Monday, March 05, 2007

Our Albany Observer: Desperately seeking a showdown

Times Herald-Record Brendan Scott

Very interesting view of the upcoming budget battle.......I agree with Brendan...Eliot has to win this one......maybe a compromise here and there...but Spitzer needs to set the tone for the rest of his time in office.........andy

Stop me if you've heard this one before.
The governor submits a budget that promises to reform education and health care. He nonetheless raises spending to record levels. Lawmakers respond with shock and dismay or, rather, "concern." They then dig into the seat cushions of state government to find a billion extra dollars to support even more spending.
So far, this year's budget brawl in Albany looks an awful lot like those that have preceded it. But sit tight. The real show is about to begin.
That's because the self-proclaimed savior of New York, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, is soon going to have to say "no" in a big way that makes a lot of powerful people angry. Either that, or he's going to fall flat on his face.
This, after all, is the high bar that our new governor has set for himself with weeks of all-or-nothing rhetoric about holding the line on his already fat $120.6 billion budget.
The budget, for all the new money it throws at education, property tax rebates and a slew of other programs, includes a significant attack on one very influential constituency: the state's health-care lobby.
With $1.2 billion in proposed cuts to Medicaid, Spitzer has decided to make his stand against the sprawling program while he's still at the height of his popularity. It's now or never, he's saying.
Other governors have tried this before, only to cave when the hospitals and health-care unions scream bloody murder and the Legislature grinds the government to halt.
This became something of an annual rite in the George Pataki era. Each year, the governor clipped much more from the budget than anybody thought he really wanted to cut. He then proceeded to bargain most of it back in.
Over time, little changed, save, perhaps, the amount of zeros on the state's balance sheet.
This year, Spitzer has started from a much different negotiating position. He put many of the things lawmakers usually haggle over — property tax rebates, education aid hikes and new jobs — in the budget. Then, he told legislators he wasn't going to add anything else.
"It is a different moment in state government," Spitzer assured mayors from across the state during a gathering last week in Albany. "There will no longer be the back-room deals that led to billions and billions being funneled to the institutions that did not show any cost control. Game over."
The rest of Albany, meanwhile, has stuck to its old playbook. The health-care industry has launched an advertising campaign accusing Spitzer of hurting your local hospital. The Legislature has released its own revenue estimates, showing that the state has more than $800 million extra to spend.
The implication: Nice try, Gov, but let's restore some of that cut money. Otherwise, it's going to get difficult.
This is what Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, R-Brunswick, meant last week when he said Spitzer would get an on-time budget "not by drawing a line in the sand, not by threatening, but by negotiating and compromising."
But Bruno might be discounting the strength of Spitzer's hand, says E.J. McMahon, who heads the Empire Center, a state fiscal policy think tank.
For one, Bruno's shrinking Senate majority no longer has the power to override vetoes like it did when Pataki was in charge. Also, Spitzer — even before last week's landmark deals on workers compensation and sex-offender confinement — has enjoyed sky-high approval ratings Pataki never had.
If Spitzer decides to, say, shut down the government until the budget he wants gets passed, he could come out the winner.
"He has more leverage than Pataki ever had," McMahon said. "Which is why he has to win. If he can't win with as much leverage as he has, then who can?"

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