office a dozen years ago with similar goals. In his first State of the State address, he warned legislators that if they failed to meet the April 1 deadline, he would not "provide interim appropriations for any state functions except those that directly affect the health and safety of New Yorkers."
In case anyone missed the point, Pataki spelled out the consequences: "If we don't have the budget done on time . . . You won't be paid, and neither will I."
Pataki's credibility suffered when he backed down from that threat and sent the emergency appropriations bills to the Legislature in the absence of a budget deal after April 1, 1995. His attempt to withhold pay for legislators was blocked in court. And his first budget was 68 days late.
A new law docking legislative salaries in the absence of a budget was forced through by the governor in late 1998, but proved to be completely ineffective. Even bigger budget delays followed.
Pataki's experience carries some important lessons for Spitzer.
A key tactical decision for Spitzer is whether he will try to enforce a budget-making schedule on Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats. If Spitzer is unwilling to routinely send up the emergency bills needed to keep all agencies running in the absence of a budget deal, he needs to put a credible government-shutdown contingency plan on the table at the start of the budget process. This will show that he means business.
If Spitzer thinks that getting the right budget matters more than getting an "on-time" budget, then he needs to make this clear from the outset.
Whatever course he chooses, Spitzer needs to be unlike his predecessor in one other crucial respect. He needs to be both firm and consistent.