A Bat for The Gov

How he can win budget fight

by E.J. McMahon |  | New York Post

For all of Andrew Cuomo’s good intentions, Albany’s muck remains as deep as ever, with a projected 2010-11 state budget shortfall approaching $10 billion. But the fiscal quicksand needn’t swallow up the next Gov. Cuomo as it did the last one.

Of all people, David Paterson — in many ways, the state’s weakest governor in nearly a century — has demonstrated how much leverage Cuomo will have to reshape New York’s battered finances.

As Paterson reminded us this year, the state’s Constitution puts the governor in the budgetary driver’s seat. And though recent history seems to belie it, the process actually is designed to restrain spending.

Under a constitutional provision dating back to 1929, the governor’s annual Executive Budget — a “complete plan of expenditures,” including appropriations bills and supporting statutes — is automatically introduced as a set of bills in the Legislature.

Lawmakers can unilaterally “strike or reduce” proposed items of appropriation — a power that should lead to lower, not higher, spending. But their ability to spend more than the governor proposes is limited. They can add to his appropriations but only “provided that such additions are stated separately and distinctly from the original items of the bill and refer each to a single object or purpose.” The governor then has the power to veto any additions, and only a two-thirds vote of the Assembly and the Senate can override his veto.

The Legislature can’t consider any other appropriation bill until all the governor’s bills have been “finally acted upon.” This effectively allows the governor to frame the budget debate and forces the Legislature to deal with the budget on his terms. When the state hits the April 1 start of its fiscal year without a budget in place, weekly spending “extender” bills to keep the government functioning must also originate in the executive branch.

When the Legislature has pushed back against these restrictions, state courts have usually sided with the governor. The latest landmark decision clarifying executive-budget power came in 2004, when New York’s highest court ruled that the Legislature had overstepped its constitutional bounds in trying to amend appropriations bills submitted by Gov. George Pataki.

The same ruling also effectively clarified the governor’s ability to use his post-April 1 budget-extender bills to pressure legislators into voting on cuts they’d rather postpone or avoid.

Both Pataki and his successor, Eliot Spitzer, refrained from exploiting this opening. So did Paterson, at first. But this year, freed from the constraints of an election campaign and fed up with the Legislature’s inaction, he began using the extender bills to advance his 2010-11 budget-reduction proposals piecemeal.

The final product wasn’t a good one; it failed to cut spending enough and raised taxes and fees by another $1 billion. But this wasn’t far out of line with what the governor himself had proposed. While Paterson didn’t effectively tackle the state’s fiscal problems, he was able to stop the Legislature from making them worse.

Of course, no governor can simply impose his will on any Legislature. Cuomo needs to persuade lawmakers that it is in their political interest to join him in making tough decisions to address the budget crisis. Fortunately, he’ll inherit another edge that gave Paterson crucial leverage this year: the ability to make his line-item vetoes stick. Whether or not they recapture the majority, Republicans in the state Senate will remain in a position to block any override attempt by Democrats. (All the more reason why Cuomo needs to take a bipartisan approach to legislative relations.)

What New York now needs, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, is “energy in the executive.” Pataki’s name normally wouldn’t be the first that comes to mind in connection with that phrase, but the first of his three terms as governor nevertheless provides a couple of examples of how an energetic, focused governor can achieve real change.

In 1996, Pataki pushed through a major workers-compensation reform, despite strong initial opposition from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, by refusing to agree to a budget deal Silver wanted unless it included the measure. Two years later, Pataki won passage of the law that authorized charter schools in New York, despite vociferous opposition from muscular teachers’ unions and Silver. The governor’s leverage that year was even more powerful: In exchange for the charter bill, he signed off on a pay raise for state legislators.

The looming need to redraw state legislative district lines before 2012 elections will be yet another potential carrot for Cuomo. New Yorkers who think that the next governor can’t turn the state around should keep in mind the pull he has under the budget laws. And those who assume that fundamental changes like a property-tax cap or public-pension reform are hopeless should keep something else in mind: It’s been 12 long years since lawmakers last got a raise.