The truth of budget time in New York State may be that when there's less money to fight over, there's less fighting.
With the mandated deadline about two weeks away, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) are meeting behind closed doors daily, often with legislative minority leaders, then co-hosting chummy news conferences. Because Cuomo is popular, because he's adopted so many traditionally Republican fiscal stances and because money is scarce, acrimony has been virtually unseen.
Yet, sticking points do stand in the way of an agreement that would close a $10-billion budget gap. Some are intrinsic to the budget itself, while others are policy issues that leaders are, as usual, tying to the process for leverage.
Medicaid and education are the state's biggest expenses, and in Cuomo's budget plan they sustained almost $4 billion in combined cuts. On Medicaid, Cuomo got consensus by creating a committee that included hospital, health care and union leaders and letting them negotiate. Trade-offs gave participants things they wanted, like mandating a "living wage" for home health care workers, and managed care for nearly all recipients, in return for spending cuts. Handling it that way avoided creating opposition. Tort reform will still cause a stir, but it probably won't derail an agreement.
State aid to schools often causes the worst infighting, but the proposals are less than $300 million apart. The real education battle is moving past this budget and onto how money will be apportioned, educators compensated and evaluated, and benefits provided in the future. For now, New York City is likely to be allowed to use issues other than tenure, like unsatisfactory performance, in determining teacher layoffs, but the rest of the state unfortunately is not. These issues, plus pensions, health care and automatic raises for educators, will stay in the spotlight, but they won't be solved in this budget.
There are also battles yet to come on the legislative leaders' priorities. Silver wants to extend the "millionaire's tax," which seems unlikely to succeed (and shouldn't), and shore up rent control, which seems unlikely to fail (but should). Skelos is fighting necessary cuts to upstate prisons to support his conference members, and it's too early to tell which way those pieces will go. Each of these issues, though, is more a bargaining chip than a deal breaker.
Lurking in the shadows is the needed property tax cap, demanded by Cuomo, passed by the Senate and languishing in the Assembly, and the mandate relief that would make the cap possible. Cuomo wants both enacted with the budget, and he's right, but that's getting less and less likely each day.
And still to be seen is how much will be seen. Increased transparency was often promised, but year after year, the plan was finalized in a closed-door meeting. Whether it's three men in that room or five, that's the wrong way to handle the people's business.