ALBANY – In the upside-down world of Albany, one can often tell that sides are getting close to a state budget deal when the leaders’ meeting concludes with a rhetorical blow-up.
That happened Friday morning when State Senate co-leader Dean Skelos abruptly left a private meeting with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and complained that problems are afoot.
“From the very beginning, I’ve indicated that I’m looking to have balance throughout the state when it comes to tax cuts, when it comes to education aid, and it seems that certain members in the room that represent another branch, their only concern is about New York City and Mayor [Bill] de Blasio,” the Long Island Republican said in very brief remarks with reporters outside Cuomo’s office Friday morning.
“As far as I’m concerned, we have a problem now. Hopefully, we can work it out, but we’ll see,” Skelos said.
Within the hour, Silver, who had stayed behind to continue talking one-on-one with Cuomo, sought to portray a seemingly unconcerned situation.
“I suspect it was me, but I don’t think he said,” Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, responded when asked if Skelos’ complaints were directed at him.
Sources close to the budget talks say Skelos did not abruptly leave the room, and that Silver only remained in the office after Skelos had left to discuss budget matters with a senior Cuomo advisor. These sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say Skelos and Cuomo are more closely aligned on property tax and pre-K issues than Silver is with the governor.
Few state budgets are put together without a few sharp disagreements that government leaders either play out publicly or leak out. Sometimes, they are real.
Other times, they are done to send an “I’m-fighting-for-you” signal to powerful special interest groups who support their sides in elections, even if the issue at hand has no chance of showing up in the final budget. This year is an election year.
No one outside the room knows for sure what is really being said in the governor’s suite during the budget talks.
But publicly, the sides say the disputes now include the level of prekindergarten funding to create all-day programs across the state. De Blasio has made pre-K one of his banner issues for New York City schools and wants a tax on wealthy city people to ensure the money continues, a plan Cuomo and Skelos resist.
That has focused efforts on a statewide pre-K plan, even though many districts do not yet even have all-day kindergarten programs. If enacted, the pre-K program would presumably be voluntary on the part of districts. Some districts outside New York City say they would rather get more money for K-12 programs than an expensive new pre-K program, for which they might have no physical space or which the state’s promise to fund might be short-lived.
For his part, Silver insisted Friday that he wants a statewide pre-K program and that his Democratic conference has pushed the issue for two decades.
“There’s no issue with the level of funding I want to allocate. I think the senator, for some reason, was rather agitated today and he left here quickly,” Silver said of Skelos.
Cuomo did not talk to reporters.
Silver dismissed Skelos’ suggestions that Silver might be the one with a New York City-centric attitude in budget talks. Most of Silver’s Democratic conference reside in the five boroughs.
“I have a statewide conference. I have members that represent every city across this state, every rural area … I am focused on education of students of this state, and if the senator has a problem with that, that’s unfortunate,’’ he said.
Also dividing the sides is what to do about Cuomo’s property tax freeze program, which would give modest state financial rebates to residents only in communities where school districts or other local government taxing units agree to reduce spending through mergers or shared services.
Localities say Cuomo’s plan ignores the biggest drivers of local spending: state mandates on everything from pension levels for government workers to services that must be provided.
Silver, whose notoriously laid-back negotiating style has gotten under the skin of legislative leaders and governors for 20 years, went out of his way with reporters to note that he continues pushing for a plan to give children of illegal immigrants access to state financial aid for a college education. The plan, known as the Dream Act, was thought by Senate Republicans and their handful of Democratic allies who run the Senate to have been a dead issue after the legislation failed to pass the Senate earlier this week.
“He gets upset when I mention the Dream Act, as well,” Silver said before walking away from reporters.
The budget, to be considered on-time, must be adopted by March 31.
The back-and-forth by Silver and Skelos was followed later in the day Friday with word that the New York State United Teachers, a potent political force pushing back against Cuomo’s property tax plan, has begun a last-minute, $1.5 million statewide television and radio ad campaign against the governor’s tax plan. Cuomo has said his proposal will force localities and schools to not only live within the state’s 2 percent property tax program but also to find ways to lower future costs by consolidating or sharing services with neighboring local governments.
But the NYSUT campaign said Cuomo’s program will give tax breaks to all New Yorkers, including its wealthiest, while forcing schools to cut classroom and other programs. The ads are also targeting the State Senate for supporting a plan, backed by the Catholic Church, to give tax breaks to individuals and entities that donate to non-profit groups that, in turn, donate money to private schools.
The measure, which also provides tax breaks for donations to public schools, is backed by 19 labor unions.