Spitzer Says He Will Start Budget Talks 60 Days Early

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Gov. Eliot Spitzer said yesterday that he would start negotiations over next year’s budget in November, two months earlier than is traditional in Albany, arguing that an early start would allow more of the talks to be public and minimize the last-minute horse trading that has hampered the budget process in the past.

Mr. Spitzer also proposed new ways to measure state spending, like calculating a separate budget for all capital expenditures and for assistance to local government, the latter making up the bulk of state spending. Doing so, he argued, would enable better long-term budget planning and also short-circuit the budgetary legerdemain that lawmakers and governors have often used to hide the true cost of some programs.

“We were not able to embrace the principles of transparency and the openness that we wanted to attach to the budget process,” said Mr. Spitzer, speaking at the Pierre Hotel at the annual gala of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed watchdog group that monitors city and state finances.

Much of Mr. Spitzer’s prepared address, in which he pledged to start negotiations in November, was given over to a vigorous defense of his first budget as governor, which was strongly criticized in some quarters for the secrecy in which it was negotiated and the generosity with which it dispensed taxpayer dollars.

Despite the governor’s earlier pledges to rein in spending and conduct the negotiations in public, the budget was one of the most expensive in decades. At nearly $121 billion, according to the governor’s estimates at the time, the budget increased state spending by about three times the rate of inflation.

Many groups also complained about the last-minute negotiations Mr. Spitzer conducted with legislative leaders behind closed doors, ostensibly to meet the April 1 budget deadline. And though the budget was passed only hours after that deadline, some critics said that the governor had sacrificed substance to timeliness, making too many concessions on spending to Senate Republicans.

Indeed, the Citizens Budget Commission itself criticized Mr. Spitzer around the time the budget deal was struck in late March, saying it “left plenty of room for improvement.” (At last night’s dinner, the commission presented Mr. Spitzer with an award for civic service.) More recently, the state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, issued a report saying that the overall state budget was almost $3 billion more than advertised and that it represented a 10.8 percent increase in state spending, equal to four times the rate of inflation. (Aides to Mr. Spitzer — who had sharply criticized Mr. DiNapoli’s appointment as comptroller by the Legislature earlier this year — disputed those estimates.)

The governor did not say whether he thought his proposals would give him more traction in next year’s budget negotiations, describing them chiefly as a step toward more efficient and open government. Indeed, in his prepared remarks, Mr. Spitzer said his first budget had achieved “all of the core priorities” that he had spelled out in a major address in January, citing the budget’s reduction in the rate of growth for Medicaid spending and its provision of $1.3 billion in new property tax relief, along with new education spending and an expansion in children’s health insurance.

Mr. Spitzer also said that his budget was a step toward fiscal restraint. As evidence, he said that a measure of state spending known as the General Fund, meant to be the equivalent of the state’s operating budget, had risen by only 4.1 percent compared with 11 percent in the final year of the Pataki administration.

Later in his prepared speech, however, Mr. Spitzer said that the General Fund “has ceased to become a credible measure of the state’s spending growth” because of the way its definition had been massaged by state officials over the years.

Edmund J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative institute, questioned Mr. Spitzer’s use of the General Fund figures and the comparison to spending during Mr. Pataki’s last year in office.

“The one he chooses in here is the one that makes him look least bad,” Mr. McMahon said. “Measuring his first year to Pataki’s last year, which was a big-blow-out year — that’s a very misleading comparison.”

Mr. Spitzer did not explicitly propose moving the budget deadline from April 1 to July 1, a move some have argued would be more useful than starting negotiations earlier.

Some experts said yesterday that starting the budget process early would do little good because many key revenue estimates are not available until January.

“I think that almost by definition, the budget he presents will be out of date by January,” said Dall W. Forsythe, a professor at the Wagner School of Public Service of New York University, a budget director under former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

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