ALBANY - Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch, acclaimed for helping New York City avoid bankruptcy in the 1970s, implored lawmakers last Tuesday to have "confidence" in Gov. David A. Paterson and show "congeniality" in negotiations to close a huge budget deficit.
Three hours later, however, legislative leaders were calling dead-on-arrival Paterson's $134-billion spending plan for 2010-11. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said it was "a patchwork of painful decisions that will make life more difficult for working families." State Senate chief John Sampson added, "Components of his proposal clearly need modification."
It was an unusually swift, negative response from fellow Democrats, signaling that lawmakers may adopt a budget bearing little resemblance to what Paterson unveiled last week. He then would be challenged to veto it.
Tensions now are rising because the recession has made big spending reductions necessary to close the $7.4-billion deficit projected for 2010-11. Lawmakers are being asked to slash popular programs such as school aid, parks and STAR property-tax exemptions only months before seeking re-election from voters who generally are angry with incumbents.
Democrats are particularly nervous. They've controlled all of state government since January 2009 but Paterson's unpopularity could help Republicans win back control of the Senate and therefore a say in redrawing legislative district boundaries for the next 10 years.
Praise, sympathy for Guv
E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative think tank, praised Paterson's reliance on spending reductions to close the deficit. But he said, "This is the hardest situation possible to do what really needs doing: cut spending. I don't think legislators have the stomach for it."
McMahon and others lauded Paterson's recent tough-guy approach toward lawmakers, particularly after they failed to completely close this year's deficit. Now, the governor is racing the clock to secure adoption of a new budget by the March 31 deadline. Delay will only increase red ink and require deeper cuts to prevent New York from running out of money, McMahon said.
Late budgets are the norm; only two of the past 25 were adopted on time.
Passage of the budget is complicated this year by strife within the Senate's Democratic majority, said Robert B. Ward of SUNY's Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany. If Paterson were to veto legislative changes to the 2010-11 budget, Ward said it's uncertain the narrowly divided Senate could muster the two-thirds vote needed to override.
Paterson isn't talking about vetoes. He wants an on-time budget and challenged lawmakers to improve his proposals.
"When they start to make their own budget, rather than criticizing the cuts, they're going to have to demonstrate how to balance the budget," Paterson told Newsday. "The last time the legislature was asked to balance a budget, they came up $500 million short and put me in the position of having to delay payments" to schools so New York didn't slip into insolvency last month.
Such tough talk has lifted Paterson's approval ratings for three months in a row. It also has alienated many lawmakers.
Visions of 1991
Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) said he's not convinced Paterson wants an on-time budget: "I think it serves his political purposes for things not to work out well."
Asked whether he expects the legislature to craft and pass a budget that differs significantly from Paterson's, Sweeney said, "We have done that in the past and it's not beyond the realm of possibility."
Experts predicted a repeat of 1991's budget battle that nearly ended in a constitutional crisis.
That year, Gov. Mario Cuomo called for big spending reductions and modest tax hikes to close a $6-billion deficit. Lawmakers, however, adopted a budget that nixed his cuts. Cuomo then vetoed their amendments. A deal was reached only hours before the vetoes were to be overridden. The spending plan was more than three months late.
Said McMahon: "We could see history repeat itself."