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Choking on a budget; Paterson vetoes Legislature's effort to avoid making the tough decisions

Gloating was cut to a minimum for state lawmakers Monday as Gov. David A. Paterson quickly vetoed a poorly conceived attempt to avoid tough political decisions, in the form of a budget that spent money the state doesn't have.

Paterson vetoed the education aid package of the budget, in which Democratic legislators sought to restore $419 million in cuts during this fiscal year -- a move that would play well in home districts during this election year, but would keep New York in red ink as at least some state officials try to deal with a $9.5 billion deficit. That struggle now continues.

Paterson, a lame-duck governor who is using his political freedom strongly and commendably to try to deal rationally with that deficit, promises some 6,900 more smaller line-item vetoes.

To say the Legislature's effort is disappointing would be an understatement. What this is, is the disappointingly illogical result of the most dysfunctional State Legislature in memory and a disaster even by New York standards.

State legislative leaders are simply so mired in business-as-usual political practices, including subjugation to such powerful special interests as the unions and an inability to cut spending on state payroll or vote-garnering programs, that they are unable to break with the past and make the right decisions now. With Democrats now controlling both the Senate and the Assembly, the political balance that once forced negotiations has vanished. Denial and inertia rule Albany. Taxpayers are taking note -- and should.

The Western New York delegation not only was part of the general budgetary mess, it also failed to win inclusion of the key state university reform package that included UB 2020, a crucial piece of the University at Buffalo expansion plan that could be a major economic driver for this region. That's a major loss for Buffalo.

No veto can help that effort. The governor can strike down measures (Republicans have been voting as a bloc against these measures, and are unlikely to help provide the two-thirds vote needed for a veto override), but cannot add them.

Overall, the Legislature's budget effort also failed to completely close the deficit gap, by some half-billion dollars, and failed even to consider the likely possibility that New York will receive as much as $1 billion less in Medicaid reimbursement this year from a federal government also struggling with deficit issues.

Paterson's steady insistence on fiscal responsibility deserves praise during this time of crisis, despite an occasional misstep such as his proposal to delay the historic redevelopment tax credits needed for important projects here. His tactic of winning default approval of major portions of his proposed cost-cutting budget, by way of a series of temporary weekly budget extenders that the Legislature had to approve to avoid shutting down state government, forced decisions that lawmakers couldn't make for themselves.

In the end, it was the union-opposed cuts to education aid -- a spending category that has been steadily increasing through the years, with little education success to show for it -- that lawmakers choked on.

At what point do New York voters choke?

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