Budgets in Albany, as in Julius Caesar's Gaul, are divided into thirds: hard dollars and cents, policy wrangling and political theater. Budgets are wrapped up only when all three elements are in alignment and when all three sides -- the governor, the Senate and the Assembly -- feel they can each emerge from deliberations with important wins.
Until some years ago, Albany was notorious for its late budgets, which were rooted in the failure by the three sides to reach a consensus in a state so diverse (along partisan, regional, racial, ethnic and ideological divides).
The extraordinary powers a governor has under our state constitution mean that no budget passes unless a governor agrees. Thus, reaching agreement on a governor's top budget priority traditionally becomes the logjam breaker. This year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made made ethics his priority.
So, it was no surprise that Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) agreed with Cuomo on an ethics reform package last week. The pressure from editorial pages and the public on the Senate for not supporting the proposed reforms may still prompt recalcitrant senators to agree on the package.
Once that occurs, leverage shifts from the governor to the legislature. The reason lies in the unwritten rule of budget dealing: A leader is never stronger than when his house is about to give in on a major issue. Cuomo and Heastie know that Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) needs some wins to sign off on any budget. Therefore, it's important to note the priority the Senate has placed on property tax relief and capital dollars allocated to biotech-based economic development and infrastructure.
The budget may end up looking like this:
The governor secures his upstate economic development initiative, but only if the Senate gets infrastructure projects. The Senate has astutely stressed environmental infrastructure projects (for example, wastewater treatment projects) which are not only popular in their base (Long Island and in the Adirondack Park region) but also will be easily embraced by environmentalists in the Assembly.
If the Senate and Cuomo compromise on property tax relief, that would be music to the ears of the 40 percent of the Assembly's Democratic conference coming from the suburbs and upstate, where easing of levies enjoys overwhelming public support.
The Assembly, backed by Cuomo, would probably demand an increase in the minimum wage, which enjoys overwhelming support, especially among the blue-collar voters. Its popularity could push a minimum-wage increase into enactment next year, closer to Election Day in 2016.
Education has become one of the most contentious pieces before the budget can be completed. School aid increases are popular with voters and most lawmakers. Cuomo's attacks on the teachers unions have fallen flat, precisely because polls show that female voters, especially those outside New York City, trust their teachers. Failure to reach agreement on education issues -- including teacher evaluations and state school aid -- could trigger deadlock.
As we head toward the April 1 budget deadline, let's keep our eyes on the dollars and cents, the rugby scrum over policy and the overarching political theater. The alignment of that triad will determine when the budgetary equivalent of Rubik's Cube comes together.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.