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Editorial: Response to critique of state budget should be information, not an attack

A respected watchdog group challenges the chief executive’s proposal. The executive’s spokesman responds by smearing the organization. Sound familiar?

It’s not who you think.

The watchdog group is the Citizens Budget Commission and the spokesman is Morris Peters, of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget office. Rather than dealing calmly with the CBC’s report that the governor’s proposed 2017-18 budget includes $1.2 billion worth of fiscal gimmicks meant to disguise spending levels, Morris went on the attack.

“One might think a self-appointed fiscal watchdog group would recognize and celebrate such fiscal responsibility,” he said of Cuomo’s admirable record, “but their relevancy is based on their critiques.” That’s as boorish as it is disingenuous, whether it comes out of Washington or Albany.

The fact is that the Citizens Budget Commission has a long history of monitoring spending by both the state and New York City. It was founded in 1932, during the Great Depression, and acts as a nonpartisan sounding board on government spending. Whether it is right in this case may be at this point uncertain, but the Cuomo administration would be wiser to deal with the content of the criticism than to try to poison the well.

In fact, the commission’s reputation is such that New Yorkers should give its analysis great credence. It says, for example, that the state is recording “savings” of more than $225 million by changing the means by which more than 3,000 state workers are paid. It also proposes $500 million in unidentified savings by state agencies.

Even if it is correct, the CDC says spending in the state budget would rise just 3.2 percent. It’s not a small amount, certainly, especially compared to the rate of inflation, but it’s hardly scandalous.

What it would be, though, is damaging to Cuomo’s reputation as a governor who has kept a tight lid on state spending. He has boasted – justifiably – about keeping expenditures under the 2 percent cap he has set as a benchmark.

He wants to maintain that standing even as his budget seeks to regain support from the Democratic left, many of whose members supported his primary election challenger, Zephyr Teachout, in 2014. A campaign for a third term looms next year and, after that, perhaps a run for the White House. It’s complicated.

It would be worth having additional analyses of the budget plan, including from State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, who has raised some cautions but has not rung the bell on gimmicks such as the CBC claims. State legislators should, as a matter of routine duty, also be examining the budget for such gimmicks.

One way or another, the truth of the matter will come out. Gimmicks have a way of fracturing the fiscal landscape. They can’t be concealed forever. But if, as Peters says, the budget is clean, then the administration should be eager to walk its critics through the weeds, explaining why actions that the CBC sees as gimmicks are, in fact, not.

The strategy of attacking the commission’s reputation doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for that measured approach.

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