With New York's future at risk, Gov. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg are taking sharply contrasting approaches to closing huge budget gaps.
Or are they?
Governor Pataki's 2003-04 budget proposal calls for smaller spending cuts than the budgets he proposed during his first two years in office—even though the current budget gap is more than twice as large.
Faced with a huge and seemingly ever-expanding city budget gap, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently floated a pair of trial balloons - only to see both ideas promptly shot down by Gov. George E. Pataki.
You wouldn't know it from the gubernatorial campaign commercials, but New York state is facing an enormous budget gap next year. By far the toughest challenge facing the winner of the Nov. 5 election will be to close that gap without derailing a still-wobbly state economy.
For all the hue and cry about the ‘cuts’ needed to close New York City’s $4.9 billion budget gap, a funny thing happened on the way to the 2003 fiscal year: the first adopted budget of the Bloomberg era does not reduce overall city spending. The nearly $800 million increase in the "city funds" portion of the budget is the key to understanding why New York City continues to face massive potential deficits for as far as the eye can see.
Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to raise the city’s cigarette tax to $1.50 from 8 cents per pack is expected to cut taxable consumption in half, as many more smokers quit, cut back, or turn to alternative sources out of state or on the Internet. This would undermine the financing for Governor Pataki’s health care programs, which depend partly on revenue from the state’s cigarette tax.
Mayor Bloomberg could realize more than $1.2 billion a year in city budget savings if he can get municipal employee unions to agree to proposed labor givebacks and productivity reforms including a health insurance co-pay, a longer work day for teachers, more scheduling flexibility for cops and firefighters, and less vacation and leave time for newly hired workers. But it all starts with ‘the zero option’—a pay freeze after current contracts expire in fiscal year 2003.
The collective bargaining table will be the most important field of action for Mayor Bloomberg over the next 18 months. Bloomberg's tenuously balanced Executive Budget assumes little change in the size of the city workforce in the year ahead and no net wage increase for city workers in the three years after current contracts expire. If this assumption proves overly optimistic, next year's budget will be knocked out of balance, and huge projected budget gaps in subsequent years will grow by another $1 billion or more. Clearly the mayor cannot bring city finances back under control unless he wins significant concessions from municipal unions—and reduces the employee headcount in the process.