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Finger-pointing after Cuomo, Legislature can't agree on budget numbers

ALBANY – The sky is falling. Everything is fine.

It must be early March in Albany in an all-Democratic state government where no one can agree on the status of talks for a new state budget due by March 31.

The rhetoric, though, is soaring.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday all but accused Democrats of being spendaholics. Lawmakers in the governor’s own party responded simply: huh?

At issue is how much money in three separate pots – chiefly via tax revenues received by Albany – will be available to spend on education, health care and the thousands of other initiatives covered by the state budget.

Friday was a deadline, of sorts, for the governor and Legislature to come up with what Albany calls “a revenue number." They failed, and so on Saturday the governor sent the matter to state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli to referee, as envisioned by a 2007 law intended to make for a smoother budget process.

The Democratic fiscal watchdog is to come up with that number on Tuesday. It is supposed to be binding, though just how much the sides listen to his fiscal number won’t be known until the budget is put to bed, supposedly by the end of the month.

In the meantime, the matter was played out on Monday for public radio listeners and social media followers.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat, told "The Capitol Pressroom" syndicated radio show that she was “surprised” that – in her words – Cuomo “walked away” from the revenue negotiations and turned it over to DiNapoli.

“I don’t think there were irreconcilable differences there, but apparently the governor thought so," Stewart-Cousins said.

Budget faces snag as Cuomo, Legislature spar over revenues

That Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie might be having some bumpy fiscal times has not surprised anyone in Albany. The two legislative leaders have forged a quick and close bond since Democrats took control of the Senate in January, often cutting Cuomo out of the timing of some of their bigger deals in January.

The Senate puts the total revenue number at $172 billion for the coming year, which includes revenues not part of the consensus process that NiNapoli will now take a crack at tomorrow. Senate Democrats say they are a “couple hundred million” higher than what Cuomo believes is available to spend. Over two years, they say it’s only a $500 million difference.

The Cuomo administration puts the two-year revenue number at $168 billion -- which reflects the three funding pots subject to the revenue consensus process; 11 months of that two-year period is already complete. The Senate, officials said, proposed $900 million in revenues higher than what Cuomo believes will come this month and the 12 months of the new fiscal year, while the Assembly put it at $926 million.

Outside his Assembly office, Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, was asked for details on the Assembly revenue number: “It’s irrelevant at this point." He said the revenue dispute is now in the hands of DiNapoli.

Serving in supporting attack roles Monday were press staff members for the governor and Senate. “You guys walked and attacked fellow Dems,’’ Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Stewart-Cousins, wrote on Twitter about Cuomo not continuing revenue talks after Friday. He said the sides are close and that it’s “head-scratching” that Cuomo is attacking fellow Democrats after much policy progress so far this session.

" 'Attack?' " responded Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, to Murphy. “We stated the facts. Get thicker skin."

Azzopardi tossed on another tweet, suggesting the Legislature is being fiscally irresponsible. “This isn’t a game and we hit a deadline. Now, it goes to the comptroller," Azzopardi wrote of the sides not agreeing to a revenue number by the Friday deadline.

For his part, Cuomo seems to be taking delight that he and his aides are pointing out that while he prefers an on-time budget, it’s more important to have a fiscally prudent budget. Every time he makes that statement he knows it rankles lawmakers; they risk losing next year’s nearly 10 percent scheduled pay raise if this year’s budget is late.

Azzopardi, in a statement, wondered why lawmakers are wondering about budget timing problems. “We are realistically two weeks away from needing a budget deal to get bills done on time and we have made no meaningful progress on any substantive matter," he said.

Lawmakers are advancing on something, though: their own, one-house budgets. By the middle of next week, the two houses are set to act on their own spending and tax plans and then start up a conference process, of sorts, in which some fiscal differences between the houses are resolved.

To do that, they need a “revenue number” agreed to by the Legislature and Cuomo telling them how much they have, or don’t have, to spend.

Enter the comptroller, whose task had the bar raised by Cuomo’s rhetoric on Monday. “The burdens on him," Cuomo, on WAMC radio, said of DiNapoli. “He’s going to want a realistic number because, right or wrong, everyone’s going to know."

Cuomo, too, poked at lawmakers on spending, even though budget watchdogs say Cuomo’s fiscal plan grows at a far swifter rate than what Cuomo claimed in January. “Why do they inflate the revenue estimates? Because they want to spend more," Cuomo said Monday.

Senate Republicans, fresh off their November election losses that dumped them from the Senate majority, were left to jab at Democrats. Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican, noted that the comptroller never had to settle a revenue dispute when Republicans were in charge of the Senate.

“Rather than work toward passage of a responsible budget, they want to spend money the state doesn’t have," Flanagan said of Senate Democrats.

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