ALBANY – By May 2003, the first year of his third term in office, Gov. George Pataki had officially worn out his welcome with the state Legislature.
Lawmakers had just delivered a sharp body blow to the Republican governor, overriding 119 vetoes Pataki handed down for a state budget that was already late by six weeks. Lawmakers united across party lines to defy the state’s chief executive, restoring $3 billion worth of spending and tax increases.
“You don’t win all the fights,” Pataki said. It was a blistering defeat for a New York governor in a state that gives sizeable powers over the budget process to the governor.
In his first year of his third term in office, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo today faces the onset of state budget talks this week when his fiscal staff and the Legislature begins to start wrestling with a key question: How much in tax revenues will be coming in to spend this year?
If Cuomo’s two terms are a guide, such Albany drama and hand-wringing that faced previous governors in budget fights will be tossed aside, and, as they have the past eight years, Cuomo and lawmakers will settle their differences and a new state budget will be in place by the new fiscal year start on April 1 or shortly after.
But there is a well-worn carpet of possibilities if one takes a bit longer view of Albany’s fiscal history. It is one that suggests this Teflon governor could – if lawmakers keep their institutional backs up as they have for much of the first two months of the session – face bumps he’s not before encountered in the state budget process.
Lawmakers since early January have been discussing how things might be different this year. Democratic lawmakers have grumbled for years about the governor’s heavy-handed ways of dealing with the Legislature. In the Assembly, Cuomo is routinely a target of Democratic wrath – though largely it plays out in closed-door gripe sessions among Democratic lawmakers.
In the Democratic-run Senate, many Democratic lawmakers have enjoyed chilly relations with Cuomo after he helped prop up Senate Republicans for years before their ouster from power last November.
Publicly, lawmakers say they hope for budget peace this session, but they note the two Democratic houses have already shown a willingness to work together as a team, even if it means upsetting Cuomo.
“I think the governor needs to think through how he works with a coordinated, two-house Legislature. I don’t think he’s had to deal with that ever,” said Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Finance Committee.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie declined comment.
The Cuomo administration sought to take the high road, with Richard Azzoardi, a Cuomo senior adviser, saying officials have “a real opportunity to build upon what we already accomplished this session and pass a responsible budget” to serve New Yorkers.
That Cuomo, a Democrat, does not enjoy the best of relations with the Democratic-run Assembly and Senate is hardly a secret.
Look only most recently to the governor’s Feb. 14 reaction when Amazon pulled the plug on its mega-development plans for Queens. He directly blamed the Senate Democrats – which Senate Democrats scoff at – for Amazon’s flight, saying the Senate had done “tremendous damage” by not supporting the Amazon deal. The rhetorical rhubarb resurfaced when Cuomo took to a radio show to call the Amazon exit “the greatest tragedy that I have seen since I have been in government.” Senate Democrats responded that Cuomo should stop with his “baseless attacks” and spend time fixing his “flawed” economic development approach.
Behind the scenes, legislative fiscal staffs have already looked into the options for how the Legislature might try to not let Cuomo so handily dictate the budget deliberations as he has since 2011, multiple sources have been saying for weeks.
Here are some possibilities:
• Scenario One: The Legislature and Cuomo, with a few usual setbacks along the way, get a new budget in place by March 31. Everyone is happy, the Legislature takes off on vacation and Cuomo tours the state talking up his new budget plan.
• Scenario Two: The sending of public signals by lawmakers that Cuomo needs to make changes to his budget plan if an on-time budget is to be achieved. That would come later in March when the two houses would pass non-binding resolutions giving form to what priorities on spending and revenues each house wants prioritized in the budget. Unlike past years when the GOP controlled the Senate, Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins are working to get as many “same-as” provisions in the Assembly and Senate resolutions as a way to show Cuomo what a unified Legislature looks like.
• Scenario Three: The uh-oh route. Under this scenario, also talked about by some lawmakers since January, the Legislature could vote down Cuomo’s appropriations bills that, when combined, show how $175 billion would be spent in the coming year. Then what? Some in the Legislature believe lawmakers could then offer their own budget plan. The Cuomo administration says such a move would be a violation of the constitution and court rulings.
• Scenario Four: The Legislature – in an expansion of the 2003 approach – could amend Cuomo’s appropriations bills as well as the “language” or “Article VII” bills that include a range of fiscal and policy dictates. Some of those language bills related directly to the state’s financial plan, like how school aid is distributed. They were put in by Cuomo even though there is no 2019 fiscal year impact, such as his call to legalize the growing, distribution and retail sales of marijuana.
Under Scenario Four, lawmakers could strike out or reduce specific funding plans by Cuomo. “The Legislature has the power to reduce any appropriation proposed by the governor, or eliminate it, and there’s nothing he can do about it. They’ve never wielded this power or even threatened it. I don’t know why. Maybe they’re so addicted to spending,” said E.J. McMahon, research director at the Empire Center for Public Policy, a state budget watchdog group.
Carrying that scenario a step further, lawmakers could then also add spending and tax ideas to Cuomo’s appropriations bills – as long as done so on a separate line so Cuomo could employ his line item veto powers to reject such ideas.
Then, it would be up to the Legislature to do something it’s not done since Cuomo became governor: override him.
The Democrats in the Assembly could easily override Cuomo budget vetoes with the needed two-thirds vote. In the Senate, the Democratic conference has 39 members, three short of what’s needed for an override. That would mean getting Republican senators, and perhaps a wayward Democrat, to join in.
“Cuomo’s power would be greatly diminished if they can pass a budget over his vetoes … He would be neutered. At that point, he would just be a bystander, like Pataki was in 2003,” said McMahon.
Détente or battle?
Though drawn-out budget battles once were an annual affair in Albany, such a route does not work for either Cuomo or lawmakers this year. Still, it’s only February, but there are reasons both sides want to avoid a late budget.
The governor enjoys great budget powers relative to chief executives in other states. Changes to the state constitution in 1927 enhanced that fiscal authority, which have been followed by court decisions, most notably in two cases over 1998 and 2001 budget battles in Albany.
Then there is the issue of legislators and their pay. A state-created panel last year gave lawmakers their first pay raise since 1999. It is to occur in several phases, the first of which kicked in this past January, boosting base pay from $79,500 to $110,000. It is set to increase to $120,000 next year and $130,000 in 2021.
But the panel – in a move lawmakers say was orchestrated by Cuomo, which he denies – linked salary increases to the on-time passage of the budget.
One Cuomo official called the pay raise linkage provision “added leverage” that helps the governor in talks this year. He doesn’t need to deliver to rank-and-file a message already received: late budget equals loss of next year’s 9.1 percent legislative pay hike.
Such a linkage, says Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic member of the state Assembly, is “more similar to something in Saudi Arabia or Putin’s Russia than anything else in the United States.’’
Brodsky, a professor at NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, believes the Legislature – if it wants to play hardball with Cuomo – has one route: reject his budget and start the budget process anew.
“But that’s not practical. He timed the pay raise to an on-time budget, which I believe is unconstitutional,” he said. “If you have constitutional powers over the budget but you lose your pay because of it, what they’re facing here is not so much a legal problem as a political one. Members of the Legislature have to decide to what extent they disagree with the governor and will they fold because of these extraneous pressures.’’
For now, the Cuomo administration is not worried how the Legislature might want to try to change specific wording of various Cuomo-proposed policies. Those can always be negotiated. What it is cautiously eyeing is if both houses think there is wildly more to spend in 2019 than what the administration believes will be coming to Albany in tax revenues.
That will be made more clear on March 1, when the sides are due to release their revenue forecasting consensus numbers, and then on March 13, when the Assembly and Senate will pass their own, non-binding budget resolutions.
© 2019 Buffalo News
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