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Spitzer emerges from budget battles

Gov. Eliot Spitzer came to our town last week just days after The Buffalo News headlines proclaimed his new budget as an entree of "humble pie."

The April 1 story, as reported by our Albany colleague Tom Precious, explained that the new governor had set his budget bar extraordinarily high. And after a campaign and inaugural address that promised change on a grand scale, Spitzer grudgingly acknowledged that even a 69 percent tally in the gubernatorial election doesn't automatically mean mandate.

Some say it's part of a learning process for the new governor, and he admits that -- accompanied by a healthy dose of spin.

"All through the campaign I said that being governor is fundamentally different than being attorney general," he told The News. "The AG is about being right and wrong, black and white, good and bad. You always stood for purity and principle."

He knows his new job is different.

"The compromises we struck were smart and right," he said. "The governor should not be king, or a unitary decision maker.

"But we won," he added, "because we got the objectives we anticipated."

For Spitzer, the "victory" comes in attaining "principles" in the new budget. That means reducing the state's cost of health care by $1 billion, even if he wanted more. It means decreasing property taxes by $1.3 billion, even if he wanted more. And it means increasing aid to education by $1.8 billion, even if the Senate Republicans increased it by another $400 million he was not seeking.

The governor said if progress was noted in this budget, it was in "principle." Progress in "numbers" will come later.

"Now we take what we put in the budget and drive it through the education system and begin to see reform," he said, "similarly with the health care system. It's a matter of implementing and effectuating what we made possible by the budget process."

Those are nice words. But it's obvious the governor came out of the budget process battered and bruised. The latest Quinnipiac University poll shows less than half -- 48 percent -- approve of the job Spitzer is doing as governor, down from 61 percent in mid-February.

"Overall, he takes a real hit in job approval," said Quinnipiac pollster Mickey Carroll.

There are knowledgeable observers in Buffalo, Albany and points in between who say Spitzer has slinked away from the budget table, beaten back by old hands like Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno.

"He realized there is a legislative branch of government too," one of those observers said last week.

Could be. Spitzer raised expectations throughout the campaign by promising major overhauls of the way Albany conducts its business. He found that easier said than done.

But no chief executive has ever consumed every crumb of political capital in the first weeks of his administration. And while he has tasted the humble pie, there is no indication the new governor has overindulged.

Now, he muses about expanding on the "principles" established by the process this year, and about "numbers" achieving his goals in the future. He notes progress on reducing workers compensation costs and property taxes, while promising to address high energy costs too. That, he says, will finally begin to make New York in general and upstate in particular an attractive place for business once again.

So Spitzer seems to be asking New Yorkers to grade his performance over a four-year term -- his whole college experience rather than the first semester of freshman year. There are more courses to take, and report cards to be returned.

"I hope to keep learning every day," he said here last week. "But I'm not going to tell you everything I learned either."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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