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McKinstry: Budget negotiations are supposed to be about the budget. Why aren't they?

The New York State Capitol in Albany. (March

The New York State Capitol in Albany. (March 10, 2008) Credit: Getty Images

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo first proposed his $143 billion budget in January, he said it was “simple and straightforward.”

In his quest to deliver a third consecutive on time budget, the governor said putting a plan together ought to be relatively simple exercise – one that was about the numbers adding up.

His administration touted their budget was an accounting document rather than a political one. To do that would be a radical departure from the usual budget process, a symbol of Albany’s dysfunction, and it would buck the Capitol’s historically three men – turned four this year with the creation of the Independent Democratic Conference in the Senate -- in a room culture.

The governor was right then. Unfortunately, this year’s budget is no longer just about the numbers.

While taxes, or revenues, are legitimate budget battles, they shouldn’t be used as bargaining chips for other social policies that belong outside of these negotiations.

Talks with Democrats in the Assembly and Republicans in the Senate have become larded with various iterations of a minimum wage hike, hundreds of millions in tax breaks for businesses, extending the so-called “millionaires tax” on high earners and reinstating a gimmicky $350 rebate check for the middle class.

There’s debate over tweaking the New York SAFE Act, or the recently passed gun law, to allow for magazine clips of 10 rather than seven and decriminalizing small amounts marijuana -- but only for New York City – as a way of dealing with New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy that many believe unfairly targets young minorities.

At some point, banning bath salts and synthetic marijuana got thrown into the mix. More recently, lawmakers are debating the nuances of what actually constitutes a tax increase.

Some of these conversations are beyond budget talk -- they are legitimate policy debates that need more airing. And there’s plenty of time to do it between now and June.

To hear state leaders talk about meeting the April 1 deadline, they are close, but there are still a lot of things still on the table. Cuomo, in a meeting with the press today, acknowledged that budget season was an opportunity to get things done.

That may be true, but that’s far from what he said when he made his plan public two months ago.

If only it were so simple or straightforward.