In their latest ploy to drag Gov. George Pataki to the budget bargaining table, New York state legislative leaders are preparing a â€œbaselineâ€ spending plan that pointedly excludes hundreds of millions of dollars for the governorâ€™s own pet programs.
Pataki ought to respond in the best tradition of Clint Eastwood by way of Ronald Reagan: â€œGo ahead, make my day.â€
While some legislators are spinning this scenario as a historic challenge to the governorâ€™s power, itâ€™s actually a golden opportunity for Pataki to reassert the kind of strong fiscal leadership he displayed during his first couple of years in office.
The governor opened this yearâ€™s budgetary bidding by proposing a total spending increase of $4.2 billion, or 5.3 percent -- twice the rate of inflation. But Assembly Democrats have demanded an additional $2.3 billion on top of that, including a massive expansion of state school aid. Senate Republicans are seeking at least $600 million in added spending of their own. All this, mind you, would come on top of 21 percent budget growth over the past three years.
However, to the mounting frustration of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the governor refused to bargain on the Legislatureâ€™s terms. He kept insisting that a substantially bigger budget would be unwise at a time of economic uncertainty. Moreover, it would jeopardize the $2.4 billion surplus he wants to carry into next year, when heâ€™ll be running for re-election.
Many legislators apparently assumed that as time wore on, New Yorkers would blame Pataki for the stateâ€™s record budget delay, eventually forcing him to cave in to demands for more spending.
But the public has been resoundingly apathetic about the impasse. In fact, every day the state goes without a budget, the governorâ€™s position gets stronger and legislators get poorer, because under law, they donâ€™t get paid until a budget is in place.
With their latest strategy, legislative leaders essentially are throwing in the towel in order to free up their membersâ€™ paychecks.
So now itâ€™s on to Plan B -- which takes everyone into uncharted waters.
This week, Bruno and Silver will present their members with a stripped-down version of Patakiâ€™s Executive Budget, minus the governorâ€™s own new initiatives and spending authorized in previous years. Unresolved issues (i.e., billions in additional spending) will be deferred for consideration as part of a supplemental budget in September.
The underlying assumption is that Pataki cares so much about his own pet programs and whatever else is missing from the baseline budget that heâ€™ll beg the Legislature for a piece of the supplemental action. Based on prior experience, the leaders have some grounds for hoping that once they get the governor behind closed doors, they can nickel-and-dime him into a $1 billion or so in added spending.
But why should Pataki fold? After all, the governorâ€™s proposed new initiatives amount to little more than a modest package of tax cuts with minimal impact this year, an expansion of state-subsidized â€œSTARâ€ property tax breaks for senior citizens, and the usual collection of questionable economic development programs. All these items could easily wait until his next executive budget, just six months from now. To restore his programs to the budget for the current fiscal year -- already one-third over -- Pataki would have to accept a large share of the Legislatureâ€™s added spending. That would blow a hole in the stateâ€™s financial plan starting next year.
If the governor refuses to negotiate a supplemental budget, Bruno and Silver can attempt to work out a compromise without him something theyâ€™ve been utterly incapable of doing for the past five months. Even if they succeed in crafting a two-house supplemental bill, all additional spending will be subject to Patakiâ€™s veto. To override, the majority leader and the speaker will need to do the one thing they hate most to do -- seek votes from their respective legislative minorities.
Meanwhile, the baseline budget will be a tailor-made test of Patakiâ€™s mettle. For example, it reportedly will feature the governorâ€™s $382 million school aid increase, rather than the much richer package districts expected to get from the Legislature. Many school officials are already claiming this will force them to issue excessive property tax bills in the fall. Legislators will seek to blame it on Pataki. Because the baseline plan wonâ€™t include any money to refinance the state Superfund to pay for toxic waste cleanups, environmentalists also are preparing to ring the governorâ€™s phone off the hook.
This is just the beginning. Over the next few weeks, youâ€™ll undoubtedly hear that senior citizens arenâ€™t getting their medicine, pollution is spilling into drinking supplies, widows and orphans are starving in the streets, and school children are packed into overcrowded classrooms without textbooks all because George Pataki wonâ€™t bust open a budget that already stands at roughly $80 billion.
There are times when the New York State budget process resembles a game of chess, rewarding the player with the most patience and the best long-term strategy.
But at this point, itâ€™s strictly high-stakes poker. Bruno and Silver are about to bet the pot on a pair of deuces. Pataki should call their bluff.