BASED on recent history, Albany's legislative leaders had reason to assume Gov. Pataki wouldn't put up much of a fight when they added billions of dollars to his already generous budget plan for the 2006-07 fiscal year.
After all, Pataki has been the Legislature's partner in boosting the state-funded portion of the budget by nearly 17 percent over the past two years. And back in 2003, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver showed they could work together to override the governor's budget vetoes if he tried to get in their way.
So legislators were shocked last week when Pataki not only vetoed hundreds of spending items totaling nearly $3 billion, but shrewdly invoked his constitutional budget-making powers in a way that could force them back to the bargaining table.
Faced with veto-proof legislative majorities, Pataki thinks he has come up with the equivalent of override-proof vetoes. And he's got more than one legal leg to stand on.
The governor's newfound leverage stems from a 2004 Court of Appeals decision in the landmark case of Silver v. Pataki, which tightly restricted the Legislature's ability to change the wording of a governor's Executive Budget appropriation bills. Last year, the governor and the Legislature worked out a set of ground rules for making changes in the Executive Budget without running afoul of the decision. But this year, inexplicably, the Legislature ignored those rules in rewriting some key budget provisions.
Pataki's hand may have been further strengthened by a more recent Court of Appeals ruling in a case brought by the City Council against Mayor Bloomberg. Siding with the mayor the court held just two months ago that an executive can refuse to implement a law he considers unconstitutional.
Citing these court precedents, the governor as said he will refuse to implement the School Tax Relief (STAR) property tax rebates and added Medicaid spending, approved by the Legislature, on the ground that these items were unconstitutionally substituted for his original appropriations.
Bruno and Silver have denounced him for seizing on mere "technicalities." Perhaps. But it looks like Pataki has grounds to credibly threaten to stall STAR, along with Medicaid rate restorations for hospitals and nursing homes, for most if not all his remaining 81/2 months in office.
The governor didn't veto every significant spending increase in the Legislature's budget. In fact, he accepted well over $2 billion in new spending for school aid and New York City school construction.
These items, which will contribute to an overall state funds budget increase of more than 10 percent, ultimately are no more prudent or defensible than the "unsustainable" spending the governor rejected. But y leaving the education Pieces alone, he neutralized what is traditionally the most explosive issue in any state budget fight and he addressed Bloomberg's highest immediate funding priority in the bargain. This will make it easier for Pataki to stand firm assuming he really is determined to make the vetoes stick.
Both the Senate and Assembly are in thrall to the unions and providers who dominate the health care lobby, which has been clamoring for a restoration of the governor's Medicaid "cuts." Fearful of losing their majority in what's shaping up as a big Democratic year, Senate Republicans are also especially anxious to enact some form of property tax rebate to homeowners before Election Day. Assembly Democrats, meanwhile, have another time sensitive concern: the renewal of the New York City loft conversion law, scheduled to expire at the end of May, which was part of a bigger revenue bill vetoed by the governor.
The bill containing the loft law like hundreds of millions of dollars in pork barrel spending also vetoed by the governor had no constitutional defect. Therefore, it theoretically could be overridden and implemented without Pataki's cooperation. But will Bruno be willing to deliver Silver's loft law if he can't also deliver STAR rebates for his own suburban and upstate members?
Assuming the governor's tactics do prompt the Legislature to return to the budget talks, another big question remains: What does Pataki want?
Will he settle for a tiny fig leaf of Medicaid cost-containment, wrapped in "bold, sweeping hyperbole? Or will he push to restore some of the important initiatives that the Legislature dropped from his 'final budget, such as an education tax credit and an increase in the statewide charter schools cap? After all, these education reforms enjoyed considerable bi-partisan support in both houses before they were squelched through a combination of Bruno's apathy and Silver's resistance.
Defying expectations, Pataki is a lame duck who has shown that he can still do more than just quack. It remains to be seen whether he will lay any eggs.