Let’s all hope for a late state budget

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer took office last week with an impressive combination of lofty rhetoric, decisive action and ambitious plans – not to mention more than a few jabs at the Legislature and his predecessor.

Here’s a quick summary:

He declared that we would become “One New York” — no longer divided by political and geographical differences. In the very first press release of his administration, Spitzer announced a 15-point plan to turn around the Upstate economy. He vowed to end the culture of corruption in Albany lawmaking and signed executive orders hours after his inauguration banning gifts from lobbyists to employees of the executive branch and ending distasteful practices such as the personal use of state cars and nepotism.

In his State of the State address, Spitzer told us he’s going to cut school property taxes and make up the difference to school districts, expand subsidized health insurance so that it covers all 500,000 children now uninsured, increase aid to distressed cities, invest in stem cell work and other promising types of research – heck, he’s even going to make sure everybody in New York has high-speed Internet access!

All this (but wait, there’s more) without going on a spending spree and raising state taxes. Spitzer reiterated his campaign promise not to raise taxes and in fact said the recommended budget he’ll make public on Jan. 31 will hike spending less than this year’s rate of 13 percent, which he called “astonishing.”

Here’s one thing he did not promise: an on-time budget. Wait, isn’t that important? Aren’t New Yorkers fed up with late state budgets, having passed the 20-year mark for consecutive late budgets back in 2004?

It’s true that the public’s disgust with Albany coalesced around the late-budget issue in 2004, and since then lawmakers have given us two on-time (at least on paper) budgets. But they’ve been costly, as Spitzer pointed out.

My guess is most New Yorkers would prefer a good, late budget to an on-time, lousy budget. The poll CGR conducted for our New York Matters project this year seems to bear that out. Just 12 percent of residents across the state chose an on-time budget as their top state government priority. The much bigger issue? Keeping state government free of corruption, chosen by 47 percent of residents.

Spitzer seems in tune with that sentiment. He is emphasizing ethics, campaign finance and lobbying reforms when discussing how to change Albany. Yes, he wants to improve the timeliness of state budgets, he told us in the State of the State speech, but he didn’t focus on the April 1 due date.

Spitzer may be softening us up for a late budget. After all, if we want him to stick to his guns in negotiations with the Legislature and hold down spending growth, we may have to accept a post-April 1 budget. When Gov. George Pataki in his first term held out for his priorities of spending restraint and tax cuts, the result was one of the latest budgets in state history. But if you agreed that spending restraint and tax cuts were the right things to do, you probably didn’t mind.

Late budgets became a symbol of Albany’s dysfunction, and the issue was useful in focusing the public’s anger and exerting pressure on the Legislature to change. But there are far more important things to change in Albany. We can be glad that Spitzer seems to understand that.