It's been tough enough for state lawmakers to agree on their budgets through closed-door negotiations between three men in a room. Now imagine two men arguing in a room and a third sitting in his executive chamber, moistening his veto stamp in anticipation of nixing whatever compromise the two finally come up with.
That seems to be the situation in Albany this year, and this communication breakdown couldn't come at a worse time. The state is facing a fiscal crisis "of a magnitude that we have not faced in our lifetime," Governor George Pataki admitted during his 2003 State of the State address. In an attempt to close a budget deficit estimated to be as high as $11.5 billion, the governor has proposed $5.6 billion in cuts to public education, health care, and state aid for higher education, among other austerity measures.
State legislators are unwilling to accept the governor's budget, but neither have they been able to agree on an alternative spending plan. As has been the case for the past 18 years, the governor and the legislature have missed the April 1 deadline for passing the state budget this year.
Actually, make that the governor, Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver --- the "three men in a room" whose private negotiating sessions usually result in a budget compromise sometime in the spring. But this year, "We've got two people in a room --- not three, two," stresses Democratic Assemblyman David Gantt.
"Usually, the governor's involved in the [budget] negotiations," says Democratic Assemblywoman Susan John, "and that's the reason why it takes so long to get an agreement, because we are trying to get him to agree to stuff so he won't veto it."
"What's different this year is that... he's refusing to negotiate with us," John says.
That brings up the very real possibility that the Dem-led Assembly and the Republican-controlled Senate will agree on a spending plan, only to have it shot down by the governor. This could further delay the budget process and cause more harm to school districts, social service agencies, and hundreds of other organizations that need to know how much state aid they'll receive in order to properly plan their own budgets this year.
Anticipating a particularly long state budget battle, the Assembly and Senate passed a measure that would have given school districts more time to prepare their budgets before they must present them to voters for approval this year. In an early indication of Pataki's unwillingness to compromise this time around, the governor vetoed that bill. But the measure passed in both houses with near unanimous support, and when the Senate and Assembly reconvene following their holiday recess, John says they may vote to override Pataki's veto.
Members of Rochester's state delegation say they're hopeful the Assembly and Senate will be able to craft a spending plan by the last weekend of April, and vote on budget bills the following week.
In mid-April, Bruno and Silver announced that they'd agreed to push for $1.9 billion in restorations to cuts proposed in Pataki's budget. However, there are still a few key details to be resolved, such as how the legislative leaders plan to come up with the money, and exactly how it will be divvied up.
Those are the budgetary issues lawmakers are wrangling with during this break. When it gets down to specifics, finding common ground between the Senate and the Assembly is "always a painful process," John says. "It is usually during that process that we discover that things we thought we had agreements on, we didn't have agreements on."
State Senator Joe Robach says he's been "on the phone continuously," listening to his constituents' concerns and lobbying fellow legislators to make sure areas important to his district --- such as pre-kindergarten education and nursing homes --- get the funding they need. The holiday break "will be a full work week for me," says Robach, and, he adds, "I'm happy to do it."
Robach has been a vocal critic of the state's dysfunctional budget process, both during his years as a Democratic Assemblyman and now in his first year as a Republican Senator.
While an assemblyman, Robach introduced a fairly radical idea to reform the system: If the budget wasn't done by April 1, "the legislature and the governor, like a jury, would be sequestered and be required to be working 45 hours a week, in Albany --- hopefully, on the budget," Robach says. That is, lawmakers would be discouraged from working on any legislation not related to the budget until a spending plan was passed. That bill, which also would have mandated open discussion of budgetary issues between Senate and Assembly committees, was never passed.
The first piece of legislation the Senate passed this year was a Robach-Bruno-sponsored bill crafted in a similar vein. However, instead of mandating that lawmakers be sequestered, the bill would have stipulated that if the budget wasn't done by April 1, last year's budget would automatically be adopted. That bill didn't succeed in the Assembly, either.
Robach chalks that up to political ploys by the "downstate people" who control the Assembly (Speaker Silver, for example, represents Manhattan). "They seem to want to focus on the idea that the longer the budget [process] is, the more likely they are to get their way," Robach says.
But at least one upstate member of the Assembly, Susan John, sees it differently. As she points out, a law passed several years ago stipulates that lawmakers do not receive their state salary after April 1 until the budget is passed (once the budget passes, they receive the checks held in the meantime).
"So now I don't get paid when the budget's not passed," John says. "Has that gotten us a budget sooner the past few years?"
And then there's the other thing that gums up budget negotiations: principles.
"There are things that are important to our constituents," John says, "and sometimes we are doing our job best when we are advocating for the Rochester City School District, rather than agreeing to the number that the governor's put on the table."