Press-Republican

February 28, 2010

As lame duck, Gov. Paterson has little power in crucial budget talks

By MICHAEL GORMLEY

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ALBANY — For New Yorkers who simply shook their heads last week at Albany's latest scandal, the political crisis will likely soon hit home like never before.

Gov. David Paterson's decision to end his campaign amid scandal makes him a lame duck during crucial state budget negotiations. Add a worsening fiscal crisis, the most heated election year in decades, and the lack of a voting majority in the Senate after a Democrat was expelled, and you have what some call the makings of a disaster, for which New Yorkers will pick up the tab.

Negotiations are supposed to begin in earnest this week among leaders for the state budget due in four weeks, with a governor whose immediate future — and influence — is also questionable. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's fast-paced investigation, requested by Paterson, will inevitably roil the waters as it digs into whether Paterson and his state police security detail illegally contacted a victim of domestic violence on behalf of a top governor's aide.

"Every day in Albany just gets weirder and weirder," Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll said Sunday. "I have heard for 20 years that, 'This could be the year we don't have a budget in New York.' I never believed it was possible. ... I do believe that given the desperate political events, this could be the year."

For New Yorkers, there is much at stake: Paterson's $135 billion budget proposes a $1 billion cut in school aid that would likely drive up some of the nation's highest property taxes; deep cuts in aid to New York City; closure of dozens of state parks and a few prisons, and increases for college tuition, among other actions.

Paterson also has pledged to stop the Legislature from raising spending and, possibly, state taxes. Worse, state revenues have slipped further since that budget proposal, bloating an $8 billion deficit.

"It's incredible," said E.J. McMahon of the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute, and a former budgeteer for Republican Gov. George Pataki. Paterson "can only negotiate with people who don't want to negotiate with him and want him to go away."

Paterson, however, remains in a powerful position, compared with governors in most other states. Without his approval, the Legislature can now only subtract from his budget. If they want to add — and lawmakers always have — then they need him to budge. But he no longer needs to worry about what they want.

The thirst for a legacy as the governor who saved New York in a fiscal crisis could also preclude Paterson from making a move much of the Legislature wants: turning over budget negotiations to his lieutenant governor, the widely respected Richard Ravitch.

Those legislators cite a trait of Ravitch that is critical to negotiations: You can trust that what he says will stick, unlike with Paterson. Ravitch's skill and integrity were established in similar crises, including helping to save the New York City transit system. But there may be little motivation for lawmakers to make Ravitch look good because he chooses to have no political future after Dec. 31.

And Paterson alone has the power of the veto.

"That's his weapon," McMahon said. "He has actually made his vetoes stick. ... In terms of a veto, Paterson is in the strongest position of any governor since Gov. Hugh Carey" during the 1970s fiscal crisis.

That strength comes, oddly, from the Republican minority in the Senate. They are banking on reclaiming the majority in the fall elections by showing all-Democratic rule of Albany doesn't work.

Senate Republican spokesman John McArdle wouldn't comment on vetoes. He said his conference's hasn't changed its plan of cutting spending, preventing tax increases and increasing money for job creation.

The Senate's Democratic majority has its own agenda, and its own problems.

"The Senate majority will make the tough choices necessary to reverse decades of fiscal irresponsibility and get our economy working again," said Democratic spokesman Austin Shafran, taking a direct shot at the Republicans who held the majority until 2009.

The Senate majority, however, is weakened by the recent expulsion of a Democrat over his misdemeanor assault conviction, leaving Democrats with a 31-30 majority until a special election March 16. Until at least then, Democrats — even if they got all their members together — don't have the 32 votes needed to pass most legislation.

But many incumbent legislators are also worried about re-election in hard fiscal times. A state budget will have to be something conservatives, liberals, upstaters, downstaters and the many other factions can win on in November.

If there is no budget by April 1, the governor controls emergency spending bills.

"If the past is any guide, there's no reason to assume anyone is going to get along with anybody," Greenberg said.