Legislature passes almost on-time budget: Senate GOP seen as winner; secrecy of process assailed PDF Print E-mail
Written by MICHAEL GORMLEY, Associated Press Writer   
Monday, April 02, 2007


• $120.9 billion is the estimate by Gov. Eliot Spitzer's budget division.

• The "state fund," which some analysts consider a better measure of state spending, is estimated to be $84 billion, up from $77.3 billion in the 2006-07 fiscal year that ended Saturday.

• Spitzer and legislative leaders agreed to add $440 million in school aid, partly to raise the minimum 3-percent increase to suburban schools on Long Island. They also added $350 million to Medicaid spending, mostly restoring some of Spitzer's planned cuts in the aid to hospitals and nursing homes as part of his health-care reform. Higher education received another $45 million.

• Spitzer and legislative leaders paid for that additional spending with $575 million in projected revenues from updated forecasts, $136 million in "re-estimates" of revenues, $170 million left over from the 2006-07 budget and $121 million in spending reductions elsewhere in the budget, usually in minor trims.

• The biggest public fight in this budget cycle was over health care and Medicaid funding. In January, Spitzer proposed cutting $1.3 billion in Medicaid funding to hospitals and nursing homes. Spitzer said last week's restorations, pushed by the Legislature, still result in a 52-percent cut for hospitals and a 32-percent cut for nursing homes. Overall, Spitzer claims to have ended up with a $1 billion cut, or 73 percent of his proposal.

• Spitzer and lawmakers agreed to $1.3 billion in property-tax relief. That will double rebate checks to taxpayers from last year, to roughly between $600 and nearly $2,000 depending on the county. The state's STAR tax exemption subsidizing local school taxes would also increase.

• Spitzer and lawmakers agreed to increase school aid by about $1.8 billion, on top of the current $17 billion that is among the highest in the nation. School aid is now distributed on a "foundation" formula based on school districts' need, rather than broken down under a longtime political deal based on the share of state enrollment in different regions.

ALBANY — Republicans who narrowly control the state Senate rolled up big wins in the $121 billion budget passed a day late Sunday, despite a Democratic governor with a historic mandate and an Assembly with a better than 2-to-1 majority.
The results show in crucial spending benefiting Long Island and upstate, the Senate Republicans' longtime political bases: Most of a $300 million add in school aid pushed by the Senate for wealthier but high-taxed suburban schools statewide went to Long Island. And much of the aid to hospitals and nursing homes statewide went to Long Island hospitals despite Gov. Eliot Spitzer's priority of cutting Medicaid funding to the facilities. The Senate also converted Spitzer's property-tax cut into direct checks to taxpayers, secured business-tax cuts, and cut by more than half the school districts statewide that would get only the 3 percent minimum increase in aid under Spitzer's plan.
"I don't remember, really, having this much success," Bruno said Sunday.
So how did the house with the slimmest of majorities in recent elections get such a good hand? Part of it has to do with the unusual way Albany works. Majority leaders and their members control, absolutely, their house's actions, and the budget process still involves three men in a room negotiating.
In the past, Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had Bruno's role for 12 years under Republican Gov. George Pataki — the Republican governor and Senate needed to appease the Assembly's Democratic majority to get anything done in those private negotiations.
"Republicans in the Senate clearly exacted their pound of flesh, and at some level it seems to me that's the way the system works," said political science Professor Robert McClure of Syracuse University's Maxwell School.
He also said the Senate and Assembly gains in the face of a governor who brashly promised to change everything in Albany "on Day One" shouldn't be a surprise, as was noted in many editorials critical of Spitzer.
"I've been a little critical, perhaps skeptical, of the governor and his rhetoric, although in the last month or so I think he has been learning a lesson," McClure said. "He's given a little to get a little, and the American people and New York newspapers must grow up. That's what politicians must do."
There was plenty in the massive budget, which raises spending 7.3 percent by Spitzer's count, for the governor and Democrat-led Assembly to claim as victories, too.
For example, much of the school-aid spending driving increases to the neediest schools was from the Assembly Democrats. The $1 billion in Medicaid cuts to the politically powerful health-care industry came from Spitzer. Also, the Legislature added less about 1 percent to his Jan. 31, proposal, slightly less than in most years.
Still, it's a budget that grew faster than inflation. And that's not all: A capital spending program that will likely total $1 billion was pushed from the budget and will still have to be negotiated.
"Nothing was done in this budget to address the number-one problem facing New Yorkers — high taxes," said Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward (R-Willsboro) in a news release Sunday. "High taxes are making it nearly impossible for people to make ends meet in the North Country.
"After traveling throughout my Assembly District and meeting with taxpayer groups, I could not, in good conscience, vote for this budget."
She and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, R-Peru) deplored the process that produced the budget, setting aside reforms that Sayward said should have been implemented but were not due to stalled negotiations.
"Once again, this year's state budget was developed in secret meetings," said Duprey in a statement.

"Members were supposed to have plain language budget bills on their desks with time to read before a vote," said Sayward. "However, that has not occurred."
Rank-and-file lawmakers sometimes had just minutes to view bills of hundreds of pages before a vote was called. All of that extended a late-night session Saturday into Sunday, the first day of the 2007-08 fiscal year, leaving a Capitol with staffers on their second or more days with little or no sleep working around empty pizza boxes and coffee-stained cups.
"It's worse than it has been the last three years," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters about the lack of open negotiations and lawmakers' inability to take time to consider the bills.
"While they're all claiming victories, taxpayers should see it as another sorry example of Albany doing business in the dark," said E.J. McMahon of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy. The spending "is not going to address the property-tax problem long term," he said.
Spitzer, however, called it a "spectacular" budget. He noted it cut Medicaid spending by $1 billion, provided $1.3 billion property tax relief aimed at the middle class, started stem-cell research with $600 million over six years, provided a record $1.76 billion increase in school aid, bringing the total to $19.64 billion, will provide health insurance to 400,000 children, and doubled the number of charter schools to 200.
"When all the surrounding dust settles and the public looks at what we accomplished, you will see this budget hit every one of the objectives I have laid out," Spitzer said.
Still, the Legislature weakened many of his proposals, including by restoring more than a quarter of his cuts to hospitals and nursing homes.
"It's a terrific budget," Silver said, noting that many of the education initiatives and others began in the Assembly. "This budget basically adopts the Assembly stem-cell research proposal," Silver said. "It will create jobs, it will create future technology in New York. It will be a real boon all over New York."
Senator Betty Little (R-Queensbury) said in a press release that the budget "includes funding critically important to the North Country."
Among the allocations are $1 million for Adirondack Northway cell-phone coverage, $175,000 for North Country suicide-prevention programs, $250,000 for the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith's College and $400,000 for the Northern New York Agriculture Program.
"And a new $30 million dairy-assistance program will deliver real relief to farmers struggling due to high energy and feed costs and low milk prices," Little said.
The budget included "a few good aspects," Sayward said, such as restoration of 75 percent of the trend factor for nursing homes and removal of the sick tax on hospitals.
"Nursing homes and hospitals in the North Country could not have withstood the cuts proposed in the Executive's budget, and these restorations will allow them to continue the good work that they do in upstate New York's communities," she said.
Duprey supported corporate, business and franchise tax cuts included in the final spending plan. And she applauded, too, what she called "critical allocations" for North Country communities, school districts, hospitals, nursing homes, colleges and other not-for-profits.
"Overall, the budget benefits the 114th District, she said, although the final budget ... spends too much money. The entire budget process must be changed to rein in spending, provide more transparency and to assure the final budget is based on sound accounting principals," she said.

—Staff Writer Suzanne Moore contributed to this report



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