The state budget is poised for on-time approval by March 31, and if that happens, an unlikely person may share a part of the credit: David A. Paterson.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Legislature leaders, after weeks of negotiations, are only $50 million apart on a spending plan that will total nearly $133 billion, the Legislature's top Republican confirmed Tuesday.
As lawmakers talked of a pending deal, it was the former governor, who left office Dec. 31 after three rocky years on the job, who provided a "tool" for his successor that the Legislature this week is fully aware of -- and fears.
The tool is a fiscal hammer Paterson used for the first time in state budget history last year, cramming spending cuts into otherwise ho-hum weekly emergency appropriation bills known as "extenders" after the Legislature failed to approve a budget in time for the April 1 start of the state's fiscal year.
Paterson last June gave lawmakers a choice: Start embracing his ideas for spending cuts in the emergency bill process -- used when state budgets don't get adopted on time -- or shut the government down. "I'm flattered because the governor has said he really likes this tool and will use it, and I think he would use it immediately," Paterson said in an interview this week.
Cuomo on Tuesday noted the new powers, though he did not mention Paterson's first-time use of them last year.
"There's a new option. It's the three parties agree or they agree to disagree in a very dramatic fashion, which is the governor doesn't accept [the Legislature's] budget and [if] they really disagree, they shut down the government," he said. "You really disagree? And you really want to stop it? Then you shut down the government. That's a totally different option."
The new way to do extenders "changes the equation" for the budget process, he said.
Cuomo offered a mix of optimism and what he called "realism" about the prospects for an on-time budget this year. He said it is more important to have the "right" budget -- which contains the core of his campaign promises -- than a timely budget.
The cut-or-shut-down power is on the minds of lawmakers this week as they turn up the pace of deliberations to reach deals on some of the thorny issues, which have come down to how to steer potentially $200 million or more in restored aid to public schools, Medicaid spending and planned upstate prison closings.
Lawmakers believe that Cuomo will propose all of his spending cuts and other policy initiatives in a single emergency budget bill in early April if the budget is not adopted on time, rather than play the usual weekly or biweekly extender legislation dance that in past years could go into the summer.
"I would speculate that he would be much more aggressive and will go much further than his predecessor, and that is the fear of the Legislature," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Democrat.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, said only $50 million separates the sides. "I'm very optimistic that we'll be able to close down this entire budget early, as we've all been talking about," he said.
He said any numbers that emerge today with spending targets will not just be deals with the Assembly but also include amounts that Cuomo will have approved.
Cuomo said he did not think several items he was trying to get inserted in the budget talks -- including a property tax cap and a legislative ethics measure -- will happen.
With the budget more than two months late last year, Paterson inserted about $750 million in health cuts into an emergency spending bill. Lawmakers had no choice but to go along or shut down government. By the end of the month, lawmakers approved their own spending plan; Paterson then vetoed thousands of spending additions. A final budget wasn't in place until August.
Hundreds of teachers, meanwhile, rallied Tuesday in a park outside the Capitol urging legislators to undo some of Cuomo's education cuts. A coalition of labor-led groups today begins a direct mail and radio ad campaign targeting Senate Republicans -- including Mark Grisanti of Buffalo and Patrick Gallivan of Elma -- to get them to join Assembly Democrats in backing an extension of an expiring income tax surcharge on millionaires.