ALBANY—An expected $24.6 billion in stimulus money for New York State in the next two years isn't making David Paterson's job any easier, and is intensifying pressure from interest groups who now believe that the governor is making cuts even where they could theoretically be plugged with federal money.
The groups and their elected advocates want specifics. And those, where the governor is concerned, remain in short supply.
The governor's appearance at the annual conference of the Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators this weekend was a good example. Paterson found attendees wearing "Fair Budget for All" stickers and, at the behest of 1199 President George Gresham, chanting "tax the rich" during a black tie dinner, as Paterson sat surrounded by aides on a side mezzanine.
Before the guests sat down, I asked Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry what he was expecting the governor to say in his speech."I think he'll maintain that position of trying to make cuts as well as speak to constituencies here who have been classically left out of the budget process," Aubry said.
"As only he can, he'll do both."
Asked how he'd like to see the simulus money used, Aubry, chairman of his chamber's Standing Comittee on Correction, immediately rattled off several substance abuse and anti-recidivism programs to which he would like to restore funding.
In his speech Saturday night, the governor presented a wandering metaphor about the colors of the spectrum leading to the many shades of blues he faces, before breaking finally into a lament about how he rose to the governor's office amid a major fiscal crisis.
"I am trying, as are all of you are, to balance this budget fairly, but we were dealt a bad hand," Paterson said. "This is a difficult time, and we will work it out, and we will work it out together. And listen: I don't care how many commercials you all pay for, I don't care how many points I lose in the polls, and I don't care how many blind people you roll out in wheelchairs, I'm going to get this budget done."
Some of the crowd rose to its feet.
"And those of you who are not here, who think you are too wealthy or too influential, or have too great a title to be part of New York's budget-balancing formula, let me make you aware: every New Yorker will share in the sacrifice to get this budget passed," Paterson said as the cheers continued.
That last bit sounded almost like an endorsement of the millionaire's tax, which Paterson has sent mixed messages on and which Speaker Sheldon Silver has publicly said many times that he favors.
Meanwhile, powerful labor groups show no sign of easing the pressure on the governor.
Dick Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, has said he would continue to press for more education aid and for enactment of the millionaire's tax, even though $700 million in school cuts were annulled by stimulus money.
Kevin Finnegan, political director for 1199 (responsible for the aforementioned wheelchair ad), said his organization will continue lobbying to use increased Medicaid funding to forestall hospital cuts.
"I've only heard what's been reported, which is that he's going to use the money for something else," Finnegan told me by phone. "It's not about the stimulus and in our view it's inappropriate."
I asked Paterson on Friday what he would do with the increase in federal Medicaid money, called FMAP.
"Obviously we're in negotiation, the hospitals in particular have an issue with the rebasing and the restructuring efforts, and we're negotiating that with them," he said. "Clearly, FMAP was one of the vehicles to get resources back to the state, so I think it's a pretty safe bet that it won't all go into health care. There are areas that we would like to help in terms of the budget process that were not in the stimulus package. However, we think that the stimulus package is a shot in the arm for us, not a panacea. But certainly a shot in the arm for us at this time."
And would he used some of the money to roll back some of the fees he's now calling regressive? (He's already backed off the soda tax.)
"I couldn't say that I have them prioritized, but you're hitting on some of the areas that we're thinking about. Some of the—in a sense—fees and taxes that we had to impose after we got past $11.5 billion dollars in spending cuts," Paterson continued. "Clearly, some of the human services that we cut don't sit well with a lot of advocates, particularly with a rising number of indigent people in the state during this particular time. And those are two areas that come to mind. I wouldn't say I'd prioritize them, because it's a negotiation. And we're way far from the end of the negotiation."