State budget battle is over, but has war just begun?

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Jeffrey Dinowitz scooped a little strawberry ice cream to join the vanilla already sitting in his bowl. And of course he topped it with rainbow sprinkles, a nod to his “Rainbow Revolution” of a decade before that upended the political machine managing the Bronx.

While it certainly wasn’t unusual for the Assemblyman to enjoy a small indulgence of cold sweetness — the time of day was. It was just after 3 a.m., and the sun was still a ways off from shining on a brand new month of April. Dinowitz had been up since 4 a.m., the day before. And sleep was moving from being a nice luxury to an absolute need.

But New York’s $175 billion budget had not yet been finalized. And if there wasn’t agreement by all lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo by the time state workers started showing up for work that morning, there may not be jobs waiting for them to work.

“I’m not complaining,” Dinowitz said Tuesday morning after finally getting some much-needed rest. “We always seem to do all-nighters when the budget is being finalized because that seems to be the nature of things.”

Some think negotiating into the wee hours is a way of wearing lawmakers down. But Dinowitz — who has now been through this process some 25 times since first succeeding Oliver Koppell in the Assembly in 1994 — believes little can sap the stamina from his colleagues, who seem to be just as sharp at 3 a.m., as they might be at 3 p.m.

Most of what Dinowitz and other lawmakers are doing during budget weekend is finding ways to fund many of the services Cuomo has cut for various reasons, using a small pot of money both the Assembly and senate control to ensure it happens.

“It’s like what the city council and the mayor do,” Dinowitz said. “They call it the budget dance.”

The dance, however, is just over a small fraction of the overall budget. Most of the $175 billion is already committed to areas like education and Medicaid, which make up a bulk of the state expenditures each year. The rest is subject to haggling, like $27 million secured for the state Dream Act — now named after late state senator Jose Peralta — that could help give immigrant students better access to college. Or another $25 million to help implement election reforms like early voting and online registration.

New York amended its constitution in 1927 giving the governor ultimate authority in dictating the budget. Over the years, that power has eroded as legislators grew stronger and the state’s chief executive became weaker.

But that changed when Gov. George Pataki was elected as the state’s first elected Republican governor since Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s. Pataki needed more leverage against lawmakers who almost literally sat on the other side of the aisle. He found his weapon inside the constitution, and asserted it against the legislature.

The Assembly, however, wasn’t ready to cede that power, taking Pataki and his administration to court. And losing. The case — Silver v. Pataki, named after the now-fallen Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — established the governor’s total authority to set not only budget parameters, but policy as well. And all lawmakers could do is give that budget either a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Of course nothing in Albany is ever that simple, and Pataki’s successors didn’t wield that constitutional power too heavily — until Andrew Cuomo moved in.

 

View from a newbie

Since then, Cuomo has demanded budgets be finalized on time, or he’ll completely shut down the government. That has ensured some very long nights for lawmakers, and an eye-opening experience for those jumping into the budget swimming pool for the first time.

Like Alessandra Biaggi.

“It was very illuminating,” the state senator said late Monday night, soon after returning home from Albany. “There is a very big problem when it comes to this process — something the public needs to very fully understand — which allows an executive of any capacity, including the governor, to put into a budget legislation, which as you know, is the sole responsibility of the legislature. And that is a problem in of itself.”

It all goes back to the court’s interpretation of the state constitution, which allows Cuomo and any governor in his seat to not only set how money is going to be spent, but to push policy issues that generally would have to go through the Assembly and senate first. Like banning the use of plastic bags by many businesses.

While that might be an issue many legislators can get behind, what bothers Biaggi more is Cuomo’s ability to draw a big red line through just about anything he wants, including an initial $550 million cut to Medicaid, forcing the senate to “buy back” that funding by putting up cash from its own limited coffers.

“It’s ridiculous,” Biaggi said. “The public doesn’t even know all the line items that is essentially cut. It’s not that (Cuomo) doesn’t value them necessarily or not that they aren’t important to him, but he’s using these things as leverage on both houses, that force us to eat up our dollars, and then he can use that money for something else.”

Another cut came to funding designed to help public school classrooms known as Foundation Aid, a program Biaggi championed on the campaign trail last year. Although about $1 billion ultimately went into such aid, it was still hundreds of millions of dollars below what it was supposed to be.

 

Changes looming?

“It’s done on purpose, and I have to say, that’s a huge problem for me,” Biaggi said. “Schools in New York State are owed $4 billion, so for (Cuomo) to come out the gate like that, it’s a problem.

“If every single person in New York State understood the levers that are being pulled against them to basically hold power over us (by the governor’s office), they would be appalled. And it is exactly what we all hate — the politics as usual nonsense.”

Biaggi is ready to change the system, and she isn’t alone. But she also admits that this process is so deeply rooted in Albany, it might be near impossible to do.

But even those lawmakers just as rooted in the capital are ready for change. Like Dinowitz.

“It could always be better,” the Assemblyman said. “There’s always need to reform.”

For now, however, it’s a focus to just stay ahead in the annual budget game.

“Every single time we vote on the budget, I go in there and say, ‘I’m going to vote no on one of these bills,’” Dinowitz said. “Something that I didn’t like was going to be there, and I was going to do it. But I do vote yet, because the truth is, the vast majority of what’s in those bills is good stuff. And if you like 90 percent of something, that is still an A-minus.

“If I came home from school with an A-minus, my mother wouldn’t have appreciated it. But in Albany, an A-minus is a win.”

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