Monday, March 28, 2011

Herding Cats

Glory Be. Big Three Agree.

Foresee Albany Tranquility

The Post's front-page headline this morning, PIGS FLY, reflected the skepticism and cynicism that some New Yorkers feel at the report that the governor and legislative leaders had agreed on a state budget five days in advance of the April 1 deadline. The Times' headline was predictably more sedate: ALBANY STRIKES BUDGET ACCORD TO CUT SPENDING. The News' block head was HAMMER TIME, a catch phrase used by '80s rapper M.C. Hammer.

There was some wonderment at the timely bipartisan agreement, considering that the Senate is Republican and the Assembly Democratic. In fact, however, it would have been more difficult to reach agreement if both houses of the legislature had been controlled by the Democrats. In that eventuality, the party leaders would have no one to blame but themselves for their failure to submit entirely to the demands of the interest groups who contribute so handsomely to their campaigns. This way, they can blame the opposition party. Rule 18-X-6 applies here: "The Devil made me do it."

The state budget proceedings are generally fraught with misrepresentation by the participants. How can a ten billion dollar projected deficit disappear overnight without new taxes or new borrowing? The mayor and the governor are in direct conflict, as their predecessors have been for over fifty years or more. The worst battles were between two Republicans, Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay.

When one consults experts as to who is telling the truth with regard to financial claims, one is told that the two sets of numbers are both accurate, but are derived from different baselines, and therefore impossible to compare.

The possibility remains that the deal will fall apart over the next few days, as each party tries to derive maximum advantage under the frame of reference agreed upon. In that event, the high popularity of the governor in the polls, combined with the low regard shown for the legislature, should give Andrew Cuomo the upper hand over the refractory solons, a number of whom are ethically challenged.

Conventional wisdom has it that the outcome is ordained by the fact that the State Constitution gives the governor great power over the budget. Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate President Joseph Bruno tried to amend the State Constsitution in 2007 to give the legislature power over the governor on the state budget, but their plan was defeated at the polls.

Former Governor Paterson had the same authority that Governor Cuomo has now, but did not make the fullest use of it. There are critical theories as to why this was the case:

l. He was unaware that he had power over the budget.

2. He knew he had the power, but was indifferent to making the effort to use it.

3. He knew he had the power, and he wanted to use it, but did not know just how to do so.

4. He didn't want to upset any of the special interests in the Democratic Party, or be responsible for any budget reductions that would impact negatively any of his perceived communities and supporters.

5. He wanted to use it, but was so grateful to the legislature for not seeking to pursue him for various ethical misjudgments that he did not want to ruffle their feathers by a major disagreement over his authority.

6. Not being a friend and mentor of the Chief Judge, he feared the outcome of litigation over the issue.

7. No longer having available the services of Fr. Charles J. O'Byrne, his competent and trusted confidant, he feared that his case would not be adequately or professionally pursued.

8. He thought it might injure the Democratic Party to have a public quarrel of this nature with the Speaker.

9. Any combination of the first eight reasons.

In fact, Governor Paterson did affirmatively make use of his Constitutional authority in 2010. He acted after the April 1 budget deadline expired, by sending continuing resolutions to the legislature which included various budget reductions, some of which affected issues of public policy.

If the legislature failed to approve his resolutions, the government would have to shut down for lack of funds, causing some disruption to the public and in effect locking out state employees. Governor Paterson had success with this tactic, which Governor Cuomo is widely believed to be ready to use again to achieve the reductions and policy changes which he, and a majority of the public, generally believe to be desirable.

At this point, the close of his third month in office, Cuomo is off to a healthy start. "Day One: Everything Changes", the slogan of the Spitzer administration, is in the dustbin of history. By his third month, Spitzer was at war with the Senate and the Assembly. It was a war he was not destined to win.

With regard to Cuomo, so far the public likes what they have seen of him. He has handled himself well, speaking with both force and restraint. He was particularly good with regard to the strange intrusion by the Roman factotem into his private life, a 21st century reprise of a 16th century dispute between a pope and a king.

We don't have enormous confidence in the budget data that any politician offers, although by the laws of probability, some set of figures must be more accurate than others. It is said that the only true news in some papers is the obituaries, and the only true budget reductions come when people are separated from the payroll, or when prisons actually physically close. That has not yet come to pass, and we do not wish unemployment on anyone, especially in these difficult times. It is difficult, however, for ordinary people to figure out how it is that multi-billion dollar budget goals are proclaimed to have been achieved while personnel costs remain largely untouched and pension costs continue to rise.

Meanwhile, it is better to see both parties on good behavior than to watch them snipe. Governor Cuomo deserves credit for, at least temporarily, restoring good manners to the Capitol. We hope he stays calm. Remember, the governor proposes, the legislature appropriates, but the governor has the last crack at what the agencies spend. He cannot add to appropriations, but he can subtract, particularly in the event of financial emergency, which we have been told is the present exigency.

FYI, the California state budget deficit this year is estimated at $25.4 billion. We are not alone.

BTW: Former City and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi's sentencing on a felony conviction was postponed today after Judge Lewis Bart Stone sent the case back for assignment to another judge because of a potential conflict of interest between the judge and Hevesi's lawyer. Hevesi pleaded guilty on October 7, 2010. He had resigned as State Comptroller on December 22, 2006, after a prior conviction for an unrelated felony.

Lastly, for information about herding cats, click here.

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