ALBANY—The possibility of action to bridge New York's multi-billion dollar deficit grows slimmer by the minute.
Unable to win passage of any package – his own or a compromise – David Paterson late Monday balked on plans to have lawmakers vote during a special session and called legislative leaders back to the negotiating table.
His announcement came around 9:20 p.m., after an evening of roundabout posturing between both Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, in which it became apparent that no existing bill could pass both houses.
Skelos, who has become an increasingly prickly thorn in Paterson's side, called the governor's bluff and said he would respond by bringing draft legislation to a floor vote. Skelos said he personally would not vote for Paterson's plan because it calls for mid-year cuts to education, but claimed that he instructed senators to vote as they pleased. Observers – including the governor – realized this doomed the legislation.
And it infuriated Paterson.
"All of this back-and-forth and he-said she-said is not helping anybody," Paterson said during a press conference attended by four reporters in the flesh and several others teleconferenced in from a local wine bar. "This is the way that good-faith efforts are manipulated by people who are not being serious."
Paterson has put $5.2 billion in cuts and revenue increases on the table. Two billion dollars of those measures would take effect this fiscal year; the remainder would bridge a bigger gap in next year's budget.
Since the package was unveiled last week, it was lambasted by Skelos and other Republican senators because it cut aid to schools. Skelos also said he believed the cuts for the next fiscal year should be addressed in December, when Paterson is due to unveil his complete budget.
Last week, Skelos denounced Paterson's proposal, saying "I don't see anything creative in this proposal. It's just hack away, hack away."
Monday, he attacked the governor for only presenting draft bills.
That criticism may have seemed foolish, given complete drafts that were posted online for a week. But the distinction is important: draft bills can be negotiated, but not formally considered. Since it's his special session, Paterson sends the bills (and the required message of necessity to waive a three-day waiting period) to the legislature to consider. So Skelos can't force a vote on the bills – a vote which would embarrass the governor – unless Paterson gives him something to vote on.
And the governor won't do that. "I'm not going to do that until we have a public leaders meeting," he said. "I am willing to send bills for a vote if the senate is interested to cut spending in the state of New York."
He had choice words for Skelos: "He has decided to play this political game, which I think is an insult not only to the public of the state of New York but really to this entire process."
John McArdle, a Skelos spokesman, said in reply: "By taking up the governor's bills, that he asked us to take up, how is it playing politics?"
"We intend to show up for session, and we will show up for a leaders meeting, and our position hasn't changed," McArdle said.
After Skelos's announcement, Silver would not commit to a vote in his own chamber.
"I am prepared to accomplish a result," he said. "It's time for us to join together across the aisle and deal with a crisis in this state and in this nation. I can make it very clear that everything is on the table. I am prepared to discuss every aspect of what the governor sent to us, and there is no point and it is a total lack of leadership for someone to tell you he's not making a recommendation and he's not putting anything together."
An actual senate vote on Paterson's plan would bring political pain. Democrats who go on record on behalf of the cuts would be blasted by interest groups and unions. If they vote against them, they'll have run afoul of Paterson.
But Skelos has little incentive to agree to anything. The longer he waits, the longer he can make Paterson and other Democrats push for either cuts to beloved services or tax increases that may hurt them politically. While this will cause the state's financial health to deteriorate further – Paterson and fiscal officials warn the state's credit rating may slip – it will strengthen Skelos's hand as Republicans try to win back the senate.