State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli hasn’t delivered much in the way of good news since taking over from Alan Hevesi, who resigned in disgrace in 2006. But the other day, the man who keeps the state’s books and watches over its pension funds had reason for a slight smile. New York, he announced, collected some $800 million more in revenues than had been anticipated over the first three months of the new fiscal year, which began on April 1.
In another era, under different leaders, an unexpected bonanza of nearly a billion dollars would be the very definition of a good-news, bad-news scenario in Albany. The good news: The state collected $800 million more than it expected. The bad news: Same thing. Why? Because legislators and governors invariably used the unexpected cash to avoid hard decisions or to pay off politically wired constituencies.
Those days, we can only hope, are gone—at least for a decade or so. Mr. DiNapoli made that clear as he announced the windfall. The economic forecast over the next few months is iffy at best—especially if Washington can’t get its act together over the debt ceiling. It’s possible, Mr. DiNapoli said, that revenues could plunge over the next six to eight months if the economy stalls. As it stands, the state very likely will have to close a $2 billion deficit next year, significantly less than the original projection of $10 billion, but no small task in any case.
Thanks to the tone that Governor Andrew Cuomo established on day one of his administration, Albany did not conduct business as usual during this spring’s legislative session. Unions agreed to painful concessions involving pay and benefits. Legislators, every mindful of the two-year election cycle, submitted to strict budgetary discipline in the hopes that voters will have short memories come election day next year.
News that there is an unexpected pile of cash in Albany’s coffers could prompt dreams of reversing some of the tough decisions that the governor and legislators made this year. There is no end of causes and constituencies that would love to stake a claim to a few million here and there.
Fortunately for all concerned, it seems like the $800 million will be put aside in anticipation of harder times to come. That’s sensible and wise. If the worst doesn’t happen, however, and if the state cannot resist the urge to spend the extra cash, priority must be given to programs and policies that create jobs and stimulate the private sector. In other words, no handouts to favorite causes, no givebacks to unions, no reversals of hard decisions already in place.
Over the past few months, Albany lawmakers have shown themselves to be responsible and even courageous. If that continues, the Empire State may yet return to its former glory.