Legislature Passes Budget Using Age-old Secret Strategy: Ignore Difficult Decisions

Sarah Laskow | April 1st, 2011

The New York legislature passed the budget yesterday! And it was on time! Which means New York politics is solved forever! Right?

If only it were so. Despite the vague euphoria sweeping over the capitol and its press on Thursday (a side effect, perhaps, of staying up too late the night before to meet the April 1st budget deadline), the relief afforded by passing the budget will be brief. Meeting the deadline required the legislature and the governor to jettison more than few heavy problems that were weighing down the process. And so politics will continue. Here’s what to expect next.

Most notable among the knotty policy problems that the budget did not try to untangle was cuts to health care. First the governor shifted the burden of figuring out what sort of cuts to make to his Medicaid Redesign Team, a group of health care stakeholders that met three times in total and green-lighted a group of proposals without really discussing them, according to some accounts.

The various cuts in the proposals added up to $2.3 billion in savings, but one of the most powerful tools that it gave the executive branch was the cap on the Department of Health’s Medicaid state expenditures. This is, according to a budget factsheet from the governor’s office,  “an overall spending cap, enabling the Commissioner of Health to make additional savings actions during the year, if necessary.” This is as close as you get to a carte blanche in politics: if and when those saving actions become necessary, the focus of the press and the people will be elsewhere.

Schools did badly in the budget this year, even with the extra $230 million thrown in at the end. The state budget shaved off 3.5% of its funding to schools, but with those cuts coming after supplemental funding from Washington dried up, schools are facing lay offs and cuts to programs. In its budget fact-sheet, the governor’s office reminded New Yorkers that their schools “will continue to have among the highest spending per pupil in the nation,” but that’s no comfort to schools with less money or teachers who could lose their jobs.

Accordingly, groups like NYSUT, the state teachers’ union, are still looking for opportunities to dampen the hurt a little. “We have seen supplemental budgets where the legislature comes back and appropriates new money for programs,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT. “It’s a little early in the game right now, but one of the strategies will be to pursue a supplemental budget to provide further restorations for schools.”

The other big question for teachers going forward is, if schools have to let teachers go, how much leeway will administrators have in making those decisions? Mayor Bloomberg still wants to get past the “last in, first out” policies that keep veteran (and therefore more expensive) teachers over their younger (cheaper) colleagues.

After the budget, mandate relief looms as the next great fiscal hill the legislature will have to overcome. The problem, essentially, is that over the years, the state government has told local governments that they have the responsibility to provide all sorts of services to their citizens and that they have to pay for those services themselves. Usually, local governments do this by increasing property taxes, one of their only money-raising gimmicks.

Rolling back the number of expensive services local governments have to provide is “critically necessary for all lower levels of governance,” Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said last night. His minority counterpart, John Sampson, also cited that as an upcoming priority.

The Senate has already passed a property tax cap, which is the flip side of mandate relief. (If local officials can’t find the money to pay for services, mandates don’t matter much, anyway.) But Democrats, who control the Assembly, want to pair the property tax cap with a solution to the expiring rent regulation law. For a brief minute, Gov. Cuomo was saying this duo could be folded into the budget, but then the issue was dropped.

Gov. Cuomo made ethics reform one of his primary campaign talking points but also has made a point of saying he’s not particularly concerned about when it happens. It certainly wasn’t higher on his priority list than passing an on-time budget: He even earned a wrist-slap from New York Post columnist Fred Dicker, usually a pretty reliable Cuomo fan, when he passed up on converting an opportune ethics scandal into a set of strong talking points on ethics.

Now that the budget is finished, though, ethics reform might find some air to breathe. But good government groups are more focused for the moment on trying to force the legislature into doing the thing politicians are least wont to do: acting against their own electoral interests.

The 2012 election may be a full 19 months away, but that’s a heartbeat in political time, especially when the possibility that redistricting could snatch your district out from under your feet.

This week, Skelos, who once promised he’d support some version of an independent redistricting process, said on NY1 he would not take up independent redistricting. The budget also includes funds for a redistricting process run exclusively by the legislature.

New York Uprising, the organization founded by former Mayor Ed Koch, who has been arguing for an independent redistricting process, is trumpeting on its Web site that “time is running out” on redistricting reform.

“It’s basically a challenge of momentum,” New York Uprising’s Adam Riff emailed. “There are already rules in place governing apportionment, and once they’re set in motion, it gets harder and harder to shift course to an independent commission, which is why it is the goal of some “Enemies of Reform” to simply run out the clock.  We’re not there yet, but that’s why it’s more urgent than ethics and budget reforms.”