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In Defense of the Lawmakers, Sort of…

June 23, 2010

We’ve written a lot about the budget process in recent weeks. We’ve been very critical of everyone involved, and that’s with good reason. 

But at this particular moment, with a final deal imminent, we’d offer the following reflection, which is not meant to absolve state lawmakers, but to place their struggles in context. 

Normally, you don’t get a budget until all the parties have the ability to claim a victory or two. Everybody must walk away “a winner.” If the lawmakers can’t legitimately do that, if they don’t have something to tout in their home districts, they refuse to sign off. 

It took a long time for lawmakers to figure out that the old rules don’t apply, and that nobody will be a big winner this year.   

In this regard, the consequences of decades’ worth of overspending finally became apparent. Year after year, lawmakers (at the behest of powerful interests such as health care and education unions) created programs and expanded eligibility for those programs. This created a situation in which spending increased automatically each year. 

But it couldn’t go on forever.   

When the economic bubble burst, so did New York’s budget. Lawmakers suddenly faced a situation where the only real option was to scale back expenditures. This realization didn’t happen quickly. People kept thinking that the economy would come roaring back as it had in the past. But all we have is a slow and partial recovery. That’s because many of the jobs that were lost are gone for good. 

Adding to the difficulty is the matter of still unconsolidated power in the State Senate. It’s a two- and sometimes one-vote majority that has difficulty reaching consensus on anything. The simple fact is that Sampson’s job is harder than anyone’s, including the Governor’s. 

Given these extraordinary circumstances, it’s understandable that lawmakers would be paralyzed. And it’s logical that they would want to borrow billions and push off the hard decisions to later years. And on this point, were it not for Andrew Cuomo’s behind-the-scenes intervention, that’s exactly what they would have done.    

In the end, the lawmakers had no choice but to cut. It took them a while to embrace that concept, but now they have. Our hope is that having done it, they’ll be able to do it again next year and the year after. This is imperative because we’re still a long way away from any kind of structural balance between state revenues and state expenditures.

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