STATE legislators will return to the Capitol this week to confront the more than 200 budget vetoes handed down by Gov. George Pataki before their Passover-Easter recess.
Senate and Assembly leaders have dismissed Mr. Pataki's action as political theater, claiming that he is motivated less by the state's best interests than by a desire to impress conservative Republican voters in states with key presidential primaries. But New Yorkers shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the latest budget battle as another dust-up among feuding Albany politicians.
For one thing, the fiscal future of the stateâ€”and a lot of taxpayer moneyâ€”could be riding on the outcome. Moreover, in what is shaping up as a watershed statewide election year, the response to Governor Pataki's vetoes will pose a test of political effectiveness and sincerity for some of Albany's most outspoken would-be reformers. They now have a rare chance to back up their rhetoric with votes that can make a difference.
The opportunity arises because the governor rejected almost all of the Legislature's pork-barrel spending, including an annual $200 million appropriation for ''member items'' that is divvied up by the governor and the legislative leaders under a secret memorandum of understanding.
As it happens, the Legislature's growing appetite for pork has been receiving renewed public attention this spring. Recently, the Center for Governmental Research, a nonprofit policy organization based in Rochester, issued an analysis of $1.7 billion in state-bonded ''capital pork'' projects since 1997. My group, the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center, then obtained and posted on the Internet lists of nearly 23,000 grants approved through these secret memorandums for 2003, 2004 and 2005.
Unfortunately, even the official member-item lists contain only sketchy information, with no details on the purpose of each project or the identity of the sponsor. Nonetheless, the news media throughout the state picked up on the theme, highlighting unusual items like the Cuba Cheese Museum. Editorials in nearly every major newspaper criticized the spending as wasteful and demanded more accountability from the governor, the Senate and the Assembly.
The legislators have reacted to the criticism with a yawn and a shrug. But that was before Mr. Pataki's vetoes put their cherished pork back into play.
Among Albany insiders, the pork-barrel vetoes are viewed as a sideshow to the main event: the governor's rejection of what he called the Legislature's unconstitutional budget add-ons for property tax rebates and Medicaid spending. But while he argues that the Legislature can't legally override his vetoes of rebates and the like, that's not the case for the member items. So it's widely assumed that unless the governor and legislative leaders reach a deadlock, the pork-barrel spending will be restored -- if necessary, through a swift override of Mr. Pataki's vetoes.
End of story? Not necessarily. Senate Republicans are six votes short of the two-thirds they need to override the governor's veto. In the past, Joseph Bruno, the Senate majority leader, and his predecessors have been able to round up these votes without difficulty.
But this year there's a new wrinkle: the Senate minority senses a chance to recapture the upper house. Adding to the intrigue, David Patterson, the Senate minority leader, has already been designated as the running mate of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a leading candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Mr. Spitzer has been touting his commitment to change things in Albany. And Mr. Patterson has tried to position Senate Democrats as supporters of more open and accountable government, backing a proposal by Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, to force the release of details of member items from the secret memorandums before they are voted on.
Mr. Pataki has given them a chance to deliver. If they stick together, Senate Democrats can insist on more disclosure of the pork list as a condition for supporting the override. Of course, Republicans will accuse them of rank political motives. But politics at its best is about highlighting differences and bringing about change in the public interest.
Indeed, Mr. Bruno could anticipate and counter such a move by releasing the member item details himselfâ€”which would surely annoy his even more secretive Assembly counterpart, Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat. This, too, would represent politics of the best kind.
To be sure, pork-barrel spending is only a sliver of the state's $112.8 billion budget. But shining a light on pork would at least represent one small step forward in the fight against Albany's chronic fiscal irresponsibility.
Of course, if history is any guide, this will all turn out to be a fantasy. Mr. Spitzer will look the other way and Mr. Patterson will supply the votes the ruling majorities need to keep their slush funds intact. In that case, at least, voters will have gained a new insight into who, if anyone, really stands for openness and accountability in state government.