Gov. George Pataki made a difficult but smart decision when he vetoed a budget reform bill that was the legislative equivalent of a pig in a party dress. The package was a power grab dressed up as reform. Not only would it not have fixed the problem of late budgets, it would in all likelihood have guaranteed more of them.
Among the measure's several defects are its failure to require mandatory nonpartisan revenue estimates, its imposition of a no-pain contingency budget if no agreement is in place by the deadline and, in a move that would actually encourage tardiness, the additional budgeting authority it would vest in lawmakers once the deadline had expired. The law actually encourages the Legislature to bargain in bad faith.
Any one of these problems would have been sufficient to tempt a veto. Together, they demanded it. That lawmakers approved this subterfuge is proof of the conclusion of a recent academic study of the New York State Legislature: It is the worst in the country. Who else would manipulate the public's well-founded disgust over 20 years of late budgets by grabbing for more power and indecently labeling it as "reform?"
Consider the trickery: The bill creates what it calls an "independent budget office," and then goes about depriving it of any real influence. One of the primary hindrances to an on-time budget is Albany's insistence on turning prebudget revenue estimates into a political fight. Many other states and the federal government vest that responsibility in a nonpartisan office whose figures are binding on the government.
The office that would have been created by the vetoed measure would issue only advisory figures, leaving lawmakers to continue arguing about which of the duelling numbers produced by the governor, Assembly and Senate is closest to correct. It wouldn't fix anything.
What is more, the contingency budget the reform bill contemplated would have been no less than the previous year's budget, with certain automatic increases. In addition, lawmakers would be able to continue working on a real budget, now with enhanced authority to change the governor's proposal. Where's the incentive to perform? How are anyone's feet held to the fiscal fire?
Legislators, especially in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, will heap scorn on Pataki for vetoing this bill. Having begun the charade of reform, they have to see it through.
But if there is to be an effort to override the veto, the Republican Senate, which passed the bill in May, will have to find the courage to sustain the veto. Then, both chambers and the governor should commit to producing a bill that deals squarely with the problem, which is mainly that no sufficient penalty attaches to delinquency.
Some aspects of the vetoed bill might be worth preserving. It moves the budget deadline from April 1 to May 1, for example. That was a decent idea, but it might be better still to move it to July 1, the start of the next fiscal quarter. The bill also put education funding on a two-year cycle and moved much of health-care, which is now off-budget, back where it belongs.
State legislators think too little of their constituents and expect too little of themselves. They could make a stab at reversing both those tendencies by writing a budget reform bill that does the job.