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Refusing to Budge(t)

June 27, 2010

It’s 1991 and Mario Cuomo needs to wrap up a budget negotiation to run for president. When Senate Majority Leader Ralph Marino balks at a proposed compromise, Cuomo can think of nothing to do but give up: “That’s it. I can’t do it (run for president). I’ll be in some cornfield in Iowa and they’ll be holding up signs saying: “Day 55 without a budget in New York.”

It’s 2001 and operatives for SEIU 1199 pay a visit to conservative Governor Pataki and show him television ads they intend to run against him if he tries to cut health care funding to balance the budget. The meeting ends abruptly. Pataki then turns to Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno to see whether he’ll stand with him in a fight with 1199. The answer is no and with no one to guard his back, Pataki capitulates. Instead of cutting 1199, Pataki finds more than $1 billion in revenue (from the conversion of Empire BC/BS) for higher salaries for its workers.

It’s 2007 and Eliot Spitzer has conceived of a “global resolution” to the state budget that links congestion pricing, changes to the state school aid formula, reduced Medicaid spending and campaign finance reform. Senate Republicans balk, telling him: “You can’t have all the wins.” Spitzer must compromise to get a timely budget. He does it, but fumes. And when the NY Post later dubs him “Mr. Softee,” it sends him over the edge. He’s determined to disprove it in (ahem) all the wrong ways.

It’s 2010 and Shelly Silver and John Sampson get together to amend Paterson’s budget bills to their liking. Rather than being some kind of double cross or dirty trick, the lawmakers are doing what the constitution not only allows, but encourages. Paterson can veto their adds, but he can’t insert anything of his own, and he risks override.

What is the common thread here?

Gubernatorial power is limited. There’s no slam-dunking the Legislature. Whether it is for big p or little p political reasons, legislative leaders will do what’s right for them. That’s the way the system is set up, and nothing is going to change that.

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