Albany’s Budget Follies: Hey, What’s the Hurry?

The State Senate was scheduled to “go home” on June 20. But

not even Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno is trying to pretend that the

legislative session is ending. That would be a hard argument to make, because

in the first 23 weeks of this year’s session, state legislators managed to

agree on just two substantive new bills-one making it even harder for convicted

felons to profit from their crimes, and one ending mandatory jury

sequestration. Now that’s an

accomplishment.

No, really, it is.

O.K., O.K., there was a last-minute flurry in mid-June,

designed to make you forget that between Jan. 3 and the beginning of summer

there were just two handshake deals up in Albany. That’s low even by Albany’s

sixth-level-of-hell standards.

“Governor Pataki has no needs this year,” said one lobbyist.

“And it’s hard to negotiate with a man who has no needs.” Indeed. He isn’t

seeking any major new programs or tax cuts. The changes everyone is waiting

for-Rockefeller drug-law reform, for example, or the Women’s Health and

Wellness bill-aren’t necessarily coming from the second floor of the Capitol,

where the Governor has his offices.

Politically as well, Mr. Pataki is doing just fine. His

predecessor, Mario Cuomo, said he couldn’t run for President in 1992 because he

didn’t want to be standing in an Iowa cornfield while the State Senate held up

the budget. But Mr. Pataki had no problem jetting to a brunch in Baton Rouge to

raise funds for his 2002 reelection bid while the annual budget standoff

continued.

And why should he? For six and a half years, he has managed

to fend off the slings and arrows of the

New York Times editorial board for failing to deliver a budget by its April

1 deadline. Quinnipiac College once did a poll on the late-budget issue: No one

cared. With pressure like this, it’s a good thing legislators got him on the

record on the jury-sequestration thing.

And why, you may ask, is this year so hard? After all, by

this time in 1996, the Governor, Mr. Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had come to an agreement on rent control,

surely one of the most contentious and difficult battles they’d ever faced. By

this time last year, Mr. Bruno had even been prevailed upon to pass the

hate-crimes bill, long anathema to Republicans.

But this is not a legislative election year. No one really

needs to go home, except for family vacations; there are no campaigns to run.

Another holdup, strangely, is that there’s money this year

and pressure to spend it, much of that coming from advocates for education. But

next year, for the first time in a long time, there may actually be a state

budget deficit-bad news for an election year, and just what Mr. Pataki is

trying to avoid. The word in Albany is that he’s waiting for second-quarter

economic figures to bolster his argument that he needs to be parsimonious this

year. (The better to have money to spend in 2002.) Those numbers come out in

mid-July. That means a budget when? You do the math.

On June 14, Mr. Pataki unveiled the Anti-Terrorism Act of

2001 in his Manhattan offices on the 38th floor of 633 Third Avenue, about 150

miles from Albany. Only two reporters noticed the bill was being introduced

just six days before the “official” end of the session.

“Given that nothing is happening in Albany this year, might

this not become the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2002?” the Governor was asked by one

of those reporters. “Well, I think everyone understands there’s a lot more work

to do this year,” Mr. Pataki said.

And indeed there is. The budget will include some big

issues: how much to put in the state’s Superfund for environmental cleanups,

for example, and how much to add to the Governor’s proposed $382 million

increase in education funding. (A state judge said that more than $1 billion is

needed for New York City alone to fix inequities, though the Governor has

appealed that decision.) And until those issues are settled, no one expects any

other dramatic legislative achievements, like a reform in the Rockefeller drug

laws.

“Dysfunctional” is a word that has been used to describe

Albany so often that it packs all the punch of a burst water balloon. So it’s

hard to imagine the days when a low-level aide would actually climb up and

literally stop the clock in the Capitol so the lawmakers could get an extra 45

minutes to work out a budget deal without “officially” missing the deadline.

Now the delays run into months, and few people- other than earnest editorial

writers-care. So nothing changes.

And nothing gets done.

 

Terry Golway will

return to this space in several weeks.