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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Janison: Cuomo builds budget leverage

Gov. Andrew Cuomo walks into his office at

Gov. Andrew Cuomo walks into his office at the Capitol in Albany. (Jan. 31, 2011) Photo Credit: AP


Some Capitol denizens chuckled over Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's assertion that he was "shocked" to discover a "scam" by which spending escalates annually in the state budget.

But it also became clear Tuesday even to some of those hallway regulars that Cuomo was talking past the players before him - and working to build public leverage for his upcoming fiscal negotiations with the State Legislature.

Assisted by aides he brought from the attorney general's office, Cuomo drew on the experience of his last elected job, in which he made cases against private-sector scams.

"Where Albany meets Enron," Cuomo said of the state's current budgeting system. "In Albany, a budget cut is defined as anything less than anticipated growth."

If not for a patchwork of laws and obscure arrangements that quietly mandate higher expenditures, he argues, the gap between projected expenses and revenues for the next fiscal year might be $1 billion, rather than the projected $10 billion.

Accounting failures and frauds do involve misidentification. Some budget experts, however, consider it utterly responsible to follow what is called "current services" budgeting.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities cites a strong rationale for using that method.

A paper posted on its website said: "Inflation increases the cost of buying everything from vehicles to medical tests, for example; public employee salaries increase, and economic and demographic changes affect the number of people eligible for particular programs."

Such budgeting keeps public officials from claiming they are fully funding programs that, on a practical basis, are losing resources, the rationale goes.

Even if you appreciate that point, most people reasonably assume that a budget cut means a reduction from this year's rate of funding - not a shortfall from next year's projected growth.

They also might expect that the governor is unfettered in his ability at least to propose real cuts amid a financial crisis. In that context, Cuomo also took a scalpel to the weird phrase "permanent law." This is what they call statutes that supersede year-to-year budget legislation, but mandate escalation in spending.

In everyday parlance, there is really no such thing as "permanent law" or "temporary law." There is law - which may or may not expire at a certain date.

Redefining terms helps Cuomo in two big ways. It allows him to undermine arguments that his budget cuts would devastate beneficial programs, as interest groups will say as the legislature scrutinizes the $132.9-billion budget. And establishing the deficit as inflated helps Cuomo argue against keeping that income-tax surcharge on higher-income New Yorkers.

If the spending cuts sound less severe, tax hikes will sound less necessary.

Legislators who favor extending the surcharge will have their own chance to turn the governor's wording around. They could argue that they aren't really proposing a tax increase, as the governor insists - only seeking to keep the rate at current levels for a time.

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