Two achievements outshine all others in the just completed state budget, and they are bright enough to put a glow on an another otherwise lackluster document. They are the creation of a new standard for funding public schools and a broad health care package that restrains the growth of Medicaid, turns the system toward patients and provides insurance for all New York children.
Those are real accomplishments, and while they required legislative approval, the real credit goes to Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, who pushed hard for them. Together they make an important start on fixing difficult and long-standing problems.
One of the biggest problems in New York education has been the politically driven method of distributing state funding. Although the word "formula" has been used to describe the process, the parceling out of aid to education met the definition of the word formula only in the way that a shotgun wedding defines voluntary. Which is to say, hardly at all.
High-needs districts like Buffalo were routinely underfunded while wealthier, suburban districts were flush with state tax dollars. Under the state's new plan, a real formula exists, tied to need and backstopped by accountability measures. That's historic change for a state that has been willing to sacrifice even children's educations to political calculation.
In health care, the budget cuts the Medicaid growth rate to 1 percent from about 8 percent and creates an important False Claims Act to prevent and pursue Medicaid fraud. It focuses more on disease prevention and primary care and, most ambitiously, expands Child Health Plus, making health insurance available to virtually all of the state's uninsured children under 19.
These are all significant changes for which the Legislature and especially Spitzer deserve credit. Still, work remains. Adding more funds for wealthy school districts expands state spending increases to three times the rate of inflation. And Child Health Plus is a Medicaid program and despite the significant relief granted two years ago, counties still are required to pay about 25 percent of the nonfederal costs of the program. The expansion of Child Health Plus means counties -- and their property tax payers -- will continue to be pressured. If Albany wants to expand the costs of Medicaid, it should pay the entire nonfederal cost. That's the only way to induce it to manage the program carefully.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the budget, though, is how it was crafted -- in secret, behind closed doors. Just like in the past. Spitzer promised to end that process and his only excuse for adopting it is the short amount of time he had to organize his administration and produce a budget by April 1. Next year will have to be different, and better.