Gov. David A. Paterson, unshackled from re-election concerns, is determined to leave a helpful legacy for governors to follow in bequeathing powers that he never had in order to deal with state budget deficits, both large and small, midyear and year-end, in a way that hasn't been seen in New York by strengthening and clarifying the powers of that office.
Paterson's plan is worth considering because the current system is unsustainable and the state's overall fiscal health and stability picture is unlikely to improve for some time.
Even after the national economy turns around and the state is able to muddle through, because of the increasing volatility of the state's revenue structure, there will be years when significant budget gaps will arise due to the ups and downs of Wall Street and the fact that the state's revenue structure is heavily dependent upon it.
The question becomes: Will the Legislature respond adequately? History is not very encouraging.
Currently, the governor is unable to make across-the-board spending cuts when needed to maintain fiscal balance, as written in the report "Gubernatorial Powers to Address Budget Gaps During the Fiscal Year," from the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.
In New York, impoundment is permitted only for state agencies' operating expenses, representing one-quarter of state-funded spending, while states such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio and Oregon give governors the authority to restrain expenditures to the extent of money to local governments, school districts and Medicaid.
In other states, the concept of executive leadership also includes at least some significant ability to deal with midyear budget gaps.
To be sure, the governor shouldn't be given the ability to throw out the budget entirely and replace it with his or her own, but states that allow across-the-board impoundment call for limits. The proposal from Paterson's counsel would give the Legislature the opportunity to fix problems by raising taxes, cutting least important programs and so forth. The impoundment power remains in case the Legislature fails to act.
The broadness of the governor's powers under this proposed plan raises concern, but perhaps it should be taken into consideration what other state's governors do. Last year, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley reduced overall expenditures of $957 million, equal to $3.5 billion in New York.
As argued by the institute, if Paterson had such authority, the state's current problems would be much more manageable. Under the current system where the governor's impoundment power relates only to state agency operations, some areas take a smaller hit, while others see larger ones.
The idea is along the same lines as laws adopted by some other states that allow their governors broad powers to make necessary changes to balance a budget. The result could have the effect of removing some of the political games that often occur during times of fiscal crises. Well, at least a tiny portion.