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By Karen DeWitt
Albany, New York – The just- completed New York legislative session is not exactly getting rave revues from fiscal watchdogs or in newspaper editorial pages around the state.
Governor Pataki was very pleased with the agreements reached in the final days of the 2006 legislative session, saying he had achieved “excellent, excellent accomplishments”.
Legislative leaders were happy as well. Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, speaking on the last day of the session, said it was “probably the most productive year on behalf of the people of this state” .
When it comes to end of session deals regarding the state budget, many disagree with Pataki and Bruno’s characterizations. Newspaper editorials from around the state widely condemned the final $113.4 billion dollar budget agreement, saying it spends too much and is based on shaky financing.
Long Island Newsday called the budget “irresponsible” , and “a recipe for fiscal disaster” . The Buffalo News accused legislative leaders of being “dictatorial” , and asserted that “upstate is an economic wasteland because of the legislature’s allegiance to special interests”. The Albany Times Union criticized property tax rebate checks scheduled to be mailed out in the fall as “one-shots” .
Budget watchdogs agree with many of the points made in the editorials. E.J McMahon, with the conservative think tank, The Empire Center, says the finished budget increases spending at four times the rate of inflation, and represents the biggest spending jump since the Rockefeller era.
McMahon says the tax breaks that lawmakers are touting really don’t add up to much.
“Unless you have school age children, you’re not going to get much at all out of this,” McMahon said.
All New Yorkers with children in elementary, middle or high school will receive a more than $300 tax credit per child. But McMahon says the adjustment to the marriage penalty tax will save the average couple only $27, while the sales tax cut on gasoline will save just $15 for every 10,000 miles of driving. And he says the property tax rebates, which will average $200,or $350 for seniors, will bring many homeowners checks just before election time, but won’t really save them money on their taxes in the long run. He says school taxes have steadily risen over the last few years, and that trend will likely continue.
Elizabeth Lynam, with the non-partisan fiscal watch group the Citizens Budget Commission, says legislators, after passing a nearly on-time budget last year for the first time in two decades, have taken a step backwards this year.
“They’ve pretty much reverted to dysfunctional behavior,” Lynam said.
Lynam says it’s “disturbing” that additional programs tacked onto the budget in the final hours of the session are based on a one-time budget surplus. The exact amount of that surplus is in dispute between the governor and legislative leaders. Lynam says although lawmakers are taking credit for an on-time budget for the second year in a row, she says what was approved back in March can’t really be counted as a complete spending plan. She says they failed to settle $650 million dollars in health care spending, or the property tax rebate plan, until late June, nearly three months into the new fiscal year.
“No one should really think that we had an on time budget this year,” she said
Both Lynam and McMahon say the level of spending in the budget is unsustainable, and that the next governor, who takes office in January, will be left with multi- billion dollar budget gaps.