Blue NY gets a red budget – By George J. Marlin

The following appears in the April 22-28, 2011 issue of the Long Island Business News:

As a Conservative, I did not have high expectations that the final budget hammered out in Albany by the “three men in the room” (the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader) would come to terms with the state’s fiscal plight. Because I’ve witnessed so many pols who promised fiscal reform sell taxpayers down the river, I can’t help being cynical.

Take Gov. George Pataki, whom I enthusiastically supported in 1994.

In Pataki’s first term he engineered significant reductions in spending and unprecedented tax cuts. These actions contributed to New York’s economic rebound in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, the will to permanently change Albany’s tax-and-spend mentality dissipated in 1997 as Pataki and his staff concluded betraying Conservatives and the fiscal responsibility entrusted to him in 1994 was OK in order to hold onto power.

This attitude, plus Pataki’s increasingly disengaged, uninterested approach to governing, led to the discarding of his pledges to cut Medicaid spending, to avoid one-shot fiscal gimmicks, to stop back-door borrowing, to impose no new taxes or fees, and so on.

Pataki’s lackadaisical governing style also encouraged the Legislature to thumb its nose at him. The Legislature added billions to his budgets, overrode his vetoes and imposed on New Yorkers the biggest single tax hike in the state’s history. The size of the state budget during his tenure increased 83 percent – 2.12 times the inflation rate – and is a big cause of the fiscal mess the state faces today.

In the Spitzer-Paterson years, the spending spree continued. Expenditures swelled over three times the rate of inflation.

Enter Andrew Cuomo who promised in his new New York agenda to get the state’s fiscal house in order without raising taxes and fees, or issuing long-term debt.

Conservatives were floored when Cuomo unveiled on Feb. 1 a budget that kept his pledges and eliminated a projected $10 billion deficit. But the question skeptical Conservatives throughout the state asked one another was, Will Cuomo blink? Will he surrender to Speaker Sheldon Silver and his tax-happy conference to get a budget passed on time?

To our surprise, Cuomo’s hard-nosed negotiating and his threat to use his immense executive powers to the fullest if there was no budget on April 1 – including a “take it or leave it” one-week budget extender that would include his full-year cuts – prevailed.

The governor’s 2011-2012 budget deal includes real spending cuts of about 2 percent ($3.5 billion); caps on Medicaid and education spending, which were statutorily slated to increase 13 percent, at 4 percent; and no tax or fee increases. Also, by closing six prisons and cutting and consolidating agencies, the govenor will reduce their operating costs by 20 percent.

Cuomo didn’t get everything he wanted. He gave up the $250,000 cap on malpractice suits to Silver and threw Sen. Dean Skelos a bone by restoring $250 million in education funding. Overall, the deal complied with the Ronald Reagan negotiating rule of settling for at least 80 percent of the loaf.

Despite its imperfections, enacting the first flat budget in 15 years in a state as politically “blue” as New York is a remarkable achievement and should be applauded by all Conservatives. Cuomo obviously wants to distinguish himself from typical tax-and-spend Democrats like the governor of Illinois, who increased his state’s income tax by 60 percent to balance his budget.

Since taking office in January, Cuomo has proven he possess excellent political skills. New York Conservatives now hope the governor’s skills to manage the implementation of his fiscal blueprint are just as sharp. There may be hope for the Empire State after all.

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